Some people might find this surprising — given my current vocation — but I wasn’t always the most prepared law student. In fact, second semester of my 1L year, I narrowly avoided a total meltdown. It wasn’t pretty, but stuff happens.
If you’re facing exams soon, and you’re not prepared, don’t panic. It’s not too late to salvage the situation, but you’re going to have to get things together quickly! Here’s how:
How to Survive Law School Exams When You’re Totally Unprepared
First things first: Decide if you’re really willing to do this. If you’re going to pull things together and avoid disaster, you need to be focused and ready to work. If there are other serious things standing in your way (mental or physical health issues, severe personal problems, etc.), it’s worth considering whether you need to take a leave of absence or postpone your exams. Yes, it’s a tough call to make, but most schools are willing to work with you, if the situation is sufficiently dire. (It’s not in anyone’s best interest to have you flunk out because you’ve got mono or are severely depressed.)
Assuming you’re capable of moving forward, here’s what I suggest for each class:
- Find your course syllabus and read it carefully. The course syllabus defines the outer limits of the knowledge you might possibly need to acquire, and gives you a roadmap of the major issues you can expect to encounter on an exam. Therefore, it behooves you to become very familiar with it, right now. (If your professor didn’t issue a syllabus, you’ll have to reconstruct it from the assignments you were given. In this case, look through the table of contents of sections you read to see what was covered.)
- Gather all the old exams and answers you can find for this class/professor. You’re going to need to essentially reverse-engineer what your professor commonly tests (they all have favorite topics, that’s just the way it is). This is slightly controversial, but I think you should read through all of the exams you can find (reserving only the most recent one as a final practice test) before you start studying. Why? Two reasons. One, you need to know what’s typically tested, so you know where to focus your study time. Two, sample answers are a fantastic place to get the black letter law, expressed as your professor likes to see it. When you start studying, you can return to the sample answers for the rule statements you need (versus pulling generic ones from a commercial outline or hornbook).
- Get one good commercial outline or hornbook and one old outline from a former student. More is not better! One of each is sufficient. Any more, and you’ll just get confused and waste time. Which, you don’t have enough of to waste…so keep it simple.
- Make a list of all the major factual scenarios you can think of that might be tested. Again, this seems counter-intuitive, but it can help you focus on the most important parts of the law, versus getting bogged down in the details that don’t really matter. Here’s a recent post I did explaining what “scenario-based” studying is, so go read it if you have no idea what I’m talking about. Don’t go overboard here — you’re looking for major things. In Crim, for example, it might be: someone’s dead, something was stolen, several people were arguably involved in a crime, etc. What’s a great place to get these? Yep, the sample exams and answers you looked at earlier. You want to focus on what your professor likes to test (not what the casebook author thought was most important).
- Figure out exactly what you’d do to analyze each scenario. This is the meat of your studying, and you’ll likely need to consult a hornbook or commercial outline to help you out. For each scenario, you want a step-by-step guide to exactly what questions you need to address for a full analysis. Include major cases, etc. but focus on the black letter law you’ll be applying. Flowcharts which reference specific cases or statutes can be very helpful.
- Practice as you go. When you finish a scenario, immediately write out a practice answer on that topic. Why? Because it will show you what you don’t understand, and it will help consolidate your knowledge so it sticks (this is especially critical with closed book exams, where you’ll have to spend more time memorizing the law).
- Hope for the best, and don’t panic. When you’re feeling unprepared, one of the most deadly things you can do is get wrapped up in guilt and anxiety. It’s counterproductive, and a huge waste of time. If you start ruminating on how horrible it is that you’re so unprepared, take a deep breath, put that thought inside an imaginary box, and promise yourself you’ll return to it later. Then actually do that! Set aside a few minutes a day where you open up the worry box and write down everything that’s inside. Ruminate as much as you like, but only for 10-15 minutes (set a timer, seriously). When that time is up, shut the box and get back to work! You can do this, but you’re going to have stay focused.
And one final note — get sufficient sleep. Yes, it’s tempting to stay up all night cramming, but law school exams are mentally challenging. You need all of your potential brainpower to do a decent analysis, even if you haven’t gotten every detail of the law down perfectly yet.
Stay strong! You can do it.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- Rely on Systems, Not Willpower
- You’re Totally Unprepared for a Law School Exam! How to Avoid Disaster
- Law School Exam Advice: To Each His Own
- The Three Most Important Things You Can Do as Exams Approach
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