April 24, 2014
Another year of law school is rapidly approaching its conclusion. Unfortunately, before law students are unshackled from their desks for the summer, they need to attend to the small matter of final exams.
As daunting an obstacle as law school finals may seem, however, they can be overcome with the correct preparation.
Below, I’ve outlined an approach to preparing for law school final exams that I hope will function as sufficiently “correct preparation” for you:
1. Outline all of the content covered in your class
First, review all of the materials that you have for your course: cases, case notes, classroom notes, statutes, handouts, etc. Aggregate all of that information together into an outline that covers everything that was taught in your class.
The point of this step is twofold:
First, it helps organize all of the course information into a centralized document for easy review. You may not have had all of the pertinent information in one, easy location before, but you will now. And you’ll know where all of the information is within this document, to boot.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, it helps you to relearn what has been taught in the course. Repetition is one of the best tools for committing objects to memory, and (ideally), everything that you will be adding to your outline will be something that you had learned at some earlier point in the course – thus reinforcing its place in your memory and making it easier for you to recall these ideas during the final exam.
This first step will likely be the most time-consuming, but it is also the most effective at helping you to commit the broadest range of topics in the course to memory.
2. Identify any topics or themes that recur throughout the content
While you are working on your outline and/or after you’ve completed it, take note of any specific cases, statutes, or general themes that seem to come up more often than others.
Yes, these topics are more likely to appear on the final exam, but there’s another reason for doing this: Typically, these subjects are of central importance to the overall topic of the course itself. As such, even in the unlikely scenario that one or more of these do not explicitly appear on the exam, it’s very likely that your professor has written the exam questions as such that a higher scoring answer will need to at the very minimum make reference to one or more of these topics.
In other words, topics and themes that frequently appear in the course materials are quite likely in the front on the professor’s mind when writing exam questions, and should be in yours as well when you are thinking about how to answer an exam question.
3. Identify any topics that may not have been given as much exposure as others
Just as you will likely come across certain topics that have been given a lot of coverage in the course, you will also encounter others that, while discussed, may not have been highlighted quite as notably. Other topics may not have been discussed in class at all, but may have come up in the course materials or reading assignments.
A fair number of law school professors like to see if their students have been paying attention and completing the reading requirements throughout the course – and they will reward students who have been keeping up by including less prominent topics in the final exam.
Because familiarity with these topics can make a difference of an entire letter grade on the exam, it just makes sense that you identify and study those topics as part of preparing for the final exam.
4. Test yourself
Although there’s no true way to know how you will fare on the exam until you have the actual one in front of you, there are a variety of ways that you can assess the fruits of your studying labor beforehand.
One of the more popular methods is to make flashcards. While this is certainly helpful for memorization, it’s less so for preparing you for the legal analysis required for the majority of law school exams.
And as a large number of law students have already realized, a practice exam is the most accurate simulation of an actual law school exam – legal analysis and all.
Clearly, old exams from the same professor are the most desired – since they are very likely written in the same style and format as the actual exam that you will be taking and since such exams are often accompanied by sample answers that immensely help you to understand what your professor is looking for in an exam answer.
However, not all professors make their past exams available to students, so you may be forced to write your own practice exam or to use one written by another student in a study group. While not ideal, these student-created practice exams are still quite helpful, since they get your brain to practice answering questions on the relevant subject matter in the form that will be expected on the actual exam.
5. Stay calm
Above all, while you’re preparing for your exam, the important thing to remember is to stay calm. Stress interferes with a person’s abilities to encode memory and retrieve information, so getting anxious about your exams will only work against you.
Hopefully, the knowledge that you have a specific system in place to prepare for your exams will work to relieve your anxiety, but in case it doesn’t, you should take active steps to calm yourself during your exam prep time and during the exam itself.
Since you’re only working against yourself by allowing yourself to get worked up over your exams, it’s important to think about staying calm as its own step in the process of preparing for exams.
Need refreshers on specific topics? Check out our Law School 101 series of posts that review some of the most important topics of law school!
Have an exam studying tip of your own? Feel free to share in the comments section below!