Three Exam Tips I Learned the Hard Way

A few weeks before exams my 1L fall, my section leader held a section meeting in which she invited three 3L students to discuss preparation and strategy for our upcoming exams. Each of these students had aced their 1L classes and were headed off to prestigious clerkships in the fall. While the guidance was well-intentioned, and it was valuable to hear study tips from those who had been so successful, as with much of the advice available on taking exams, it was provided by those who immediately excelled and therefore probably never had been forced to think deeply about where they had gone wrong on an exam and what they could do improve.

I, for one, was not born an issue-spotter natural, but this fact encouraged me to spend a great deal of time attempting to learn what makes for a great issue spotter exam answer. Here are three of the most helpful things I’ve learned about law school exams; each illustrates a counterintuitive aspect of the standard law school testing methodology.

1. Write about the things about which you’re least sure.

You should be spending most of your time and words on exams writing about things of which you are not very confident. Professors write fact patterns that present some issues that are easily resolved and others that are quite difficult. The hard issues should be your focus. It is tempting when you encounter an easy issue to spend several paragraphs explaining step by step how a particular result is reached. This is unlikely to get you many points. The hard issues are the ones where there is either no precedent on point or conflicting precedent. Professors want to see you handle these issues, even though you may be unsure of the ultimate outcome. When you are doing well on an exam, you will often feel as though you don’t know what you are talking about; whereas if you feel as though you adeptly handled all the issues, things may not have gone so well. This aspect of exams helps explain the ubiquitous law school phenomenon of thinking you did poorly on an exam you in fact aced, or vice versa.

2. Don’t worry about the details.

Second, it is often repeated but difficult to fully internalize the fact that law school exams generally test the basic elements of the courses rather than the details. As a 1L, it is tempting to assume that mastering the materials means having a grasp of all the detailed doctrinal nuances. Issue-spotter exams, however, usually focus on your ability to grasp the big-picture of the course, not the minor rules in the squib cases found in the notes. Rather than spending time memorizing minor rules, the path to success involves thinking carefully about how the major elements of the course interact and being able to apply the elements in a thoughtful way. Practice exams are crucial for developing this ability.

3. Don’t think too much like a lawyer.

Finally, it is important to apply one’s common sense when taking an exam, and by this I mean, one should not lose sight of the quality of arguments one is making. When I first began taking issue-spotter exams, I thought that my job was to make every possible argument I could think of, regardless of how outlandish. While it is surely better than to err on this side of things than to miss issues and omit plausible arguments, a good exam answer shows a sense of judgment. An answer that simply throws the kitchen sink at a fact pattern is likely not to be as well-received as one that discards with implausible positions quickly and instead takes more space developing persuasive arguments focused on the heart of the issues raised by the exam. A good exam therefore shows that the test-taker has not left her common sense at the door.

The author is an anonymous Harvard Law student. 

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