Law School Survival Tips: Secrets to success on essay exams

September 24, 2014

Law School Survival TipsAfter we’ve covered activities in which you’ll be engaged throughout the semester, such as reading cases and in-class note-taking, we now come to the semester’s end: taking your final exam.

The vast majority of your law school exams, especially those you encounter near the beginning of your law school tenure, will be essay exams.  And succeeding on essay exams requires more than merely arriving at the correct conclusion; it requires writing out your argument and thought-process as to how to arrived at one or more conclusions.  In fact, the conclusion that you reach on essay exams often isn’t as important as your explanation for that conclusion.

And these explanations are an art form all on their own.  To help in mastering this art form, we’ve put together some tips that hopefully lead you to greater success in your law school exams.

Identify key terms and principles related to the question’s topic

As you’re reading the exam question, try to identify within it any possible concepts that were addressed in the class over the course of the semester, and make note of them.  One of the primary evaluation methods that law school essay exams rely upon is “issue-spotting” – that is, testing whether the student is able to identify the legal issues that are presented by the hypothetical problem of the exam.

Naturally, simply identifying the legal issues and regurgitating them in some form in your answer isn’t enough; you need to do a full legal analysis of how these issues fit into the question’s factual scenario, and how these legal issues relate to one another in these set of facts (if at all).  And this is actually accomplished as a consequence of this following the next recommendation.


I’ve written two posts about using “IRAC” (Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion) in law school, so check those out if you need more information about them.  Here’s how it relates to essay exams in law school: You should always use it.

Most law school professors evaluate the quality of an exam answer at least in part on how well it is organized.  And the most universally recognized structure here is IRAC.

Aside from its importance to the organization of your exam response, using IRAC also helps ensure that your response is as complete as it should be.  Remember how you’re supposed to “do a full legal analysis” on each of the issues that you identified in the set of facts presented in the exam question?  IRAC is the way to do that.

And here’s one more very important point about IRAC: be as complete as possible.  In other words, take nothing for granted when you are completing each IRAC section for each legal issue.  Maybe the elements of the law itself or the application of the facts to the law seem too obvious to you.  It doesn’t matter.  Your professor is grading your exam based on what issues you identify and how you analyze them.  And your professor won’t be able to read your mind to figure out what you know; he or she will only be able to read your exam answer.  So make sure you write what you know down, and don’t assume that the professor will know that you know it because it seems so obvious to you.

Explore multiple arguments

Another part of being “as complete as possible” in your exam responses is doing your full analyses not only for those legal theories or arguments that you believe to be the strongest, but for all those that could be legitimately applied.

There is a specific skill that is being tested here:  your ability to recognize as many different legal theories in a specific set of facts as reasonably possible, not just the ones that you believe to be the strongest.

In the practice of law, rarely do lawyers rely only on one legal theory; instead, they formulate as many as possible and submit those that may be reasonable (and sometimes even those that are less than reasonable) as arguments.  Rarely is a lawyer satisfied with standing behind one legal theory without having multiple backups.  And what may be the strongest legal theory in the eyes of one judge is not in the eyes of another.  The same is true for your law school exam responses; submit as many legal theories as seems reasonable (and even those that seem less than reasonable).

Read over the question one more time

Finally, after you’ve gone through the exam question for the first time, analyses and all, go through it again.  This time, look for anything that could be used to argue against your exam response.

Quite often, professors will make several legal issues obvious in an exam question’s facts, but then also add in one or more not-so-apparent additional issues that may fundamentally change how the question is best answered.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Suppose, for a contracts exam, you are instructed to identify any contract formations and whether they are valid.  There are one or more contract formations in the facts that are explicit (e.g., they are formed in a traditional manner, such as with an explicit offer and acceptance).  The facts then also contain elements that may have prevented proper contract formation (e.g. a declined counteroffer), but then a contract is formed nonetheless because of later actions by the parties that constituted an offer and acceptance in less than obvious ways.
  • On a criminal law final exam, the question calls for you to identify any possible criminal acts that were committed, and the facts present several obvious ones.  There are also some less obvious points of fact that serve to weaken or altogether invalidate the argument for prosecuting one or more of these crimes.

The professor wrote these exam questions thinking that the majority of students would overlook the facts and their hidden meaning.  You can prevent yourself from becoming one of these students by being as thorough as possible in combing through the facts.

Not every exam or question will contain these hidden elements, but it’s always a good idea to look over the question a second time after you’ve had time to digest it the first time around so that you can look at the question through the viewpoint of someone who has already become familiar with the facts and the potential legal principles that may be applied.

Hopefully, this second run through is enough for you to cover any issues that you may have missed – or is enough for you to realize that you disposed of all the issues presented in your first run through;  and either way, you leave the exam feeling more confident as a result.