Taylor Concannon, 3L, has had her fair share of law school exams. She gives us her advice and tips on adequately preparing for final examinations!
Thanksgiving is over, the holiday season is upon us, and that means it is time for the first round of finals for the year. The best way to do well on exams is all too obvious: study. Even if you’ve slacked off until now, it is not too late to put in the time. That being said, studying while virtually everyone else in the world seems to be enjoying the holiday season, watching Christmas movies, and drinking eggnog is no easy task. But, the truth is, it is only two weeks and you will make it through it. Below are a few tips to help you make it through this exam season as painlessly as possible.
First, know that everyone is going to give you different advice. Some people will tell you to make outlines, others will say it is a waste of time; some people will encourage you to make flashcards, others diagrams, and the list goes on and on. My word of caution to you is this: listen to these tips, take them with a grain of salt, and then do what works for you. By this point in your education, you know if you are a visual learner or learn best by mentally organizing your information. You know what has worked for you in the past, so do the same thing now. All that being said, there are a few overarching strategies that tend to improve the average law student’s test taking experience.
(1) Make a schedule and stick to it. A lot of professors and law students adhere to what they call an accordion style of studying. Under this method of studying, you study for your last exam first, and work your way backwards. The benefit to this type of studying is that it helps you to better allocate your time, ensuring that you give each exam adequate attention. What you will find as you study for finals is that you never quite feel prepared—you could always study a little bit more, take one more practice exam, understand a concept a little better, or read through your outline a couple more times. By studying for your last exam first and working your way backwards you will not fall into the trap of perpetually studying for one exam. Another benefit to this type of studying is that it will help you to better conserve your energy. By the time you get to the end of finals you will find that you are both physically and mentally exhausted. It truly takes everything you have to study for that last exam. Therefore, a few hours of studying early in the process will pay dividends on the back end.
(2) Assess course expectations. Gather as much information as possible about the exam and the professor’s expectations. Most of the time professors will give a general overview of this information during class. It may also be beneficial to visit with students that have taken classes from that professor in the past. Finally, consulting past exams, which are typically kept on file in the library, can help you get a better idea of what to expect on your exam and allow you to tailor your studying accordingly.
(3) Review your class notes and remember that YOUR professor is writing YOUR exam. Some students feel that it is valuable to pair the review of their notes with outlines that they have obtained or supplements that they find helpful. If this helps you to develop a better understanding of the big picture or piece your notes together, then go for it! It is critical, however, to remember that YOUR professor is writing YOUR exam. Accordingly, some of the information in the outline or supplement that you are using may not be included on your exam—don’t worry about this information; if your professor did not mention it in class it is not likely to appear on the exam. Likewise, some of the information that you covered in class may not be in your specific outline or supplement. Instead, you should focus on the subjects that your professor emphasized in class or spent extra time discussing. Underestimating the power of class notes and relying too heavily on outlines or supplements to learn a subject and prepare for an exam is probably the number one mistake law students make. Rather than relying solely on an outline or supplement to learn a subject, these resources should be used—as the name suggests—to supplement your studying. An old outline, for example, is a great resource to help you organize your own outline or to help ensure that you haven’t missed any big issues. A supplement is fantastic for helping to clarify issues that you don’t understand. And, Barbri lectures provide helpful overviews of different subjects, allowing you to fill in any gaps in your own notes. Still, not one of these resources can replace a review of your own class notes.
(4) Organize your information. Once you have reviewed your class notes and clarified the areas that you did not understand, you should begin to organize your information in a way that will help you recall it quickly and efficiently. (Ex. outlines, notecards, flow charts, diagrams)
(5) Put your knowledge to the test. Once you feel that you have a pretty good grip on the material for a subject, you should put your knowledge to the test by taking practice exams and answering sample questions. Many supplements have practice essay questions and multiple choice questions that provide answers and explanations for each question. Two very popular supplements are the LexisNexis Q&A series and the Examples and Explanations series. Both of these are available in the law library. As I stated above, most professors also keep a few sample tests on file in in the library. Reviewing a professor’s sample test is probably the single most valuable study method available to law students. Reviewing these tests not only gives students a better idea of what to expect on their final exam—let’s face it law professors are not typically known for their creativity, and thus, they tend to stick with the same format and types of test questions on exams—but also alleviates a lot of the anxiety that accompanies the unexpected, thus improving their confidence when they actually go to take the exam.
(6) Prepare for all exams as if they are closed book. Whether your exam is open book or closed book, your preparation should be virtually the same: memorize, master, and practice applying. Too often students fall into the trap of false confidence when they have a textbook, outline, or class notes on hand during the exam, but the truth is that law school exams require students to issue spot quickly and run through a thorough analysis under strict time constraints. Students simply do not have enough time to complete this task and skim through their notes in an attempt to find the right answer. Instead, students should use an open book format strategically by being truly prepared for the exam, but feeling confident that if they find themselves in a bind, they will be able to reference their books, outline, or notes. To do this most effectively, students should: (a) prepare as they would for a closed book exam, (b) adopt an open book strategy such as tabbing relevant material, and (3) integrate the open book nature of your exam into your exam prep so that you can apply it flawlessly during the actual examination.
(7) Get a good night’s sleep the night before the exam. I know that we have all heard too many times that a good night’s sleep is important, but it is actually true. Simply put, your brain works better when it is well rested and when it comes to the curve, every little bit counts. Get a good night’s sleep.
(8) Don’t talk about the exam after it is done. Talking about the exam after it is finished will only lead to unnecessary panic and likely prevent you from focusing on your next exam. Even if you bombed the first exam, it does you no good to think about it. Instead, take the night off, give your brain a rest, and start studying again the next day. As a side note, 1Ls you will all probably feel as if you failed your first exam. Most likely, you didn’t. Regardless, the most important thing is to keep pushing through and as soon as one exam is over start focusing on the next.
Finally, know that your first two semesters of law school are some of the most critical. 1L summer opportunities will be based off of your first semester grades and 2L summer opportunities off of your second semester grades. This is no time to sit back and “see what happens.” Making great grades early in law school will open many doors, so study hard and give it your best shot. That being said, if your first semester does not go well, it is not the end of the world. Each semester you will gain a better understanding of what is expected of you. You will recognize your strengths and weaknesses and you will have many opportunities to modify your study practices. If you don’t do well on your first round of exams, take a deep breath, reassess, and give it another shot. If you are willing to put in the time and hard work, you will see success. Many students that do not do well on their first set of exams continue to climb in the rankings throughout their entire law school career. The most important thing is simply to work hard and give it your best shot. Good luck!