How to Conquer Four Common Law School Exam Catastrophes

Published: Mar 31, 2009

If you have effectively managed your time during the semester, have briefed all your cases, prepared an outline and taken practice exams, you're in a great position for exam time. That being said, some students make all the right moves yet still fall short of getting a good grade because they failed to address a specific exam challenge. While the four most common exam catastrophes may seem obvious, failure to properly handle them can and will make a difference in your grade point average.

1. Allow Time for Small Disasters

Be sure to prepare for the obvious -- Murphy's Law. If you have an in-class exam, set more than one alarm clock in case one does not go off and allow more than enough time to get to the exam site. Many professors will not have sympathy for traffic jams, car problems and being unable to find a parking space. (In practice, many judges have little tolerance for this either.) Make sure you specifically organize everything you could possibly need to bring to your exam, a few hours before exam time, and be sure to bring it to the exam. Inevitably there is one person who goes to an open book exam and forgets their notes or outline. Do not let that person be you!

Get to your exam at least a half hour early and get settled in. Similarly, if you have a take home exam due at a specific time on a specific date, assume that timeline is set in stone, and prepare to hand in your exam a minimum of 20 minutes before that time. Again, unexpected problems can creep up when you last expect them. Allowing extra time to deal with any challenges will certainly help you confront them with confidence rather than a panic attack.

2. Be Wary of Ghosts in the Machines!

Both home computers and even the law school computer network can become your enemy during exams. Computers seem to know when you really need them to work properly and do everything to make your life a misery at the worst times! If you do nothing else during exams, save your work on your computer and save it often. I would also save it to a disk or CD-ROM. I will admit that I have not had the presence of mind to do this in the past, and it cost me dearly. I lost a great deal of one of my drafts of a law review article I wrote due to a power failure. Computers crash, word processing programs freeze and even the school computers can go down at the worst times. So be prepared.

3. Protect Your Environment

You would be amazed at how rude other students can be during exams. Yet, in an effort to coexist without a confrontation, we do nothing to stop something that is distracting. I Instead of suffering in silence, try to be 'healthfully selfish.' Exam time is not the time to tolerate annoying behavior such as mumbling, food crunching and pen clicking. I once had a student sit in back of me during a Civil Procedure exam and eat an entire hoagie! The hoagie smell drove me crazy, but I tried to ignore it even though it distracted me the entire time. Did it make a difference between an A- and B+? Who knows? But it very well could have.

Be firm with rude people. Tell the person their behavior is distracting and ask them to stop. If the person refuses, do not waste any time. Find the class monitor or the professor and explain the problem. It will be dealt with. Try not to care what your classmates think about you. They're not paying for your student loans. Quite frankly, most people will be relieved you acted because they were just as irritated as you were by the annoying behavior.

4.Don't Forget: It is All in Your Head!

Anyone who saw the movie The Paper Chase knows that a large part of succeeding or failing in law school is psychological. It is your approach that makes the difference. You can choose to panic at the first exam question you don't know how to answer, or you can see that exam question as a chance to shine and show the professor what you know. It's easy to let yourself skim the exam question without property reading it and spew a lot of non IRAC drivel in answering the question. The better way to tackle an exam question is to take a deep breath, read the instructions closely and either tackle it or make a mental note to come back to the question later.

At the first sign of panic, try to reassure yourself that you have prepared adequately and recall exam taking strategies that can assist you in dealing with the challenge you are facing. For example, quickly read all the fact patterns and questions to get a feel for the entire exam. Decide which exam questions you will tackle first. Begin with the question you feel most comfortable with so that you can build your confidence. Spend time considering what your professor wants you to do. Re-read the facts and write down the issues. If you are unsure of the issue, consider your memorized materials and brainstorm. It is also important to think of the facts from both sides of the issue. Consider both in your exam answer, but thoroughly discuss which side has the better argument. Also thoroughly analyze the topic and interweave the significant legal facts. Be explicit in how the facts relate to the rule and how you reached a conclusion. Write a version of the applicable rule and organize a structure for the question. Write the answer. Discuss the relevant issues in depth. Raise then dismiss the irrelevant ones. Proof read the answer to be sure all the issues you found earlier were addressed. Move on to the next question. If it is a timed exam, keep an eye on the clock.

Whatever the exam strategy, allowing yourself to feel overwhelmed, anxious or fearful will hinder your ability to recall the concepts and rules you've devoted so much time to mastering. If you approach exams in a confident, prepared, organized manner, exams will be an opportunity to shine, not an insurmountable obstacle to law school success!

Sandra J. Ware, Esq. is the author of Guerrilla Tactics for Law School Academic Success. She served on the law journal and was appointed as an Academic Success Tutor during law school. Ms. Ware currently practices law for an insurance defense firm in New Jersey.