A lot of law students over the years have expressed doubt about when to start preparing for final exams. At the beginning of the semester, you really haven’t covered enough material yet. Then, once the semester picks up, things get so busy, that it’s hard to find the time. What tends to happen is that the really diligent preparation doesn’t start until late November for December exams—and that is a big mistake.
So, how do you avoid a disaster now that you’re gearing up for the second half of the semester? Here are five of the most common danger situations I see on a regular basis, and how to avoid them.
Stop spending all your time preparing for class
If you want to get Cs in all your classes, by all means, keep spending all your time reading and briefing cases. I’m not saying reading and briefing aren’t important, they are. You have to know what your professors are talking about in class if you’re going to get the most out of the lecture. My point is that just reading and briefing isn’t enough. In fact, it’s the bare minimum that you need to do to pass your classes, and even then, there are no guarantees of passing.
I see students get so freaked out about falling behind on the readings, not understanding minutiae in the reading, and backlogging hours and hours to complete missed readings after the lectures have all taken place. These are all bad ideas. What should you do instead?
- Do the assigned reading for each class. If you can, do it earlier than the night before class so you have some time to actually think about it. Some students really like to read on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning and keep the weeknights free for other studying. You could also read on weeknights and spend weekends on deeper-thinking study tasks, like outlining.
- Don’t spend a long time getting into the details of each case. Recognize how your prof. operates in class and try to extract the info. he or she will be asking about. You shouldn’t be taking extensive notes while reading, this takes too much time. Just aim to find the bottom-line rule or take-away point that each case stands for. Remembering and recognizing important case facts is important too, but using and applying these rules is what you will really need on your exam.
- Realize that there’s a difference between preparing for class and preparing for an exam. When you take your exam, the details won’t matter nearly as much as your ability to use and understand the basic rule that you got out of each case.
- What if you miss an assignment? If you miss a reading, skim a supplement to try to find the same cases, or at least skim the case and get a basic idea of the topics involved and the bottom-line holding. Then, don’t even think about skipping lecture. If you didn’t do the reading, it’s even more important to go to class so you can get what your prof. thought was important in the case.
- Timing matters. Once lecture is over, going back and reading the cases might not actually be that useful to you. If you have free time, sure, why not do it. But if not, ask yourself if you might be able to get what you need from lecture and just move onto the next readings for the classes you haven’t attended yet. Avoid the vicious cycle of falling behind by backtracking and doing old readings after the fact.
Get your outlines up to date ASAP
By mid-semester, you have officially covered enough material to begin outlining. So, what are you waiting for? With each new case and lecture, you’re getting further and further behind. The sooner you can get your outlines up to speed and current, the easier it will be to add little bits and pieces after each class. Do this instead of waiting to do some massive overhaul toward the end of the semester.
Most of the time when a student tells me mid-semester that they “just fundamentally can’t grasp” a subject, my first question is, “Well, how far along are you on your outline for this class?” If you haven’t sat down with your briefs, lecture notes, supplements and cases and tried to digest and synthesize the material you’ve been discussing in class every day, then don’t be surprised if it doesn’t make much sense.
The danger here is that you need a lot more than a vague familiarity with these concepts when you take your exam. You need to come up with a systematic approach and some concrete rules. Doing this without sorting through and condensing the material is usually pretty impossible. And don’t be surprised if this takes longer than you thought it would. Just writing an outline can be quick. Turning everything you’ve covered into useable puzzle pieces and fitting them together into a well-crafted outline takes a lot of time.
While we’re on the subject of outlines, make sure you understand what a good outline is and don’t get sucked into the idea that your outlines need to look like everyone else’s or be a particular length or format. Your best outline is whatever captures the substantive law in a way you find understandable and useable. You’re the one trying to memorize this material and take a test on it in at the end of the semester.
Practice the type of exam you’re going to take
Do you know whether your exam in Torts is going to be three hour-long essays, multiple choice, short-answer questions, or some combination thereof? Have you actually set eyes on any past exams your prof. has written? If not, you need to do this now.
We’ve said it too many times before: practice and careful review of that practice is the best way to bump up your law school grades. That said, the type of practice you do is crucial. If your exam doesn’t have multiple choice questions, then you shouldn’t be prioritizing them (except maybe as a way to help yourself learn the substantive law). If your prof. typically gives one policy-driven essay, you should look up past questions, ask upperclassmen, and write down the back and forth of policy discussions that happen in class so you can include this info. in your outline.
One common mistake I see is that students who wait until the end of the semester to outline miss a huge opportunity. They don’t fully understand the reason behind their prof’s in-class hypos, policy arguments and the exam tips that are flying right by them in lecture. This is because without having first digested this material themselves, they’re not aware enough to pick up these kinds of nuances.
Figuring out what your exam is going to look like will help you see the forest for the trees when you’re reading cases and sitting in class. Remember, in most law school classes, the majority, if not all, of the points and your grade are based on your final exam, so if you don’t know anything about how that exam will look, you’ve got some work to do.
Know what is expected of you
Does your prof. want you to use IRAC? Some don’t. Does your prof. think that rule statements are useless and not assign points for them? Some profs. follow this school of thought and would rather that you just incorporate your understanding of the rules into your analysis without explicitly stating them. Does your prof. want you to raise non-issues and then knock them down or avoid them altogether? The point here is that every class is different and what one prof. requires could actually get your points docked in another professor’s class (and vice versa). There can be highly individualized preferences or your prof. may not care in the slightest and give you no guidance whatsoever on how to write an exam. Either way, it’s your job to figure this out now.
Whatever the case may be, gather as much information as you can about what your prof. likes to see on exams. If your prof. has written any model answers, these are gold. Take them apart. Turn them into attack plans. Make a note of stylistic and structural pointers you can learn and incorporate into your exam answers.
Don’t assume it will all “come together later”
Here’s another common one: a student will say something like, “I don’t understand hearsay at all, but I’m sure it will all come together in the end.” No, it won’t actually. There’s no “Aha!” moment unless you force the issue. You need to be the driving force behind these kinds of revelations. What makes the material come together is you struggling through the material by sitting down and asking yourself tough questions like these:
- What is this topic in plain English? Do you understand the basics of what’s going on so you could explain it to someone else? If not, that’s a problem.
- What are all the various topics on the syllabus that relate to this topic? How do smaller topics fit inside the big topic? Is the order of sub-topics important? Are the small topics mandatory to write about every time this issue comes up, or are they more of a grab-bag you can choose from if you see triggering facts?
- What are the rules for each topic and sub-topic? Can you write each one in one clear sentence? If not, again, that’s a red flag. Are there rule elements you need to be memorizing, if so, what are those, and do they need to go in a particular order?
We like to tell students to set aside time especially for the “deep thinking” activities. If you think that reading and going to lecture is enough, you will probably have a rude awakening the week before finals when you realize that you don’t have the depth of knowledge you need to tackle an exam question. And, by that point, it’s really too late. So, do yourself a favor and start putting the puzzle pieces in each class together starting now. As with memorization, outlining, and practice, the earlier you start, the easier it will be later!
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Other helpful posts:
- Time for a Mid-Semester Reality Check
- You’re Half Way Through the Semester, Now What?
- Mid-Semester Law School To-Do List (podcast)
- Your Mid-Semester Law School Reality Check
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