If you just received your first-semester grades and are wondering whether you’re going to survive law school, I’m sympathetic. I’ve been in your position. My first-semester law school grades were my lowest. They weren’t terrible, but they weren’t what I wanted or expected from myself either.
And I’ve done what you want to do—my grades steadily improved. And despite my less-than-amazing first semester grades, I still made law review and still graduated in the top 10 percent of my class. So don’t despair—all hope is not lost. But you’ve got some work to do. Read on for my tips and suggestions to learn from your first-semester mistakes.
First, be thoughtful about what went wrong. You may already know some of the areas that need improvement.
- You may have left your first-semester exam rooms knowing you were woefully underprepared and had only a cursory understanding of the material.
- Maybe you realize that you procrastinated and waited too late to begin studying for your exams.
- Maybe you relied on a commercial outline or one prepared by another student, and you now know that you need to outline yourself to learn the material through that process.
- Perhaps your professors offered sample exams and answers from past years that you could have used to prepare, but you didn’t take advantage of those resources.
Whatever the case, use that knowledge to plan for the spring semester. Don’t know how to get started? Most schools have academic success programs, and academic success personnel or your academic adviser can help you prepare a plan to keep you on track in the future. Schedule a meeting with an adviser now (don’t wait until the middle or end of the semester). Ask for help in developing a study plan that will, hopefully, ensure you gain a deeper understanding of this semester’s material. Of course, you have to be disciplined in following that plan, so make another appointment to meet with the adviser mid-semester or a little later to ensure you stay on track or to help you adjust the plan if it’s not working.
Assuming you still are flummoxed by your grades, ask for a copy of each exam prompt and your answer. You professor likely won’t have provided written feedback (you’ll probably just see papers with checks or similar marks) but you’ll use your answer to figure out what went wrong. Reread the exam prompts and your responses. You may immediately see that you misread the instructions—maybe the prompt instructed you to address only intentional torts and most of your response was devoted to negligence. Or you might see that you misread or skipped some important facts in the prompt that were crucial to the analysis. While these revelations may be frustrating, you will at least know to look out for these problems when your spring exams roll around.
If your exam review doesn’t turn up any glaring problems, see if your professor has a strong sample exam answer you can review. If the professor does, take advantage of this resource. Go through that sample exam answer and make a list of every issue the writer addressed. Then go through your exam answer and list every issue you addressed. Compare the lists—you may see that your list is substantially shorter. Look at the sample exam to see the breadth of the writer’s analysis of each issue. Then compare your exam answer. You may see that you didn’t completely address each issue—for example, maybe you only addressed the elements of a contract but the professor was also looking for you to address other possible ways for the hypothetical client to recover, such as promissory estoppel and unjust enrichment. Or maybe your analysis was simply wrong because, for example, you failed to address the mailbox rule. Make notes. Obviously you won’t be re-taking that exam again, but you’ll learn the types of analyses professors are looking for, which should help you better prepare for future exams.
If your professor doesn’t have a sample exam answer, then meet with the professor and be prepared to ask specific questions. Students sometimes come to professors with questions such as, “What could I have done to get an A?” The answer is always going to be: “You could have written a better exam.” The professor isn’t likely to go through your exam step-by-step, telling you each place where you could have earned additional points. Remember that law school exams aren’t like other tests you’ve taken—you earn points for issues you address rather than lose points for incorrect answers. The onus is on you to ask thoughtful questions, such as “I see I only earned half of the possible points on the second question. Did I fail to address a major issue? Did I misapply the law in my analysis?” Listen carefully and take notes during the meeting.
What if your professor isn’t available, won’t meet with you, or you still don’t understand why you received the grade you did? Try to meet with the professor’s teaching assistant or graduate assistant, who likely knows the material and the professor very well. Ask the same questions you’d ask the professor and take the same types of notes. If that fails, make an appointment to speak with an academic success advisor (and bring your exam answer, if you can) to get his or her opinion about areas for improvement.
An important note: No matter who you meet with, be open to feedback. Thoughtful critique and feedback isn’t a personal attack on you—it’s an effort to help you improve. If you go into the meeting feeling defensive, you’re probably not going to get much out of it.
Once you’ve done all this, work on adjusting your expectations and learning to keep some perspective. You’ve probably been a big fish your whole life. Now you’re a big fish in a pond packed with other equally big (or bigger) fish. Maybe you’ve never made a grade other than an A and your first-semester grades are a shock to your system. If so, take a deep breath—I’m about to tell you something important:
Bs are perfectly acceptable grades in law school.
What does a B grade represent? That a student has adequate mastery of the subject. Not great mastery. Not the best mastery. But adequate mastery, which is something to celebrate, not bemoan.
Do you know what would happen if you made Bs in every class you took in law school? You’d graduate with a law degree. Do you know what would happen if you made mostly Bs and a few Cs in your law school classes? You’d graduate with a law degree. Do you know what would happen if you never made an A in any law school class?* You guessed it—you’d graduate with a law degree.
For most students, law school is a means to an end—you need a law degree to take the bar exam and become a lawyer. As long as you graduate and as long as you pass the bar exam, that will happen, regardless of your grade in criminal law. Grades are important—don’t get me wrong. But keep them in perspective.
And while we’re talking about perspective, don’t waste your time and energy dwelling on your mistakes or lamenting your first semester grades. Once you’ve figured out what you can do better, put your energy into improving your study habits or exam writing skills for this semester’s courses.
Finally, remember that you are not your first-semester grades. They don’t define you or your worth as a person. The most successful people aren’t perfect, but they do learn from their mistakes. And you can too. So pick your head up, get to work, and rock this semester!
*Assuming, of course, that you remained academically eligible