The least wonderful time of the year: tips for exam season

In college and especially in law school, I remember feeling bitter and resentful about the holidays. Just when it felt like the world was getting festive for everyone else, I was consumed with the approach of a different season: exam season.

This was especially the case during my 1L year, since Harvard was still operating under the ridiculous schedule that had 1Ls sit for their fall semester exams in January. That was about as terrible as it sounds, as I’ve described here. (I wrote more generally about my law school trajectory here.)

But there are ways to make your studying less painful and more effective. Here are a few tips you can use to position yourself for success on your exams and make it through the least wonderful time of the year.

1. Make a plan; prioritize. First, be honest with yourself about where you need to spend the most study time and make a detailed, day-by-day study plan that reflects those priorities. It’s tempting (and easy) to devote a lot of time to classes or topics on which you have a firmer grasp and, conversely, to avoid those that seem more nebulous or confusing. This is, of course, counterproductive.

Instead, if you make a thoughtful and deliberate plan, write it down, and do your best to stick to it, the time you spend on each subject is more likely to reflect an appropriate allocation of where that time should be spent.

Your assessment of where to spend your time should be brutally honest and based not only on which exam is coming up first, but also on other factors, including your comfort level with the material, how well you were able to follow the reading and class discussion, and the kind of exam your professor is planning. (The last consideration should include a review of representative past exams given by your professor and their relative level of difficulty for you—see also tip 6 below.)

Whatever your plan looks like, if you make one that accounts for all of the days between now and the start of exam season, then you’re almost certainly going to feel more comfortable following my next piece of advice.

2. Take time off. No, really. I rushed to get this post up before the Thanksgiving break mostly so that I could urge any 1Ls who may be reading to take at least a full day—24 hours—off. For some of you, this may seem obvious. But the target audience for this advice is really those of you who are right now, at this very moment, resisting it.

That resistance may sound like this: “It’s all well and good for you to say that, but I can’t afford to take the day off because [I’m so behind]/[everyone’s smarter than me]/[everyone else seems so much more confident]/[I have no idea what I’m doing].” Or, it may sound more like this: “Other people may need to take the day off—and that’s fine for them—but not me. I’m a beast. I’ve always been able to just power through, and I’ll do it again. I can handle this.”

In the fall of 2004, my internal monologue contained elements of both these refrains. My friends begged me to take days off. “At least New Year’s Eve,” they pleaded. For the most part, I didn’t listen. I simultaneously considered myself both dumber than everyone else in the room and also more capable of hard work.

That didn’t end well for me. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I cried through at least four of the eight hours of my property exam. To be fair, the exam was—literally—about caves in Mongolia, so it wasn’t entirely my fault.

As I’ve mentioned before, though, brute force alone does not lead to success on law school exams. As you’ll see below, hours upon hours spent poring over arcane details of your assigned cases and building the One Outline to Rule Them All are not the answer.

But if you’re going to take time off, plan for it, so you don’t feel guilty about it, and make it count. Don’t sit around with vague intentions of opening your Civ Pro book or your Examples & Explanations. Don’t decide that your time “off” will consist of just making a little progress on just one of your outlines. That kind of half-rest/half-work ends up being a dissatisfying version of both. Instead, go “all in” on your time off. Turn off your school email and step away from your laptop and casebooks. Spend time with people (or animals) you love. Make the time away count.

3. Set boundaries—for yourself and others. But when you are in study mode, fully commit to that. Eliminate as many outside obligations as you possibly can during the run-up to exams. Some of these obligations are not negotiable, of course, but others are.

Do you have a part-time job where you can afford to cut back your hours? A pro bono project with a flexible deadline? Cooking and cleaning routines that take up a lot of time? Where possible, push those things to the side. For now, your job is to study for exams. So let the laundry pile up if you need to, or ask your non-law-student significant other or roommate to take on a bit more of the household management for a few weeks. You’ll return the favor soon enough.

It’s also not a bad idea to start a conversation with friends and family—perhaps this week at Thanksgiving—to manage their expectations about your availability in the coming weeks. Consider explaining to them that, for the next little while, you won’t be able to get together as often, or you won’t be as active on the group texts, but that doesn’t mean you care about them any less. It’s just that this year, you’ll be a little less available than usual. Your loved ones will understand, and they’ll probably look for ways that they can support you in the process.

4. Do your diligence. With respect to the exams themselves, the more information you can get, the better. Don’t be afraid to talk to your professors in advance of the exam. Ask not only about the format and length of the exam, but more importantly, about their expectations and assessment priorities. Some professors will even provide a sample rubric.

Do your professors value breadth or depth? Is there a particular format they prefer for your responses? Ask them whether there is anything you’ve done over the course of the semester which they do not expect you to know for the exam. Ask them to articulate the learning objectives that their assessments are designed to measure, and what they’re looking for in the answers. Ask them what distinguishes the stronger exams from the weaker ones (even better, ask for samples of each type of answer from prior exams). These are all fair questions, and the worst that can happen is that a professor just won’t answer one of them—but you have nothing to lose, and lots to gain.

5. Outlines—make them yourself, and make lots. While the perfect outline is neither a sufficient nor even a necessary condition for exam success, the process of making one can be is invaluable. That’s because making a topical outline—not simply a slavish reproduction of every detail about every case you’ve read in the order in which you read them—forces you to synthesize the material.

Working with the concepts and trying to impose order on what may very well be chaos (your class and reading notes) will help you see how the various strands of the course are related and how concepts tie back into one another. You can’t make a great outline without this understanding, and the process of having to compile and arrange that information is often where the learning happens in law school.

In part, this means that the process of making the outline is more important than having the perfect document on exam day—you’ll have very little time to refer to it, anyway. It also means that you should resist the temptation to rely on your 2L roommate’s exceptionally detailed outline from last year, and actually force yourself to make one. And finally—and crucially—it means that you should strongly consider taking your comprehensive outline and distilling it down still further into “mini” outlines or checklists. This is the ultimate exercise in synthesis, and will likely result in documents that will be more useful to you on test day.

6. Take practice exams. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the single most valuable thing you can do to prepare for law school exams is to take practice exams. Ideally, these would be actual exams offered by your current professors in prior years. Complete these practice exams early and often. Take them under true test conditions (meaning: under time pressure, in a location and sitting position that reflects exam conditions, and strictly enforcing any test-day limitations on available technology or the materials available to you).

Ask your professor for sample answers to the posted practice exams. If those are unavailable (or, after you’ve reviewed them, if they are unclear), ask your professor if she’s willing to meet with you to go over your own answer and address any issues. If not, or if the answer key is unavailable, discuss the exam and your answers with a group of fellow students. It’s not enough to simply know the legal concepts; you must be able to sift through a messy and unfamiliar set of facts to apply those concepts, and only practice exams can give you the experience of doing that.

Struggling through these exams can be eye-opening, and not always in a good way. They’re hard, and they’re often unpleasant. But they are the single best indicator of what it feels like to take a law school exam, and they are of infinitely more value to you than re-reading your outline one more time.

7. Have a strategy for exam day. On the day of the exam, think about how you want to manage your time. When you first get your exam, quickly skim all of the questions. Then, determine how much time you want to allocate to each and the order in which you want to tackle them. Once you’ve decided, stick to your time estimates. You don’t want to end up without sufficient time to fully address a key question. If you run out of time, consider finishing the answer with clear, concise, bullet points, which are better than nothing at all.

Remember to spot as many issues as you can, but if one seems frivolous or like it merits a more conclusory analysis, then allocate your writing time accordingly. At the same time, don’t forget to fully consider all sides of the issue (analysis and counteranalysis) and to fully use the facts and explicitly show how they support your predicted outcome (boy, this sounds like advice I give in my legal writing class).

Relatedly, structuring your legal analysis in C-RACs (Conclusion, Rule, Application, Conclusion) may be something you learned in LRW, but, surprise! It works very well on doctrinal exams, too, though you may be better off replacing the initial “C” with a statement of the issue (IRAC). In short, the techniques you’ve been developing in your writing class (rule synthesis, applying law to fact with as much detail as possible, counter-analysis) will help you on your exams, so take advantage of them.

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Above all, don’t lose sight of yourself during the grueling run-up to exams, and take care of yourself. And as ever in law school, don’t be afraid to ask for help and support. Good luck, and Happy Thanksgiving!

One Reply to “The least wonderful time of the year: tips for exam season”

  1. An eight hour final? On property? I’d rather take the whole bar exam again.

    Also, I love the tidbit on asking for a ruberic. I’d ha e never thought of that, but that’s brilliant advice. My 1L property professor had some sort of odd “check mark” system: for everything that you said that was correct, you got a check mark. For everything you said that was incorrect, you got a minus. Minuses negated the checks and person with the most check got the 100 and the curve fell out from there.

    Knowing that, my essays second semester were a hell of a lot longer, and my grade was better.

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