One of the toughest things about law school is the lack of feedback until finals. Some professors are shifting away from this and have midterm exams to give students feedback early enough to course-correct if needed. Some are for a grade, others aren’t. I had one in all three of my doctrinal courses, so I think I’m pretty qualified to give some advice on 1L fall midterm exams.
Preparing in the Weeks Before
This might seem obvious but the best way to prepare for midterms is to do the readings and go to class. But you also need to review the material regularly. Outlining is great because it’s a forced review of everything. Everyone outlines differently, but no matter what, you should create the outline. Outlines from others, including commercial ones, are great for supplementing or clarifying, but you get so much more by making it yourself. Review also includes doing practice questions.
Many schools or organizations have exam banks of past exams. Some textbooks have online resources or practice questions within the text. Supplements are also helpful, but they’re not as good as material created or used by your professor. Ask upperclassmen who did well what they used. Also ask your TAs and professors questions! No one knows the exam better than your professor, and your TAs performed well in that class so they’ll know what it takes to succeed – and what weird little nuances your professors may want to see on your exams, or what you should absolutely, unequivocally avoid saying. Just maybe get that information more than a few hours before the exam so you aren’t totally redoing your entire approach. Also if you need any kind of accommodations for your exam, now is the time to get that established if you haven’t already.
Preparing the Week Of
Whatever your routine has been up until this point, stick to it. Now is not the time for experimentation. This includes making sure you go to bed around the same time as normal. Staying up and cramming won’t help, and you can’t cram for a law school exam anyway. It might even be advisable to relax some – I know, controversial. But it’s true. If you’re relaxed, you’ll be sharper and better equipped to handle it when things go wrong. Because there will be something that happens that could completely throw you off your game. Like when you get to campus and discover you left your laptop charger at home and your computer-based exam is at the end of the day. If I’d changed my routine, not slept, and not relaxed some, I would’ve been ugly-crying in the library with my mascara running down my face. So relax. Stick to your routine. It’s gotten you this far already.
Right up until they said “begin” I was nervous. But once I did get going, I trusted in myself and my preparation. That trust is what allows people to perform in high-pressure situations. You need to have a plan, trust in it, and execute it. Even if it’s just “If the essay involves X, I’m doing Y” or something similar, that’s better than no plan at all. You might hear these called “attack plans” – I like to think of them as a playbook, and you’re the quarterback calling an audible based on what the defense is showing. Otherwise known as having multiple strategies available and not knowing what strategy to employ until you see what you’re up against. You’ll also need to manage your time. My exams were one hour with at least one essay each and varying numbers of multiple choice questions. One exam had one essay and 19 multiple choice, another had two short essays and five multiple choice. Naturally time management differed. But when you’re pressed for time, the other crucial thing is to trust your gut. If you think an answer is C but also maybe E, pick one and don’t waste time debating between them. If you have no idea, guess and move on. It’s better to have something that may be right than nothing at all. Mark questions you’re unsure of and if you have time, return to them. If not, oh well, you gave it your best shot.
Congratulations – you did it! Now get OUT of there. People will be discussing the exam in excruciating detail and bringing up things you may have missed…or that may be flat out wrong. And you won’t know what noise to listen to until you get that feedback, but in the back of your mind, you’ll be wondering if that one thing really did constitute consideration, or if it was a different intentional tort, for weeks until that feedback finally comes through. It’s in the past, let it lie there. Congratulate yourself for making it through, celebrate a little, but remember you still have other responsibilities you need to get to. If you feel good about the exam, keep that to yourself. People who don’t feel as confident will appreciate not hearing about how you think you crushed it. If you don’t feel you did your best and maybe need to change your approach, don’t wait until the results, make those changes now. But no matter how you feel about it, make sure you keep putting in the work. This was the pregame warm up to finals.
These strategies of course don’t just relate to midterms, and they’re also nothing new. But hopefully they’ll give you some perspective on what to expect, because the first law school exam can be terrifying. Anything you can do to mitigate that fear and anxiety will help you perform better and make the feedback you do receive more beneficial to you.
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