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School Tips: Week 13

Week 13: How to Tackle Essay Exams

1.  Skim all the questions before you start answering them and note the major issues.

Shirley carefully discusses the issue of battery when she wrote her answer to Question 1 of her Torts exam. Then, since she had discussed battery in Question 1, she did not discuss it in her answer to Question 2. Unfortunately, battery was relevant to Question 2,  but not to Question 1. Shirley, therefore, lost points for both Questions 1 and 2.

Professors typically design their exams to cover a wide range of issues and are unlikely to cover major issues multiple times. (Remember, we don’t like to grade exams, so we won’t waste your (or our) time repeating major issues.) In addition, professors generally will not give points for discussions that are misplaced.

2.  Set up a schedule and STICK TO IT.

Determine how much time you will be able to spend on each question. Your professor may suggest the amount of time you will need for each question or may tell you what percentage of points are allocated to each question. For example, if your exam has two questions, each worth 50 percent, split the time equally between the questions. This may sound obvious, but in the heat of the moment, students often allow themselves to get off schedule. This presents a problem because, even if you wrote a perfect answer for the first question, if you didn’t answer the second, you couldn’t make more than half the points possible. Write the start and stop times at the top of each question, and STICK TO YOUR SCHEDULE. It might be helpful to take off your watch and set it down in front of you to help keep you on track.

3.  Don’t waste time on a question you can’t answer—move on and come back to it later.

Students answering questions in the given order sometimes get stuck on the first question. Even if they keep on schedule, their trouble with the first question may continue to haunt them; they've lost any flow they might have had. After you've skimmed all the questions, be thoughtful about which questions to answer first. Don't necessarily do them in order—do the one that seems easiest. You can use that question to warm up and get into a positive mood. If you clearly label the questions, your professors won’t care about order you use. If you’re using a computer, it’s easy to move your answers around to the correct order. If you’re writing in bluebooks, label the bluebooks with the question numbers and start each question in a new book. (Exception: Some exams require you to answer the questions in order, building each question on the previous question. If this is the case, please do answer the questions in the order presented.)

4. Don’t cross out large sections of material.

If you’ve spent quite a bit of time on one line of analysis, but later decide that it’s not the best argument, unless you are absolutely certain it’s wrong, don’t cross it out, erase it, or tear it out. Remember, that usually there’s not one right answer, only answers that are more or less persuasive. Instead of totally eliminating that analysis, it’s often most productive to start the next paragraph with a phrase like, “On the other hand, a more persuasive argument might be made that…” continuing with the argument that you think is more valid. With any luck, you’ll get points for both arguments!

5. Answer the “call” of the question.

Somewhere in the question, generally at the end, your professors will tell you what they don’t want. For example, you may be told to “Discuss any viable claims A has against B.” Give your professors what they want. Even if you have a great idea about a claim B has against A, control any temptation to demonstrate your legal acumen by going off on this tangent—you’ll only convince your professor that you can’t read and follow instructions. In order to keep my students on track, I’ll often tell them specifically what I don’t want them to discuss.

6. Use a modified IRAC format.

Issues: Identify the issue(s) raised by the hypothetical. In each hypothetical, there typically are a number of major legal issues, each of which may have a number of sub-issues. Do a quick outline/flowchart/mindmap of these issues and sub-issues, putting them into a logical order. This outline should be very sketchy, possibly using just one key word for each issue.

Rules: For each issue and sub-issue, clearly state the relevant rule(s) associated with it. Because your outline organized all the rules according to the issues, and not by the cases, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Use only the rules that actually are relevant to the facts in the hypothetical. They are not relevant if they have nothing whatsoever to do with the given facts.

Analysis: For every rule you state, apply it to the facts in the hypothetical.

Conclusion: State the conclusions that respond to the call of the question. If the professor directed you to determine whether the plaintiff had a viable claim, state either “Yes, the plaintiff has a viable claim” or “No, the plaintiff’s claim is not viable” and explain. You also could state conclusions to major issues that led you to that conclusion.

7. Jump into the middle of the deepest mudhole you can find.

Students, being the rational persons they are, would rather discuss the issues and rules they feel  most certain of getting correct—it’s a natural inclination. Here’s the problem: The easiest questions are what I call “one-pointers.” They’re easy, clear, obvious. Because of this, they’re not worth many points, so you should spend very little time on them. No matter how many bluebooks you fill writing about them, you cannot earn additional points.

Students, being the rational persons they are, would rather not discuss issues and rules that are very messy and difficult. Here’s the problem: That’s where almost all the points are. Your professors build in difficult issues to see “what you have”—to see whether you have the knowledge and skill to deal with difficult legal issues.

Think of an exam hypothetical as an open field after a heavy rain. You can tiptoe around carefully, trying not to get muddy, or you can jump into the deepest, messiest mudholes you can find. You can be sure that, at the end of the exam, the students with the highest grades will be covered in mud!

8. Use a relatively formal writing style

Your professors expect to see a “lawyerly” or professional writing style. In the press of time, students sometimes try to take shortcuts such as the overuse of abbreviations or elimination of articles. Use complete, grammatically correct sentences.

After the exam

Don’t “debrief” with other students right after the exam—as King Lear said, “that way madness lies.” I can almost guarantee four things: (1) there will be at least one student in the group who will be absolutely certain his/her approach was correct, (2) you will not have taken this approach, (3) you’ll begin to doubt yourself, and (4) you’ll feel worse after the debriefing.

Do take a walk or a nap.

Extracted from The Law Student’s Pocket Mentor