Successful exam prep demands focus. Law school, as a whole, should not be just about making the grades, but exam preparation requires a narrowing of your attention. You do not want to be the student constantly raising your hand throughout the semester to ask the professor “is this going to be on the exam?” However, for exam prep, adopt the focus of the is-this-going-to-be-on-the-exam person. As the semester draws to a close, the outline you have been compiling is likely a combination of class notes, case summaries, copy-and-paste chunks of black letter law, and more. As you develop your exam prep outline, how do you know what should be included? Think about what a top-flight exam answer looks like, then practice some reverse engineering to arrive at an exam prep outline that will lead to success. Let’s look at the aspects of a great answer and how your outline can prepare you to perform on exam day.
Aces the Black Letter Law
The foundation of a great answer is a clear understanding of the law at play. Your professor will be looking for at least some recitation of the law before you start discussing the facts. This is where your undergrad memorization strategies still apply. If you have your statements of law memorized, you can waste no time getting the law down to claim the points. While basic, don’t overlook this piece.
Your outline should include clean (and accurate) articulations of the black letter law or the “rules.” Preparation can pay huge dividends on this aspect of your answer. Memorize the rules in your outline and you will be that much closer to the answer you want to produce. After a quick glance at the prompt, you should be able to know what you will need to get on the page before you even start thinking hard. If your outline provides those rules, just visualize your outline and bank those points.
Applies the Facts to the Law
The best answers apply the facts effectively. This is where you apply your critical thinking and shrewd legal analysis. “Think like a lawyer,” as professors are fond of saying. Your analysis will show your work as you move toward your ultimate answer. And a remarkable answer will not forget the case law. Whether cited by name or not, the cases read throughout the semester should be a guide to good analysis.
Applying facts to law means you are in the realm of case law. Some professors will require case law references; some professors will not require case law references. Regardless, knowing your case law is essential as it will inform your analysis. It also allows you to take shortcuts because by citing case law authority, you are conveying to the professor your knowledge without having to write down the full analysis that case represents. Case law in your outline is a controversial subject. Some are pro-case law because tethering rules and applications to a particular case can help you remember both while also allowing you to cite particular case names to enhance the quality of your answer. However, Aleena Ijaz, highlights in her post, The Dos and Don’ts of Law Student Outlines, that over emphasizing case briefs is the most common mistake in outlining. Knowing every fact of every case and being able to summarize them in the abstract will not be worth many points and can derail your preparation efforts.
Tailored to the Course
Exam answers for different courses will take different forms. For example, code-based courses like commercial transactions will require a different type of answer than a constitutional law answer. If your professor provides access to old exams, this can be a great way to get a sense of what shape your answer needs to take.
Don’t be stubborn. Even if you have an outlining format you typically use, do not try to shoehorn every course into that format. Part of preparing for the exam is thinking through how to create an outline that will be effective for that exam. If summaries of case law were helpful in preparing for class, but will not help on the exam, do not be afraid to drop them off of your exam prep outline. Keep what you need to succeed on that particular exam in your outline—nothing more, nothing less.
Speaks to the Audience
The “A” answer is going to be tailored to the professor to some extent. The grader of your exam is your only audience on exam day. Whether in matters of style, e.g., how you organize your answer or substance, e.g., a particular interpretation of a certain legal concept, focus on delivering the answer your professor wants and put it in a format he or she expects.
Your exam prep outline should include the “house rules” of the course whether those are explicitly laid out in the syllabus or implicitly imparted throughout the semester. If your professor harps a particular interpretation of certain cases or concepts throughout the semester—note that in your outline. If your professor requires you cite case law (or not)—note that in your outline. If your professor has a favorite exam topic that pops up on every past exam—note that in your outline. Commit those to memory and let them inform how the rest of your outline is structured and what it includes.
An effective exam prep outline has to be goal focused. Put in the effort to consider what your ideal exam answers would look like and then put in the effort to intentionally and carefully craft an outline that will help you achieve exam success! Good luck!
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.