I didn’t learn how to practice for an exam until pretty late in the first semester of my 1L year. I hadn’t really made a point of learning before then, and nobody had told me how until now. At the end of a lecture in November, one of my favorite professors announced that we had an exam coming up (news to me, I’m sure), and he wanted to tell us how to prepare. My professor told us to get comfortable with our outlines, then take one of the old exams he had given us and write out an answer to it using our outlines (our exam was open book). After making our answers as perfect as we could, he said to carefully read through the model answer that he had also provided and really try to understand everything that it did differently. Then, he said we should go back to our answers and rewrite the parts that didn’t look like the model answer without looking at the model (but it was OK if we had to cheat a little and glance at the model).
At the time, I thought this sounded like a lot of unnecessary paper work, but I also knew that I didn’t have anything to lose by trusting my professor. I spent the next few weeks preparing for all of my classes with this technique (and continued to prepare for exams like this for the rest of law school). When my first semester grades came back in February, I was pretty disappointed, but I may have actually beat my professor as a first semester 1L. Let that be a lesson: don’t let your first semester grades discourage you from continuing to struggle with the material and practice for your exams. It’s entirely possible to go from Bs to As, Cs to Bs, B minuses to B pluses, or from wherever you are to wherever you’re trying to go. Who knows? Maybe you’ll land a named professorship at Columbia Law School one day.
So, without further ado, I present to you my patented (note: not actually patented) exam preparation technique, which is inspired by or based on the process my professor taught me.
Step One: Outline
The first step in practicing for an exam is to outline the material. Lee has discussed outlining in many previous posts. I’ve also written about my own outlining process.
The one point that I should make is that you don’t need to finish your outline before you can start practicing. The earlier you are in law school, the more important it is to practice your exam writing technique. You can become an expert in your law school course, but if you haven’t given yourself time to develop legal writing skills, then that knowledge may be wasted. My suggestion is to take Examples and Explanations questions or bar exam hypos and practice writing out the answers to the material that you’ve already studied. Here are some other places to find practice materials. If you’re in your second or third year of law school and already know how to write an exam, then you may be able to wait longer to practice and move directly to practicing with old exams.
Step Two: Write an Exam Answer
The second step is to write out an answer. If your exam is open book, use your outline and whatever other materials that you’ll be allowed to bring in. If your exam is closed book, try to write your answer without looking at any materials, but it’s okay to cheat a couple times if the exam is still several weeks away. Do the best job that you can. You shouldn’t worry about a time limit if this is your first or second practice answer. Just focus on making your answer as complete as possible (if your exam is in just a couple weeks, you should also be focusing on time).
Step 3: Carefully Read Through the Model Answer
Immediately after writing (or a few minutes later if you need to take a short break), carefully read through the model answer. Notice what issues it discusses, how it discusses them, what sort of rules it mentions, which facts it emphasizes, etc. Also, pay close attention to the writing style that it uses. Are there are a lot of paragraphs or one long paragraph? Does it write in IRAC or CRAC format? Does it contain long rule statements or no rule statements? How much does it focus on policy arguments? Basically, try to learn the model answer so well that you become it.
Step 4: Rewrite Your Answer
Again without taking any long breaks, go back to your answer and try to re-work it without looking at the model answer. You want to make it look like the model answer as best as you can. This doesn’t just mean adding in the rules or issues that you forgot. You also need to change IRAC to CRAC, mention or not mention policy arguments, remove or add rule statements, separate paragraphs, add headers, etc. Ideally, you want to produce an answer that is identical to the model. Once you think you’ve done as much as you possibly can without looking, go through your answer again and make any last minute changes that you can think of. After your double-check, then you can read through the model answer again and make the final changes to your answer. At this point, your essay should be identical to the model. Then, you can run through the whole process again, each time inching toward writing a model answer.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- 4 Reasons to Not Wait Until After the Halloween Party to Start Outlining
- 4 Steps to Managing Law School Material
- Need Help Outlining for Law School Finals?
- How to Cope When You’ve Got Too Much Going On
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