• Cary Martin Shelby

Law School Exam Tips from Professor Shelby

I vividly recall walking to my first 1L exam. That three-block walk from my son’s daycare to the law school seemed to take all of eternity. My heart was palpitating in such vicious thumps that I worried that the people walking past me could hear the incessant pounding. Failing was simply not an option as I had already taken on a significant amount of debt within that first semester. It would take six figures of student loans for me to actually finish law school, but I needed to access a higher-than-average income to sufficiently provide for my son as a single parent. There was no one to catch me should I fall. It was a stark reality ridden with complexities and potholes. Despite facing this overwhelming pressure—and despite having spent countless sleepless nights preparing for this moment, I still felt hopelessly unprepared for the task at hand.

Over the next three years, I started to fully understand precisely why I felt so unprepared. Having access to more familial, interpersonal, and financial resources greatly improves your chances of exceling in law school on several fronts. Law students who come from underrepresented groups face a heightened risk of performing poorly on exams despite having completely mastered the class materials. Law school assessments are inherently inequitable. While fully leveling the playing field is impossible without significant systematic changes within higher education, I am eager to pass along my own tips as a law professor who has navigated law school as a single parent and former foster youth. Set forth below are a few of my thoughts on what I wish I would have known with respect to exam prep, as well as a list of common mistakes that I repeatedly encounter in grading exams:

What I wish I would have known:

  • Practice exams. Do as many practice exams as possible to the extent that your professor makes them available. Student organizations such as BLSA often have their own databases of practice exams. Access ALL OF THEM. Mimicking actual test conditions is certainly ideal, but even if you do not have time to do this, simply outlining potential answers can significantly increase your chances of doing well.

  • Be strategic about your time. We are testing the application of the law, not your ability to recite the black letter law. This may feel counterintuitive especially since you have likely spent an inordinate amount of time understanding and perhaps even memorizing the law. You may even be able to recite your entire outline backwards and forwards, but this alone will not help you. It is essential to prioritize as many hypotheticals and practice exams as possible since this is a completely different approach to assessing your knowledge.

  • Study groups. Understand the value of study groups. Some merely serve as distractions that can take away from invaluable exam prep time. Distractions can admittedly be helpful in taking much needed mental health breaks. Trust your intuition on when it is time to establish boundaries. Other study groups can be particularly beneficial for understanding potential “blind spots” in the materials. As a 1L, I had a study partner who explained to me an essential concept in our Civil Procedure class that was completely missing from my lecture notes and final outline. This moment taught me the impossibility of knowing what you do not know! Study groups can likewise be helpful in reviewing and comparing practice exam responses.

  • Do not be afraid to ask questions. Push the envelope when asking your professor questions about the format of the exam as early as possible. Every professor is different in terms of how they approach and structure final exams. Every professor is different in terms of how they grade exams. Yet, the format will invariably affect the ways in which you strategically prepare. For example, will the exam be closed-book, or open-book? Take-home or in-class? Will it be a traditional issue spotting exam, or will it consist of a series of short-answer questions that provide more of a guide in terms of what issues the professor wants students to evaluate? Will there be multiple-choice questions thrown into the mix? As a law student, I sometimes shied away from being bold with my questions due to my fear of coming across as incompetent. Developing a healthy sense of entitlement and confidence was essential for my long-term success. While professors may be unwilling to answer certain questions for a range of reasons, it is certainly worth asking—and do so respectfully. As the saying goes, “closed mouths do not get fed!”

  • Go to office hours. Having said that, take every opportunity to go to office hours. Do not make assumptions about the kinds of professors that you will likely connect with. It is hard to describe the full value of discussing the law with your professors on this level. Students who regularly go to office hours often perform better on exams.

  • Commercial outlines. Many commercial outlines are overinclusive in terms of coverage, and students can waste excessive amounts of time attempting to master the extensive laws that are often poorly explained within these materials. Others can provide additional explanations and hypotheticals that can significantly deepen your understanding of the law. Feel free to ask the professor or other students who have already taken the class if they have any recommendations for supplementary materials.

  • Tailor your outlining process. Outlining is largely designed to condense the class into a digestible format. Casebooks will not do this for you as they are literally a book of edited cases thrown together and organized across subjects. Some might also include explanatory materials, but many do not. Having said that, simply listing case briefs for the 50+ cases, statutes, rules, etc. that were covered in class within your outlines is unlikely to serve you well. Understanding your own learning process is likewise important in structuring outlines. Visual learners for example frequently construct their own flow-charts or diagrams to assist with understanding the materials. Organizing the outline pursuant to potential issues is also ideal. Glancing at your casebook’s table of contents can be a useful starting point in this regard. Longer outlines can assist you with diving into the details of the law when necessary, while shorter or “mini” outlines can greatly assist with issue-spotting as it provides a useful “50,000 foot view” of the class. Briefly glancing over this shorter outline once you have finished drafting your final exam can help in ensuring that you have spotted all relevant issues. Again, student organizations often have their own databases of outlines that can be useful starting points.

Here are common mistakes that I repeatedly encounter when grading exams:

  • Answering unasked questions that were not specifically posed by the professor.

  • Extensive copying of rules that are irrelevant to your analysis.

  • Providing a succinct issue, rule, and conclusion with no analysis.

  • Your analysis should explain how each relevant fact provided within the exam is connected to each applicable rule component, while analogizing or distinguishing from applicable cases.

  • Providing an eloquent and lengthy policy discussion that I did not specifically ask for without providing an analysis.

  • Failing to evaluate ALL such relevant facts that I have artfully crafted in writing the exam.

  • Failing to evaluate ALL applicable elements of a rule.

  • Misallocating time leading to completely missing answers.

Good luck with finals!

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