The first time I was assigned a so-called eight-hour take-home exam, my professor suggested that we take a couple hours to plan out our answer, a couple hours to write, a couple hours to take a nap or do something else, and then a couple hours to put the finishing touches on our exams. This was terrible advice, and I sincerely hope that nobody followed it.
Law school is a competition. The tough reality is that you need to work harder and smarter than other students if you want to get top grades. You could produce fantastic work and not make an A if several others in your class also turn in their best work.
This is why the so-called eight-hour take-home exam should be banned. When you’re graded on a curve, there is no such thing as an exam you take home and work on at your leisure unless you want to end up at the bottom of that curve. My law school even recognized this by providing a classroom for students to occupy for eight hours while they furiously wrote their “take-home” exams, just like in class exams. Students who put in fewer than those eight hours risked scoring below the competition.
Despite the absurdity of the eight-hour take-home, law schools continue to allow these tests because many professors like them. First, they’re easier to read: students can produce better work when given eight hours to do it in instead of the three, four, or five hours that are allotted for an “in class” exam. Second, some professors also may mistakenly believe that the “take-home” format gives students more flexibility and is less stressful than a typical in class exam where up to one hundred law students are all furiously typing away at the same time in one room. (Do you notice how number one contradicts number two?)
But unless your law school takes emergency measures to do away with these terrible tests this exam period, you’ll need to make sure you’re ready for one. Here are my five tips for getting through an eight-hour exam:
1. Accept that It’s Really Just a Regular Old Eight-Hour Exam
Unless you’re extraordinarily fast at writing exam answers, you will need to be confront the fact that your professor is not giving you a lucky break. You will not have an extra two hours to rest and relax. You will probably not have enough time to go home or pick up lunch during the exam. Prepare for this ordeal by bringing lunch, snacks, and water with you in the morning. If you need caffeine, then bring that as well. Grab your exam packet and head up to the “take-home” exam room.
2. Practice Under Eight-Hour Exam Conditions
Once you’ve accepted your fate, you’ll need to start practicing for it. You may find that taking breaks helps you gather your thoughts. If you can help it, however, I’d recommend plowing through the test without stopping, so that you aren’t leaving any minutes on the table. But you’ll need to train yourself to work for eight hours straight: sitting with one essay for eight hours without taking breaks is unnatural. You will almost never be called on to do this in your career where there will always be some sort of break: a brief chat with a coworker, a quick meal, etc. In order to prepare for this test of concentration, you’ll need to practice your endurance. Try taking eight-hour practice tests under these no break conditions.
3. Stick to a Plan
Eight hours always goes faster than you think it will, so you need a plan for what you’re going to do with those hours. You’ll need to spend some amount of time reading through the hypothetical, thinking, and planning out your answer. You shouldn’t spend any more than two hours on these tasks. If you’re more naturally organized, then you can spend much less than two hours. Next, you should write your answer. If the hypothetical has more than one question, put the most time into the questions that you find the most difficult. I usually write out the easy questions first as fast as I can, then spend the rest of my writing time on the harder questions. If the hypothetical only has one question, then divide your answer into separate sections and tackle those sections individually.
4. Save Time at the End
But you shouldn’t spend all your time writing. You need to save a significant amount of time at the end—at least one hour at the very minimum—to edit your writing and make your essay(s) read like you wrote it (them) at your leisure. You should also save a substantial amount of time to revisit the essays that you already wrote. You may find errors in these essays and have to rewrite portions of them. This is why it really helps to have time at the end.
5. Don’t Study Afterwards
When you’re done, turn in your “take-home” exam and go out to dinner. Go outside. Go for a run. See your friends. Whatever you do: don’t study, sit in solitary contemplation of anything, or do anything at all that reminds you or your body of what you just endured. Eight-hour exams really deplete your energy and leave you at risk for getting burned out. This is the last thing that you want to feel in the middle of an exam period when you have several more exams to go, so take what’s left of the evening to recharge for tomorrow.
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