You’ve received your fall grades by now, and reality has set in. If you did well and met your expectations, congratulations! If you’re disappointed, you might be tempted simply to move on without revisiting your exams. This is understandable; with the spring semester under way, it can be difficult to review something you wrote during a three-hour frenzy over a month ago. But you should face those exams constructively. While it is not constructive to rehash your mistakes, it is constructive to identify weaknesses in your exam-writing skills — and to make a plan to improve those skills starting now.
Here are the three most common mistakes I’ve seen in working with second semester 1Ls this year, and my suggested solutions:
Mistake #1: (Dis)Organization
It can be challenging to organize your exam answer, especially if the question is based on a lengthy, complex hypo and the call of the question is broad, such as “identify all possible claims and defenses.” But your grade depends in part on organization.
There are infinite modes of poor organization, but common problems include (1) partially discussing an issue, moving on to something else, then returning to the first issue; (2) not stating a conclusion; and (3) blurring your statement of the rule and its application to the facts.
The first way to improve your organization is to apply IRAC or CRAC (unless your professor has instructed you not to do this). If you have internalized this organizational structure, it will be automatic; you’ll simply do it. You can remind yourself by jotting down “IRAC” on your exam as soon as you begin. Then check your answer to make sure you’ve followed it.
Solution: Outline Your Answer
Another solution is to outline your answer before you begin writing it. That’s what scrap paper is for – use it! You can set up a general IRAC outline and fill in the details, drawing from the rules you’ve memorized and the facts of the hypo. This should ensure that you’ve IRAC’d every issue and included complete rule statements and thorough analyses. Of course, if you’ve been instructed to use a format other than IRAC, you’ll outline according to that format.
Mistake #2: Missed Issues
If you miss an issue your professor expected you to spot, your grade will take a major hit. How can you improve your issue spotting?
Solution: Make Sure Your Outlines Include Triggering Facts
It’s important to organize your outlines around the legal rules, but good outlines don’t contain only the rules. Your outlines should include examples of the facts that trigger application of the rules. You’ll find these facts in the cases you read and discuss in class, in hypos your professor presents, and in practice exams. Many causes of action, and many exam questions, are based on recurring fact patterns (think heat-of-passion killings, a signed contract placed in the mail, or a bystander assisting an injured person). If you’ve got these facts in your outlines, you’ll recognize them on your finals. Start including facts in your outlines now.
Solution: Have a Good Attack Plan
You attack plan should include the elements of each claim. You should be able to apply these elements thoroughly when confronted with the triggering facts.
Solution: Use All the Facts in the Hypo
Every fact in an exam hypo is there for a reason. Read the facts carefully and try to use ALL of them. Cross check the outline of your exam answer with the hypo to make sure you haven’t omitted any facts. If there’s a fact you haven’t used, carefully consider whether it triggers an issue or the application of a rule.
Mistake #3: Not Answering the Question Asked
Sometimes students fail to read and understand the “call of the question,” that is, the specific task they’ve been asked to do. It’s not uncommon for an exam question to place you in a role, such as law clerk advising a judge how to rule on a motion, or prosecutor developing the strongest case against a defendant. The phrasing of the question dictates whether you are expected to come to a definite conclusion (“The motion should be dismissed”) and how you might organize your answer (marshaling facts against the defendant first, then acknowledging weaknesses).
Solution: Do Practice Exams!
Work on a variety of practice exams throughout the semester. Focus on the call of the question, and practice the skills of outlining your answer and organizing it appropriately in response to the question.
Working on practice exams is the best way to develop exam skills and avoid all the mistakes you made last semester. You can start as soon as you’ve learned enough material – typically one topic – in your spring classes. Apply the strategies discussed here to your practice exams, and improve your performance on spring finals!
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And check out these helpful posts:
- How to Practice For Exams in Law School
- Tips for Using Facts on Final Exams
- Need Help Outlining for Law School Finals?
- Tips for Surviving Law School Exam Stress
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