The internet is full of advice on how to make sweeping resolutions about things to quit, start, or change in the new year; but, despite our best intentions, studies show that these promises often end up quickly discarded and covered in dust, like the proverbial exercise treadmill that ended up becoming a repository for laundry. Most resolutions never see the light of February.
Let’s look to the promise and pitfalls of New Year’s resolutions to think about your new SEMESTER resolutions.
First semester grades can come as a shock to many law students. The work is uniquely challenging, the curve is brutal, and few of you will earn the coveted As in a course. This can deal a rough blow to students who have always done well academically. Take a deep breath. Recognize that these grades don’t reflect your intelligence as a person or mean that you should not be in law school, but they are a signal that you should correct course.
Look Back To Move Forward.
You won’t be able to tell what went wrong until you do some self-analysis and get feedback on your performance. For each of your first semester classes, set up a class review document that asks and answers these questions:
- How did you prepare for the course and the final exam?
- Did you attend any review sessions?
- Did you do practice tests? If so, how many? Did you rewrite your practice tests after reviewing the answer?
- Did you make your own outlines?
- Did you actually understand the substantive law?
- How did you feel after the exam?
Next, make an appointment with each of your professors to review your exams. Some professors will require you to attend a group session before meeting with you one-on-one—if this is the case, do both. What is the point of these meetings? Your goal is to identify what you did well and where you need to improve in two broad categories:
- Problems with the substantive law: Did you really know what you were talking about?
- Problems with structure and formatting: Did you convince your professor that you knew what you were talking about?
Remember, the professor cannot grade what you KNOW—they can only grade what you SHOW. See if any of these common exam problems caused you to lose points:
- Following instructions;
- Working through each question logically;
- Giving complete rule statements;
- Using facts in analysis;
- Engaging in effective counterargument;
- Writing clearly and concisely;
- Running out of time.
Take a copy of your class review document with you to your conference to remind you of any specific questions about a particular exam. Take notes during or immediately after the conference.
Identify Common Themes.
Next, set aside time to pull out common themes from these conferences and your reflections on the exams and the semester. This is one of the reasons why you should meet with more than one professor—you are looking at past performance across the board to come up with an overall plan to improve going forward.
Make Specific Goals For Each Course.
To stick to a resolution, experts say you need to make your goals specific. Goals should correspond to each syllabus: for instance, at the end of each topic, you should commit to outlining and doing a practice test. This will require you to build your knowledge base in layers and avoid the need to cram at the end of the semester.
Consider how you managed your time and studied last semester and what you need to do differently. Remember that Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” You cannot change the workload in law school but you can change how you approach it. You might need to get more sleep, adjust your work/family schedule, change your study location, take notes by hand, utilize your academic support office, find a tutor, or sponsor, schedule a block for outlining/review every week, and/or commit to weekly practice tests.
Plan To Measure Your Progress.
Make an unbreakable date with yourself; schedule a designated time each week to measure how well you followed your plan. For instance, you can make an appointment with yourself for this purpose every Sunday at noon; commit that if there is a time conflict, you will keep your “date” ahead of but never after the scheduled time. Use tools to stay on track–print out your calendar or use one of the many apps available to remind you of appointments. The important thing is not just to have goals but to measure progress along the way.
If you fail to meet a daily goal, don’t give up on your plan. Don’t be like the dieter who eats healthy and exercises for a few days, then eats a piece of chocolate cake and decides to order a pizza because they have already fallen “off the wagon.” Your goal is progress and consistency, not perfection. Find a mantra that works to remind you to accept imperfection and get back on track when you fall down. Resiliency fosters success.
I like to envision the start of each semester as a completely clean whiteboard ready for a new story. Yes, your GPA follows you, but the semester break gives you a clear demarcation between “then” and “now” that isn’t often available in “real life” work environments; thinking of it this way may give you added motivation to change things up and make new habits. Good luck with this fresh opportunity to tackle the challenge of law school. Happy new semester!
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