Two students e-mailed me today who were both completely freaking out, but for different reasons. The first had waited this long to outline, sat down to do so, and promptly realized she didn’t know where to start, she didn’t really understand how to outline at all, and found that it was a lot harder than she had thought, and that it would take a lot more time… which now, since it’s November, she felt he didn’t have. Exhibit 1: Gut-wrenching fear and anxiety.
The second student had just received his first graded legal writing assignment back, only to discover he is at the very bottom of his class. Seemingly-straightforward concepts, like applying the law to the facts, that he thought were making sense this entire semester so far, clearly weren’t. He discovered he doesn’t know how to do what his professor is asking, and he has another graded paper due in a few days. Enter Exhibit 2: Fear and mind-numbing defeat.
Perhaps you were handling the October Freak-Out just fine, but now it’s November. For many law students, that means exams are just a few short weeks away. If you feel you may be teetering on a precipice overlooking exam day doom, take a few moments to consider the following questions and come up with a plan.
Do you have outlines? More importantly, are they actually useable?
If you’re like the student in the scenario above, maybe you don’t even have outlines yet, which is not ideal at this point in the semester. Maybe you think you understand how to make an outline, but realize that, in fact, you don’t. First step: Take a look at all of your classes this semester. Ask yourself if whatever outline you’re making (or using) is little more than an unstructured conglomeration of notes from lectures, readings, and case briefs—because this is not what you want. Are you spending the time to winnow out the important, useable chunks of law from these sources and discarding the superfluous detail? If not, you should be!
Remember, the point of your outline is to give you a set of short, concise, correct rule statements you can apply in the “R” portions of the IRACs on your essay exam, or use to answer a multiple choice or short-answer question. If you’re outlines aren’t doing that, you may have a problem on your hands. If your outlines were written by someone else, are too long, include lots of mini-briefs of cases, or if you have not taken the absolutely crucial step of organizing the material into bullet points you personally could actually memorize and apply to a novel fact pattern, you should be re-working and condensing what you have. If you don’t even have an outline yet, well, there’s no time like the present. Get to it!
Have you received disappointing feedback? Do you need more feedback?
Sometimes feedback from a professor in the form of a midterm grade is a rude awakening. Honestly, though, it’s better than nothing. At least now you know there’s a problem and you can work toward fixing it. If you’ve recently received a less-than-stellar grade (or a below-par review on an ungraded assignment), now is the time to figure out where you veered off course. Do yourself a favor today and let go of the idea that this bad grade was probably just a fluke. Obviously, if you really think there was some kind of grading error, get that checked out, but otherwise, stop blaming anyone or anything but yourself. It is highly likely this will be the exact same grade you get on the final as well if you don’t act fast. You’re absolutely capable of improving in the time you have left, but it will take a lot of effort and some serious damage control.
- Figure out what you did wrong. See if you can get your hands on a sample answer. Sometimes professors provide model answers they’ve written themselves—these are gold—or past answers from students. If not, maybe one of your friends got a great grade and wouldn’t mind you looking over his or her memo. (now that you’ve all been graded and there’s no ethical issue with reading each other’s papers). In any case, you need to find out how and why your assignment is different than those that got full marks. Other people in your class have been given the exact same material to work with and they’re doing well, so you need to find out how that’s possible.
- Talk to your professor—this week. Your professor wrote and graded your midterm. She will write and grade your final. You need to start getting good at whatever task it is you’re being asked to perform. And, you need to follow the guidelines she is giving you to yield the product she wants to see. Schedule an appointment with your professor and ask (in a non-defensive, non-confrontational way) what you could have done better. Take notes. Rewrite the assignment. Ask if you rewrite your midterm if your professor would mind looking it over with you. Failing this, go to your TA, get a tutor, ask a trusted friend in your class, or, at the very least, take a critical look at your own work. Sometimes, it’s difficult to recognize and fully grasp our own shortcomings, though, so try to get outside guidance if you can.
Have you written any practice hypos, past exams, or done any sample multiple choice questions yet?
If not, you should be. I am surprised by the number of students who are still unclear at this point in the semester what the format of their final exam is going to be in each class. If your Torts exam will involve essays, you need to be writing out Torts essays—today. Same thing with multiple choice and short answer questions. There is a strong correlation between student contentedness with letter grades and frequency of prior written practice. The students who practice replicating the kinds of tasks they will be expected to accomplish on exam day are usually the ones who score the highest.
And why wouldn’t they? As with anything difficult, unfamiliar, nuanced and counterintuitive, the only way to get good (and fast) is to practice! There is an overwhelming reticence toward actually doing the heavy lifting in this area. Why? Because writing practice exams is terrible. It’s uncomfortable. We feel we don’t know the law well enough, we miss issues, we realize we don’t understand as much as we thought we did. I promise you, though, for all the discomfort and humiliation you may feel outside the exam room when practicing, it is much worse when your first (or second, or third or fourth) practice experience actually occurs on the day of the test. Practice now. You don’t want your fear or listlessness in November to be the reason you don’t get the grades you want come January.
Are you a nervous wreck? Be honest.
A little nervousness around exams can actually be a good thing. Ask yourself, though, is what you’re feeling when you think about the test the kind of anticipation Freddie Mercury might have felt when he was about to sing the first live performance Bohemian Rhapsody—i.e. you heart might be beating fast, but you know what you’ve got is gold and you’ve practiced the intricate harmonies so many times, they are verging on perfection and you can’t wait to show the world what you’ve got? If so, congratulations! Those kinds of nerves are just fine.
If, on the other hand, thinking about exams causes you to experience something more akin to the sinking feeling you would get if shoved out into the limelight to dance Swan Lake or play in the U.S. Open when you had only ever seen ballet or watched tennis on TV and never actually done it yourself—consider whether the analogy may be fitting. Well, is it? Are you planning become a tennis champion without ever physically putting ball to racket? I hope not. Because being able to succeed on a law school exam, like any learned skill, is a lot harder than it looks. This all comes back to practice. Sometimes nervousness is just a lack of preparation and familiarity. So, calm down, and make sure you are setting yourself up to be pumped, not pummeled, on exam day. If you think you may be dealing with a more severe kind of anxiety or depression, seek out some trusted help now so you can be sure to take care of yourself through the end of the semester.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- November – Starting to Prepare for Finals
- Having an October Freakout? Of course you are!
- The Law School Mental Game: Performing Under Pressure
- Can Bar Materials Help You Study for Exams?
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