I have talked to several students this week who would rather do almost anything besides practice hypos. Why? Probably because hypos feel pretty terrible at first! Let’s face it, they can be awful. I don’t like hypos any more than the rest of you! They’re difficult; they can take up time it doesn’t feel like you actually have; and worst of all—they expose all of your insecurities about the exam and any gaps in knowledge you may have. But you know what, these are exactly the reasons to prioritize them.
Exams are a few short weeks away, and many students haven’t written any hypos yet. These same students usually have a lot of ideas about why other activities are a better way to spend their time. Some common excuses for avoiding hypos include: wanting to “save” past exams from your professors until reading week (don’t do this), feeling the need to finish all of your outlines completely so you feel “ready” to begin hypos (also not a good idea), and finally, my favorite—and possibly the most detrimental—finding some easier, security blanket task that is less scary to occupy your time.
Why are these bad ideas? Well, if you’re taking an essay exam final in any of your classes, essay hypos are the closest thing you’re going to get to good, realistic practice. Rather than avoid writing hypos, why don’t you stop this stuff instead:
Don’t save all the past exams from your professors until reading week.
I get the sentiment here, I really do. It can be difficult to find solid practice materials, and the old exams that your professor releases are the gold standard. They are arguably the best practice material possible for the exam you’re about to take. That said, though, you can learn a lot now about your professor’s exam writing strategy and what she is going to expect from you on test day if you just crack open those old exams and look through them.
So, take a look through those past exams. Find out if there are time allocations for each essay question—this will affect how you do your writing practice. Timing is huge on law school exams—it can actually be half the battle. Remember, it’s not just about getting all the questions correct, it’s about having time to answer all of them! If you’re not doing timed practice that mimics the real exam, you’re not preparing as well as you could be.
Similarly, see if there are any commonalities across past exams for a particular professor. Is there always one more-or-less policy-driven essay question? If so, this is great to know! You can bet you will see something similar on your final. This means you should take some time to cull through your class notes for any relevant policy discussions and see if you can come up with a list or chart of pros and cons for each one. What would the proponent of each viewpoint argue? Make sure you really understand what was discussed in class. If you wait until a few days before your final to get these kinds of clues about your exam, it might be hard to do the timed practice and review you need to succeed.
Don’t wait to do your first hypo until your outlines are finished.
Don’t get me wrong, outlines are great—not fun to make, but they can be a crucial key to success. If you make them in the right way, they can really help you consolidate the information you’re learning and boil down important points for memorization and practice. More often than not, though, the student outlines I see contain too much information. They are dense and verbose and not something most law students could sit down and actually commit to memory (let alone understand on a first read-through).
The problem that arises here is that if your outlines are long, or if you’ve gotten behind on outlining (or if you haven’t even started yet!), finishing these documents could potentially take you many hours. You don’t want to end up using the valuable time you have in reading week to catch up on understanding substantive law. Use this time to practice and review! This means you will need to work on figuring out the law now.
I know that having a finished outline can be a great feeling of accomplishment. And, I know there are precious few of these moments as a law student, but keep in mind that the outline is not the end goal. The aim here is to do well on your exam. I have seen students who spend way too much time making the perfect outline and then neglect to actually learn it, or they don’t save enough time to use their outline to practice hypos—which is arguably one of the most important reasons to make an outline in the first place.
If you find yourself way behind on your outlines at the end of the semester, what should you do? Well, first, figure out whether there are any short-cuts you can take. Do you really need all the facts from each and every case? No! (and they shouldn’t be in your outline anyway!). Are you taking a lot of reading notes or class notes and then just pasting them blindly into your outline? Stop this. This will give you way too much material to wade through and assimilate later. The danger here is that if you spend so long making your outlines, there won’t ever be a “later” that you can use to catch up.
What I would recommend doing is just jumping into that first hypo now. I know it can be scary. If you’ve already written a few hypos, nice job, but you should do even more. There really isn’t such thing as practicing too many hypos. Ideally, when you walk into your final, you will already have written some practice analysis on every single topic you’ve learned about in class. The vast majority of students don’t do this. Then again, the vast majority don’t get As either.
So write up a hypo, use it as a barometer to gauge how good your outlines, attack plans and understanding of the law are. A lot of law students find that their first hypo shows them all the useless information they are putting in their outlines, and they stop right then and there and start outlining in a completely different (usually much more concise, rule-based) way. If you wait until the end to do hypos, you won’t have this opportunity.
Stop convincing yourself that the “security blanket” activities will help you. They won’t.
This might sound harsh, but it’s important to parse out what I mean here by “security blanket” activities. These are the tasks that fill up a lot of time, but don’t get you any closer to doing well on your exam. For example, I am a big fan of flash cards under certain circumstances, but if you’re waiting until the end of the semester to convert a lengthy outline into a towering stack of flash cards, this is not the best use of your time—you won’t have time to use what is taking you hours upon hours to make.
Same thing goes for pre-writing. If you’ve never heard of pre-writing, it basically means writing out “canned” exam answers that include the I, R and C of your IRAC, minus the A—you obviously can’t do analysis or application based on the facts until you see the facts in the real exam fact pattern. For some professors, pre-writing can be great (for many professors, it’s not worth it at all, but I recognize that there are exceptions).
The problem I see most with pre-writing is that students spend an inordinate amount of time writing long, drawn-out rule statements and then memorizing them. What’s wrong with that? Well, most professors don’t want to see a full paragraph of rules that may or may not have anything to do with the facts at issue!
The kind of answer that is possible to “can” outside of the exam room and then serve up on the final is usually not the kind of answer your professor is going to want to see. Remember, analysis (that annoying, time consuming, difficult “A” part of the IRAC) is where the bulk of points are. Thus, you can probably start to see how practicing the I, R, and C but not the crucial A is pretty much the most counter-intuitive way to get good at fact-based analysis. To get good at applying the law to the facts, you really need to be using sample fact patterns to give those rules some context.
Try your hand at applying the rules you’ve learned to novel facts and struggling your way through. And you know what? It might be a struggle. Your first pass at any given hypo might look and feel terrible. But, then it’s your job to pick up the pieces and do it right the second (or third) time. If preparing for finals doesn’t feel tough and doesn’t make your brain hurt at least a little, you’re probably doing it wrong.
What other security blanket activities might be wasting your time? I would recommend taking a hard look at how you’re preparing for class right now. Are you making any of these top 5 mistakes? What did you spend your time on this week? Check out this video if you have questions. Class preparation or exam preparation? Believe it or not, they’re not always the same thing. Now that exams are a few weeks away, your process may need to shift. I’m not saying you should stop reading altogether in favor of writing practice exams (although I have recommended this to certain students in some particular situations!). However, you should keep a close watch on what you’re spending your valuable exam prep time on.
Is every week night completely filled up with reading and briefing cases? If that’s true, that means you really only have Saturday and Sunday each week to study for finals. That’s a lot of memorization, attack planning, outline finishing, and hypo practice and review to cram into two short days! Probably too much. Plus, take a look at how many weekends you actually have between now and your first exam. Count them up. There probably aren’t that many left. See if you can find some time elsewhere in the week to prepare for finals as well.
As you plan your week, think about each task on your docket and ask yourself: “Is this really going to help me get better at taking final exams?” “Will this help me learn the law so I could recite concise, accurate rule statements from memory?” “Is this activity going to help me improve the way I apply the law to facts I have never seen before?” If not, consider spending (at least some of) your time on something else.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- How to Calendar Your Way to Better Grades and More Free Time
- Five Steps for Setting Up a Final Exam Study Schedule
- Be Ready to Throw Your Writing Style Out the Window
- Can You Fake it Till You Make it With Law School Exams?
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