Love it, hate it, but odds are you’ll have one eventually. So let’s talk about take-homes.
Take Home Exams are Hard
I’m not going to lie to you. Any take-home exam you have in law school is probably going to be hard. Why? Because your professor has to curve them somehow! If the exam is less time pressured, it’s going to be harder. That’s just the way it goes.
So, when you get your exam and read it, don’t flip out if it seems impossible. It’s supposed to be hard. But it’s not impossible, and you have lots of resources to help you write an answer.
Just embrace the complexity, take a deep breath, and get to work.
Pay Close Attention to Time
How you prepare for a take-home exam depends in part on how much time you have:
- Take-homes of 8 hours or less. If you’ve got 8 hours or less to do your take-home, it’s basically an open-book, in-class exam that you take elsewhere. It might be a little harder, but it’s still going to be time-constrained. You’re not going to have time to figure things out. You need an outline or other study materials, and most of the material needs to be in your head. Sure, you can look up some details, but this isn’t the time to be exploring new doctrines that you’ve never heard of! Treat it like an in-class exam, and prepare accordingly.
- Take-homes of 8 to 24 hours. If you’ve got 24 to do a take-home exam, you can afford to be a little less prepared in the details. Sure, you need to understand the big picture so you can figure out what’s going on and what to write about, but you don’t necessarily have to commit every subpart and exception to the rules to memory. However, as mentioned above, the test is going to be hard! That means you need a deeper understanding of the course material, even if you don’t memorize every little detail. Oh, and you need a good outline, so you can look stuff up. (But a commercial supplement or prior student outline can often suffice.)
- Take-homes of more than 24 hours. Honestly, a take-home of more than 24 hours is basically a paper on an assigned topic. With a very good outline (even one you didn’t make yourself), you can write on any legal topic if you’ve got 48 hours. So, get a good outline, one way or the other! (Ask around. I once got an amazing outline in a class I’d blown off from a friend at a different school, and used it to ace a two day take-home that I probably should have failed.)
Once you pick up the exam, pay close attention to your timing. Start writing earlier than you think you need to — the time will go quickly! This is not a place where procrastination is your friend. Outline your answer, and start writing. More thinking isn’t really going to help! Get something on paper and edit it. That way, even if you run out of time, you’ve still got something to turn in.
Prepare Your Creature Comforts in Advance
Particularly for shorter take-homes, make sure you have everything you need to be self-sufficient for the duration of the exam. This is not the time to go grocery shopping! Have healthy, appealing food ready to go. If you’ve got kids or pets, make sure you’re not going to be distracted by them as you work.
Think about where you’re going to take the exam. Do you really want to be in the law library? (I would have gone crazy, but that might be a good option if you don’t live nearby.) Maybe another library is better. (But make sure you know what their opening hours are, so you don’t find yourself out on the street midway through the exam.)
Where are you going to print your answer, assuming that’s required? Have a backup plan, and don’t leave this to the last possible second. Chances are good you’re not the only one printing during exams! Make sure you leave sufficient time to deal with the inevitable printer backlog and jams. (One idea: Print two copies of a near-final draft. Edit one on paper, and save the other as your emergency copy that you can turn in without final edits, if necessary.)
Be Sure You Understand the Rules
Take-home exams add to the ambiguity about what help you’re allowed to get. Can you talk with classmates? Can you do outside research?
You want to know the answer to these questions before you pick up the exam. When in doubt, ask.
Work When YOU Want To
People have different preferred times to do deep thinking. For me, I did my best work between 10pm and 2am, so I organized my work around this timeframe. For you, it might be first thing in the morning.
Most take-homes allow you pick up the exam whenever you like (within a certain window), so plan your work time around your personal preferences.
I’d usually pick up my 24-hour tests late in the afternoon. That let me sleep in (important if I’m going to stay up half the night working), have lunch, go to the gym, and then get the exam. I’d spend an hour or so reading it and thinking about the questions, then have dinner. After dinner, I’d get down to the real work and do most of my writing between 10 and 2. When I got really tired around 4, I’d go to bed. I’d sleep until 11 or so, then get up and make final edits.
That worked great for me, but wouldn’t work at all for a morning person! So do what works for you, not for “the typical” law student.
The Bottom Line
In the end, how you prepare for a take-home exam depends mostly on how much time you have. The shorter ones aren’t so different from in-class exams, but the longer ones give you a bit more flexibility. Use that to your advantage by scheduling the exam to suit your schedule, not some arbitrary schedule set by the Registrar!
And keep this in mind: It’s supposed to be hard.
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Want more exam advice? Check out Exam Prep 101.
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