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How to improve second semester grades: Leveraging your first semester to fuel success

Second-Semester Grades

It is the beginning of the 1L second semester, and by this time, you have probably received your first semester grades. If it didn’t go exactly as planned, you may be wondering how you’re going to survive the rest of law school. You may have worked harder than you have ever worked before—applying yourself in ways that would have guaranteed top grades in previous experiences. Viewing those first semester grades on the screen may have been a crushing blow.

If your thoughts are falling into a downward spiral of negativity—“I’m a lousy law student,” “I don’t belong,” “I’m doomed to fail, “No one is ever going to hire me.”—it’s important to stop this self-defeating parade of horribles in its tracks. How?

  • First, recognize that these feelings are just thoughts, not reality. Ask yourself, “Is this catastrophic thought real right now?” “Am I really doomed to be a terrible lawyer?”
  • Second, put it into perspective. You just started your law school journey. You’ve been thrown into a rigorous curriculum, a new style of writing, and the Socratic Method. You’ve taken exams that were unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. Plus, you’ve been up against a very tough grading curve where few A’s are given.
  • Third, take action. Focus your energies on what you can do now to move forward.

If you’ve made the decision to do what it takes to improve, you’ll have to devote sufficient time learning about what went wrong, developing a strategy, and putting in the extra effort. Most importantly, you’ll need to be humble. When we’re honest about our setbacks and disappointments, they can be rich opportunities for growth. If your grades are less than what you expected, remember they’re not necessarily an indication of poor ability or lack of intelligence. A disappointing grade can let us know that our current approach isn’t working and that it’s time to try something else. With that said, let’s unpack the ways you can learn from your first semester mistakes, so that you can bounce back and attack this semester.

You can download the slides from the presentation as well.

1. Review your prior semester’s exam performance

The first thing you should do is review your exam answers and obtain feedback from your professors. I wish I would have done this when I was in law school many years ago. I would have swallowed my pride and taken advantage of this incredibly effective learning tool. I know this may be hard to do because, let’s face it, some law professors can be intimidating! They can also be another reminder of your lost-confidence and disappointing grades. To avoid those negative feelings, you may be tempted to skip it altogether. But, don’t miss the opportunity. Remember, communicating with students is part of their job. It helps them become better teachers. Plus, professors really do want their students to succeed.

So, here’s my recommendation. Ask for a copy of your actual exam answer and review it critically—paying close attention to any comments. Try to determine where you lost points and identify any problems. If your professor provides a sample answer or grading rubric, carefully review that as well, and compare it against your exam response to identify any differences.

Then, make an appointment with your professor to discuss your exam answers. Prepare for that meeting to get the most of it. Make a list of specific questions and observations, and send them to your professor along with a copy of your exam answer (if available).

During the meeting, be sure to listen to your professor with an open mind. Remember, the purpose of the meeting is not to make you feel bad, but to help you better prepare for future exams. This isn’t the time to argue, get defensive, or challenge your grade. So, make sure your attitude is in the right place. This is a great opportunity to get very specific feedback.

As you diagnose your problem areas, look for common patterns or trends. As a starting point, the questions below may help you reveal areas for improvement.

  • Did I spot all of the issues?
  • Did I discuss the issues in a logical order? Did I know how and when one issue would relate to another issue?
  • Did I accurately state the rule being applied to the issue? Was my knowledge of the law lacking?
  • Did I state the relevant facts?
  • Did I explain how the rule applies to the relevant facts? Did I simply re-state the facts from the question or did I use the facts and the rule to make an argument?
  • Did I provide a complete analysis? Did I argue both sides of the issue?
  • Did I spend too much time (or too little) time on a particular question or issue?
  • Did I devote too much space to introductory or general observations? Did I spend too much time reviewing (or restating) the facts without using those facts in my analysis?
  • Did I answer the call of the question? Did I understand the call of the question?
  • Did I organize my exam answer so that it was easy for my professor to read and follow?

2. Reflect on your prior semester’s learning

Once you have confirmed your problem areas, take some time to reflect on your past semester’s work. You may be inclined to tell yourself to work harder next semester. But, working hard is not enough in law school—everyone works hard. You need to put forth the effort with strategy to improve. This starts with taking a hard and honest look at your study habits from first semester. Reflecting and taking an inventory of your learning from the prior semester will help hone your study routine going forward. When doing so, consider the following:

  • Managing time. Did you manage your time effectively? Did you start studying early in the semester or did you put it off? Did you outline as you go or did you wait towards the end of the semester?
  • Preparing for class. Did you read your cases or assigned materials passively? Or did you read them actively with a critical eye?
  • During class. Were you engaged in class? Did you participate in class discussion? Did you take verbatim notes in class or did you take selective notes—jotting down only the pertinent points?
  • After class. Did you review your notes after class and fill any knowledge gaps to your outlines? If you were confused by anything discussed in class, did you refine your understanding promptly by consulting a study aid, or asking your professor, teaching assistant, or study group?
  • Studying with others. If you had a study group, was it productive and a good use of your time? If not, will you reconsider that arrangement next semester? Do you think you’ll work more effectively alone or with a “study buddy”?
  • Using commercial study aids. Did you use study aids as a crutch or did you use them to help compare your grasp of the concepts?
  • Outlining. Was your outline riddled with case facts and unnecessary information, or was it a customized and usable study tool to help you prepare for exams?
  • Testing yourself. Did you test your knowledge by working through hypotheticals and taking practice exams? Did you answer as many practice essay and multiple-choice questions you could find? (Note: I cannot stress how important it is to make this a regular habit throughout the semester. Memorizing the black letter law is not enough. Your professors expect this basic foundation. What they’re looking for is how you apply established rules to new facts. Thus, to be successful on exams, testing yourself and debriefing is the single best piece of advice.)
  • Talking to your professors. Did you meet with your professors? Did you ask questions to clarify and solidify the material? Did you ask your professors for helpful tips and information to improve your exam performance (and perhaps, obtain insight into possible exam questions)?
  • Law school resources. Did you take advantage of the resources (e.g., workshops, review sessions, etc.) offered by your school’s academic support programs? Did you meet with your law school’s teaching assistants for study strategies and guidance? Did you talk to upper-level peers who were successful in past years?

3. Develop an Action Plan

After reviewing and reflecting on your prior semester’s exams and work, the next step is to create an action plan for this semester. This may look differently for each student depending on his or her problem areas. However, what remains true for all students is the importance of managing your time. As a law student, your time and attention are valuable. And while you can’t stop time, you can take control of your schedule to increase productivity.

In a short video, I once asked a top student at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, Clare Lilek, what strategies helped her succeed her first year. Her answer resonated with me—she said her best strategy was to “treat law school like a job.”

What did she mean by this? It means she got a good night’s sleep, woke up at a reasonable time, worked throughout the day (e.g., attended classes, studied, read assignments, etc.), and stopped studying at a reasonable time each night. It means she didn’t procrastinate, cram, or pull all-nighters. When she was in “work-mode”, she studied with deliberate and focused attention. For example, if she had a couple of hours in between classes, she didn’t waste that valuable time to check e-mail, browse social media, or shop online. Since Clare knew she had an allotted amount of time for “work” each day, she had to make the most efficient and effective use of her time.

In sum, successful students don’t just work harder and longer, they work smarter. They gain insight from their professors; they attend review sessions; they ask questions; and they test themselves frequently with hypotheticals and practice exams. Understanding that time is limited, they do not wait until the end of the semester to reach out for help with concepts that are difficult to grasp. They take action as they move through the semester.

Last words of advice

If you still feel at a loss, get some help. Contrary to popular belief, the most successful students didn’t complete law school entirely on their own. They got help. Whether it’s reaching out to your law school’s academic support program, talking to an upper-class peer, or making an appointment with a counselor, know that help is out there.

And remember, one semester of bad grades does not define you. When I was practicing, not once did I have a client walk into my office and ask for my first-year torts grade. My hope is that you don’t waste all of your time and energy lamenting about last semester. Instead, I encourage you to put that energy into something positive—like figuring out where you went wrong and what you can do this semester to improve!

* Modified from “Evaluating Your Exam Answers.” University of Texas at Austin School of Law – Student Affairs Office.

Dawn Young Dawn K. Young is Director of the Academic Skills Program, Adjunct Professor, and Writing Specialist at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. In her role, Professor Young develops and implements the law school’s academic success program where she works closely with students in maximizing their learning and achievement in law school. She manages and supervises the law school’s teaching assistants for first year doctrinal courses and selected upper level courses. She also serves as the law school's writing specialist - providing students with strategies to improve their legal writing skills. Professor Young holds a B.A. in English from Boston University, J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law, and LL.M. from Boston University School of Law.