There are many reasons why law school essay exams are so challenging – the amount of material that could potentially be tested, facts that are not only new but also ambiguous, open-ended question calls – but it’s the tight time constraints that many students struggle with the most. The long hypo that might be difficult but manageable given unlimited time to mull it over suddenly becomes nearly impossible when you’ve only got 90 minutes to put an answer down. To help you maximize every minute during your essay exam, avoid doing the following, which will cost you time but won’t earn you points:
1. Summarize or Restate
On essay exams, the facts are important. You should include them in your answer, as long as you’re including them in the right way. Remember that the professor knows the facts – she wrote the question! – so don’t simply repeat facts in your answer. Instead, make sure you’re discussing facts in connection with analysis. In other words, you should reference the facts when making arguments or explaining your conclusion, rather than merely summarizing portions of the fact pattern.
2. Long Introductions
When time is of the essence, it’s best to get right to the point. Dive right into identifying the issue and analyzing the rules rather than spending any of your precious minutes giving background info or introducing a topic. Irrelevant introductions often look something like this: “the law of Property covers many discrete subtopics. One of the more nuanced areas is the rule of capture. Many of these rules derive from English common law blah blah blah.” Avoid this long lead up and take a more direct approach: The issue is whether John Doe rightfully owns the resources. The majority rule states that…” and so on.
3. Eloquent Transitions
As a lawyer, you always want your legal writing to sound professional, sophisticated, and articulate. But there may be times when you have to sacrifice eloquence for substance, and a law school essay exam is one of those times. While you always want to use proper grammar and syntax, don’t agonize over making eloquent transitions or struggle with stylistic issues on an exam. Aim to produce the best writing you can under the time constraints, but remember that the substance of your legal analysis is the most important aspect of your answer.
4. Irrelevant Rules
You’ve probably spent a lot of time memorizing legal rules leading up to finals, but that doesn’t mean they all need to end up in your exam answer. One of the skills professors test on final exams is the ability to separate relevant concepts from irrelevant concepts. You won’t get any points for reciting a bunch of rules that aren’t fairly raised by the facts, so keep your focus on the issues presented and stay on topic.
5. Spending Too Much Time On Rule Statements
Don’t misunderstand – you definitely want to include a discussion of the relevant rules in your answer. The rule statements are an important component of a good essay and an area where you can maximize your time. Craft rule statements ahead of time (like during the outlining process) so that when you see an issue that raises a rule, you can simply recite what you’ve memorized and devote more time to analyzing the facts that are relevant to that rule. Putting some thought into how you’ll explain or define the rules beforehand will save you from having to spend too much time figuring out the best way to articulate a rule on the actual exam.
6. Repeat Yourself
You won’t get more points for repeating an argument, no matter how strong it is, so try to avoid making the same point twice. Outlining your answer before you start writing and focusing on organization will prevent you from restating similar arguments or circling back to a concept that you’ve already covered.
7. Belaboring Minor Issues
When you’re under a time crunch you have to prioritize. Although you want to address all the issues raised by a fact pattern, you need to focus most of your time on the major issues. When you spot minor issues or issues that are raised but lead to a clear-cut conclusion, point them out and explain your reasoning briefly and efficiently. Then, spend the bulk of your time analyzing the major issues that will require a more in depth or nuanced analysis.
As a student, the time limits on law school exams may seem arbitrary, but they actually do serve a purpose. The ability to recall the rules and quickly apply them to fact patterns are valuable skills for lawyers who often have to operate under pressure, meet tight deadlines, or think quickly on their feet during an oral argument. So think of these essay exams as training for your future practice and avoid the pitfalls listed above to make sure you’re maximizing every minute of your time.
For more helpful advice, check out these articles:
- Three Ways to Create More Time in Your Day During Exam Season
- Use This Tip to Save Time on Essay Exams
- Top Three Mistakes on Final Exam…And How to Fix Them Now!
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