Imagine that you have just settled into your seat and the proctor states “Begin.” You flip your test packet over and see the longest essay you have ever faced. Because you read this article, you do not panic. You are prepared. You remember the following steps and begin attacking this test like a pro:
1. Read the Question Twice Before You Begin Writing
I get it, the clock is ticking. But why not make the time count? The bottom line is that although you may be nervous and hyper-aware of how much time is ticking away, the first thing you need to do (as you would with any sized essay) is read to the question twice. But why twice?
The initial read helps you digest the fact pattern and the legal issues hidden within. While reading the call of the question first can help (“What causes of action can Jack bring against Jill?” versus “Focusing solely on the issue of negligence, will Jill be liable to Jack?”), it does not negate the need to read the entire fact pattern twice.
Now that you have digested the fact pattern, the second read through helps you confirm that you have spotted all of the legally significant facts as well as the major and minor issues that you must address. Legal principles can be triggered by a single word (accidentally versus intentionally, lost versus found, joint tenants versus tenancy in common), it is highly unlikely you noticed everything during your first read-through (I know I never did!).
In my experience, I found that during my first read through, my brain identified hierarchical issues so that I could understand the framework of my answer. The second read through helped me recognize facts related to minor issues I may have skimmed over quickly.
Tip: Use a highlighter or pen to make notations. You can check off facts as you include them in your answer’s outline during Step 2).
2. Outline and Organize Your Answer Before You Begin Writing
Outlining before you write forces you to analytically organize your answer. The more organized the answer, the more you are able to prove to your professor you not only understand the issues at play, but also can navigate them comfortably. Additionally, by outlining before you begin to write, you are better positioned to recognize whether or not you have skipped any analytical steps. This is where the benefits of creating and using attack plans (i.e. the step-by-step process you go through to answer an exam question) really shines.
In my experience, I found that when I outlined before writing out a full answer, I was more easily able to determine where legally significant facts belonged. I disposed of minor issues more quickly, and I did not get distracted by red herrings. If I did not outline, I found that I was more likely to get distracted or skip analytical steps, which is a recipe for disaster!
Tip: Outlining also helps in case you lose track of time. If you outlined your answer but you ran out of time, your professor can at least see that you knew all of the applicable law, the legally significant facts, and how they both fit together. Remember, you will not get credit for things you do not include in your answer so it is better to have something down (i.e., an outline) than nothing at all.
3. When Writing Your Answer, use Headers and Sub-headers
Headers are so important. They help your professor see your answer’s organization with clarity. They allow your professor to review your answer more quickly. They help your professor focus on your analysis (as opposed to struggling to see the direction of your thought process).
Moreover, when you are faced with an extremely long essay prompt, it is normally because there are several factors at play involving numerous people and several potential causes of actions that you must address. Using headers helps you stay on task while simultaneously showing you can navigate everything thrown at you with ease and grace.
In my experience, I was more easily able to apply the facts of a prompt to the law at issue if I used headers and sub-headers. I stayed on task and only addressed facts or issues if they fit under the heading I was writing about at the time. If the fact didn’t, I would note it in my outline and address it under the appropriate section. As a result, my writing was structured, clean, and organized. This, in turn, lead me to score higher than some of my equally talented colleagues, which is never a bad thing!
4. Proofread your answer
I am a strong proponent of not turning in an essay test early. Just because you have finished writing an answer, does not mean your work is done. If you have time left over, review and revise your answer.
To be clear, I am not suggesting an entire overhaul. Because you followed Steps 1-3, your answer already contains the key facts and law in an organized structure. Rather, during Step 4, you will find and address easy-to-spot typos, grammar issues, or incomplete thoughts. I was surprised at how many errors were peppered in some of my answers, and I was always relieved that I took the time to address them. Although it may momentarily feel good to strut out of the exam room ahead of your colleagues, because the grade you earn is permanent, it is a whole lot better turning in a clean and crisp answer.
By following these steps, a long essay prompt will not stop you from obtaining law school success!
Here are some other helpful posts:
- From Bare Bones to Meaty Analysis: How to Skeleton Outline Your Essay
- Don’t Panic! Last Minute Tips for Final Exams
- You’re Totally Unprepared for a Law School Exam! How to Avoid Disaster
- What Should You Bring with You to a Law School Exam?
- Wondering What an Attack Plan Is?
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