Your computer is plugged in, your snacks and drink of choice are laid out, and your colorful assortment of highlighters are at the ready. You are staring at the exam that is face down on the table when the proctor says the magic words – you may start. All of a sudden, the panic sets in and you realize you’re on the clock, and “what subject is this?” Okay, maybe not that last part, but you might be doubting whether you can get this done in the required time. You can, but you’ve got to have a plan!
But here’s the best part – the same plan works for every law school and bar exam essay. Once you internalize your plan, all you have to do is concentrate on the substance. The plan even works for those professors who claim they don’t focus on IRAC. The plan helps you get through the material in a methodical way, ensuring you don’t leave issues on the table. So, if you’re ready and willing, here it is:
- Read the essay question once without making any markings on the fact pattern. You need to wake up your brain about the exact topic being tested. Once you get through the fact pattern once, focus on the call of the question and the instructions on how much time to allot for this one question;
- With the call of the question in your head, read the question again. This time, take a pen and/or highlighter and start circling or highlighting facts that seem important. You should also recognize issues at this point. Write something in the margin about those issues near the relevant facts;
- Now start creating a rough outline of your answer. List all the issues in a logical order. This may depend on the call of the question. Is it one claim you are analyzing, or are there several claims against different parties? That question will help you determine the organization.
- Once you have the rough outline sketched out, start plugging in the facts you have highlighted or circled next to the relevant issues. Do not discount the importance of this step. By putting the facts into your rough outline, you will remember to use those facts in your analysis – which will maximize the points you get in grading;
- Now go back and read the question again. Okay, I know, other people are already typing their answers, and I’m telling you to wait and read the question again. But here’s the thing – they don’t have a plan. They are throwing everything in including the kitchen sink because they are panicked and want the professor or grader to see how well they know the subject. But you have a plan, and you know that you will have plenty of time to focus your essay on what is truly relevant – which will ultimately impress the person grading the exam. With your rough outline in place and your brain focused on what is really important, this final reread of the fact pattern will most likely cause you to see more facts, and maybe more sub-issues, that can be plugged into your outline.
- Now it’s time to write! Oh, by the way this whole outlining process should take you about 15 minutes for a typical one hour exam. But here’s the thing – you’ve already done all the thinking. The writing part is the easy part. You just have to get through your outline, step-by-step, checking off issues and facts as each is completed. The person next to you, who has already been typing for 10 minutes, has stopped repeatedly to reread the question. There is no flow or logic in the presentation because issues are added as they are seen rather that in the appropriate places. Just imagine seeing an important issue for the first time with only 10 minutes left on the exam. You might actually sense the panic with the sound of frantic typing. Meanwhile, you are just plugging away at your outline.
- And finally – don’t forget to keep your eyes on the clock! All that preparation is for naught if you don’t get through the outline. Remember, this is a timed essay exam. Perfection is not expected. Issue spotting and analysis are the most important parts. So move through your outline methodically with your side-eye on the clock.
That’s the plan! I know it’s scary to devote this much time to preparation, but, in the long run, it will reduce your stress level and help you write a more thorough essay that should impress the person reading your answer.
But don’t celebrate too much – because you have to get your head back in the game and start the plan all over again for the next one hour essay question that has to be answered. Good luck!
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