Unsolicited Advice From a Law Professor: Surviving Final Exams

During my undergraduate years one of my friends mastered the art of maximum performance on minimal effort.  She rarely studied.  She often chose to sleep late over attending class.  She purchased the course textbooks only sometimes.  Other times she “purchased” the text the day before the final exam, studied that night, then returned it in time to meet the bookstore’s 24-hour return policy.  She reasoned that, if she could earn “B” grades with minimal effort, it was not worth the extra effort to go for the “A”.  For intelligent and intellectually gifted individuals like my friend, this approach may have worked fine during one’s undergraduate years.  But law school . . . law school is an entirely different animal.   

Toto, We Aren’t in Undergrad Anymore

Reading hundreds of pages of legal opinions every week.  Living with Black’s Law Dictionary by your side.  Enduring the Socratic Method inflicted upon you by your professors.  Feeling like you have NO IDEA what is even going on during class.  Actually having no idea how well (or poorly) you are doing because there are no homework assignments, quizzes, tests, or other measuring sticks throughout the semester.  Having your entire course grade rest upon a 3-hour final exam.  How does one even begin to prepare for such a daunting task?   

As a law professor, I tell my students that preparation for final exams begins on the first day of class.  That may be overly-ambitious and a little dramatic.  But it is closer to correct than it is wrong.  As every law student should know, you cannot wait until the end of the semester to begin studying for final exams.  If the calendar turns from October to November and you are not deep into your studies, you had better cancel your plans from now until the holidays.  But do not fret.  With a bit of good advice and a lot of hard work you will survive this thing we call law school exams. 

Outlines and Study Aids and Flashcards, Oh My! 

It seems everyone has an opinion on how to best prepare for final exams: create an outline (yes!); make flashcards (good idea); review old exam questions (great idea); work with a study group (maybe); study bar prep materials (maybe not); buy commercial outlines (bad idea); pull an all-nighter before the exam (really bad idea).  With so many opinions and so much information to digest in such little time, what is a law student to do? 

My advice is simple: find what works best for you and stick to it.  Ask for help if you do not yet know what works best for you.  Seek the guidance of the academic support department if your law school has one.  Ask 2Ls and 3Ls what worked for them.  Listen to your professors.  Read the blogs (including, of course, Ms.  Try different approaches until you find what works. 

Study with a group if you find that to be beneficial.  Do not study with a group if the group spends more than a minute socializing or gossiping.  Do not get pulled down the proverbial rabbit hole of becoming your classmates’ tutor.  Be cordial with your classmates but selfish with your time.    

Block out the noise.  Do not be tempted by the social scene that is disguised as a library.  Ignore the boasting and unfounded confidence that some of your classmates will undoubtedly exhibit.  Do not let the anxiety of others impact you.  As the final exam period approaches and the anxiety level rises, seek solace someplace other than the law school.    

Focus.  Never lose sight of the fact that your academic record, far more than any other factor, will determine your future.  Study, eat, sleep, and repeat.  

Repeat After Me: I WILL Create My Own Outlines

I cannot stress this enough.  The most effective way to prepare for final exams is to create your own outlines.  Creating an outline requires you to synthesize and organize an entire semester of material into one intelligible summary.  It forces you to figure out how distinct topics fit together, both sequentially and substantively.  It demands that you figure out what is important, what is tangential, and why in the world your professor wants you to know this stuff in the first place.    

You could purchase, borrow, beg, or steal an outline that looks like a masterpiece.  But even the most perfect outline will not teach you to understand the law.  Only YOU can do that.  And to do that you must digest, condense, work through, struggle with, summarize, and understand a vast amount of information.  It is the PROCESS of creating an outline, not the final product, that is the real benefit.

Focus on What is Given to You

When I attended law school in the pre-technology days of the 1990s, classes consisted of a professor, standing at a podium, firing questions at students.  There were no Power Point slides, course websites, Smart Boards, podcasted classes, or other technological tools to help us learn the law.  There were no practice questions or old exams made available to us.  Ever.  We had a professor.  Talking.  That was it.  This stands in stark contrast to law school as we know it today where it is commonplace – even expected – that professors will share their Power Points, podcast their classes, provide supplemental materials, and supply students with practice questions and old exams. 

I know this seems obvious but I will say it anyway.  Take advantage of the materials provided by your professors.  If a professor makes her Power Points available, you should study them.  You should use them when creating your outlines.  I do not create Power Points for the fun of it.  It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort.  I do it to help my students better understand, organize, and prioritize the material.  In other words, the rules, doctrines, and concepts that I put on my Power Points give my students a good indication of what I think is important (and, in turn, what will most likely be tested on the final exam).    

Attend the review sessions, even if they are not required.  Pay attention to what material the professor stresses or spends more time on during review sessions.  Focus on that material.  The more time the professor spends on a topic, the more important that topic probably is, and the more likely the professor is to test you on it.  Professors (or at least the professors I know) do not try to “trick” students by spending time on topics that will not be tested.    

Work though any practice questions and old exams your professors make available.  I have been known to include on an exam multiple choice questions – or even essay questions - that were available to students ahead of time.  Students who took the time to work through the practice questions and old exams were handsomely rewarded when they found those same questions facing them on the final exam.  Even if they do not appear on the final exam, by studying the practice questions and old exams you will get a better idea of the complexity, style, and type of questions you will face on exam day.  In other words, it is absolutely worth your time to do the extra work.   

Avoid Pre-Exam Catastrophes

This seems obvious but I will say it anyway.  Double-check that your alarm is set before going to bed.  Better yet, set multiple alarms and/or have a friend call you to make sure you wake up on time.  Allow ample time to get to campus.  You cannot anticipate traffic jams, flat tires, closed roads, and other commuting complications.  If all goes well, you will arrive at the exam site with time to spare.  That is not a bad thing.  Nearly every semester I have at least one student who arrives late or misses the exam entirely because he or she overslept, had car trouble, got stuck in traffic, missed the bus, or had some other delay.  Law professors and university policies do not view these occurrences as excusable emergencies.  So plan for the worst.    

Ready, Set, Go!

Set your watch to 12:00 before the exam begins.  By doing so, you will always know how much time has elapsed and how much time remains (e.g., in a 3-hour exam you will know you have 90 minutes remaining when your watch reads 1:30).  This sounds silly, I know.  But final exams are a race against the clock.  You do not want spend even a minute trying to remember what time the exam began and calculating how much time remains.  I promise this simple tactic will help you pace yourself through the multi-hour exam period. 

Take a minute at the start of the exam to map out your timing strategy.  If the professor provides time guidelines (e.g., “The recommended time for the multiple-choice questions is 90 minutes”), try to abide by them.  Know or quickly figure out how much time you have per multiple-choice question and for each essay. 

If the exam consists of both multiple-choice and essay questions, consider writing the essays first.  If you are going to run out of time, you are statistically better off running out of time on the multiple-choice section.  Take the final few minutes of the exam period to mark “A” (or “B” or whatever your favorite letter is) for any multiple-choice questions you did not have time to complete.  After all, a 25% chance of a correct answer is better than a blank essay.  

Before you even begin writing an essay answer, take a few minutes to WRITE OUT a brief outline of the issues/rules to be covered.  I promise this will help.  I cannot tell you how many times a student meets with me afterward and says, “But I KNOW I covered that issue.”  The student thought of the issue, planned to address it, but lost sight of it over the course of a multi-page essay answer.  I have had many students scour their essay answers at length, searching for rules of law and analysis that never made it from their minds onto the page.  A brief WRITTEN outline, jotted down at the outset, will help you avoid this problem.

Pace yourself when writing essay answers.  Realize that essay exams are a race against the clock.  You will not have enough time to eloquently address every issue.  Get the words onto the paper or computer screen as fast as you can.  You can make it look pretty later, if you have time.  If you are running out of time, take the final few minutes to quickly write out the rules of law you intended to cover.  While the essay will not be complete, at least you can capture partial credit for knowing the rules of law.            

Please pay attention to this next test-taking problem.  I have had multiple students befall this tragedy in the past few years.  In each case the student circled his/her multiple-choice answers in the exam booklet but did not bubble-in the choices on the answer sheet.  The student intended to use the final five or ten minutes of the exam period to bubble-in the answer sheet.  You can guess what happened next.  The student did not pay close enough attention to the remaining time and, when time was called, the student had only a blank or partially-filled in answer sheet.  PLEASE DO NOT BE THIS PERSON.  The board of bar examiners will not grant time extensions to allow a test-taker to bubble-in her answer choices.  I doubt your law school will, either. 

The Aftermath

After the exam is completed, RUN – do not walk - to your next location.  Leave campus if you are finished with exams for the day.  If you must remain on campus find a quiet corner to continue your studies.  Do not be tempted by the post-exam hallway chatter.  It will only cause anxiety, stress, or even downright panic.  I have almost never seen a student emerge from a “what did you write for the first essay” exchange feeling relaxed or confident.  These discussions usually just highlight points you might have overlooked, rules you may have missed, or mistakes you might have made.  This only leads to more anxiety, anxiety which will likely impact your performance on the remaining exams.  There is NOTHING you can do about it now anyway.  Move on to the next exam. 

Relax – You’ve Earned It!

Once the exam is completed, there is nothing more you can do to impact your final grade.  You have worked hard all semester.  You have endured the grueling final exam period.  Your task now is to relax, get some rest, and be ready to begin again in a few weeks.  Until then, I wish you the best of luck with your final exams. 

Kristine Cherek is a former BigLaw attorney, former general counsel, and current adjunct law professor.  Follow her on Instagram @kcherek and on Twitter @kristinecherek.

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