How to prepare for exams

By Alison Monahan

Whether you are in the midst of the first semester of your 1L year, or a seasoned 3L gazing anxiously at the proverbial light at the end of the law school tunnel, there is no time like the present to think about exam preparation. Law school exams, like so many other facets of law school, are curious. On the one hand it seems like you are in a perpetual state of exam prep (you are), while on the other hand, taking exams is only one skill you must master to successfully complete law school and become an attorney (also true). The suggestions contained herein will not resonate with everyone; however, there are parts of the following that most law students could adopt for greater success, regardless of what type of learner he or she is.

When do I begin?

There are many styles of learning. By the time you arrive at law school, you should have some idea of what type you are. There are those that think of bar prep as those precious few days and hours immediately preceding the exam, which represent the exam-prep sweet spot. For others, they recognize the benefit of the cumulative approach over the course of the entire semester. The best advice is to do what works best for you. For most law students, it is beneficial to start exam preparation early. The earlier you begin to study for the exam, the more basic reviewing you can do when others are cramming. Law school professors want to pour volumes of information into your brain each semester. They will then expect you to recall all of that information, consumed over the course of fourteen or fifteen weeks, on a final exam. Typically, your entire semester is riding on your success on that single exam. If you approach case briefing, outlining, and reading as exam prep, it is a mindset that will help you manage the accumulation of information rather than succumb to the weight of its mass. Start early and be persistent. By starting early, you make polishing up your knowledge at the end much less difficult and daunting.

Where should I start?

An excellent place to begin is with the syllabus given to you on day one. The professor has, with this document, shown you exactly what he or she thinks is relevant, grouped the material in a way that he or she thinks is logical, and given you reference points in the case book to anchor what you will be discussing in class. Step two is to reconcile the syllabus with the table of contents in the case book. These two documents allow you to start outlining on day one, or at very least week one, of your semester. Don’t look now, but this is all exam preparation. As you accumulate case briefs and class notes throughout the semester, this base document will expand. As you continually review its contents, you will be able to retain more and reduce the size of the outline to something that will actually help you in the final days and hours leading up to your exam.

Let’s Get Organized.

The outline is a great tool for law students to keep track of the material over the course of the semester, but without a little organization, many students end up with material in non-complimentary formats that they have difficulty putting together in a logical or intuitive way for exam prep. You have to understand how all of the material (case briefs, class notes, supplemental materials, etc.) go together to represent the body of material that will be tested on the exam. It is a juggling act, but one that, if mastered, can lead to exam success from the first semester of law school through the last. Make sure that as you review the material from the last class, or the last week of classes, you take the time to put them in the context of the other resources. How does this case brief fit in my outline? Did I read some supplemental information that can make my understanding of this concept more robust? Where do the things we talked about in class fit in my outline? These are all critical questions you should be asking on a regular basis, and all of them represent aspects of exam preparation.

Review, Review, Review.

I never understood the idea of waiting until the end to start to review the material for an exam. This is especially true in law school where so often the material accumulates to form a body of law (e.g. negligence or strict liability in Torts). You have to understand point A before you can even consider point B, and so on. In truth, reviewing the material regularly will help you see the big picture. It will bring the hazy into focus, and the more you review throughout the semester, the more genuinely you will master the material. The review process breeds greater comprehension and retention. Most importantly, reviewing the material throughout the semester will allow your exam prep to be reduced to the review of a handful of notecards or a three- or four-page outline when your colleagues are trying to wade through pages and pages of materials while cramming at the last minute.

Be Proactive.

The bottom line here is that exam preparation should begin on day one of class, at least in terms of mindset and getting organized. If you are one of those people that thrive on the pressure of crushing deadlines and late-night cramming sessions, just leverage the advice in the middle of this article. But for most law students, success on any law school exam will increase or decrease with the amount of time and effort invested in the conduct described above. Set yourself up for success on your exams, because you will soon see that spreading out the work over the entire semester is much easier than lifting it all up at the end.

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl’s Guide to Law School®, which is a leading resource for women (and some men) embarking on a legal career. Alison is also a co-founder of the Law School Toolbox® and Bar Exam Toolbox® which provide free resources, tutoring and a variety of courses and tools to help law students and bar exam takers succeed with less stress and anxiety.