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Last-minute tips for how to excel on law school essay exams

Working on an Essay Exam

Knowing how to take a law school exam can be just as important as knowing the material that will be tested. Here are some last-minute study tips for essay exams in law school.

Our law school expert, Heather Buck from JD Advising, went over practice questions and a winning strategy for answering law school exams in a Virtual Office Hours presentation on November 11, 2021.

You can also download the slides from the presentation as a PDF. There is also a handout for you to download with a sample torts question.

These helpful tips are great for all class levels: whether you are preparing to take your first exam, or you are in your last year of law school and looking for a better method to take exams. Those in attendance will receive a handout to follow along with.

1. Thoroughly analyze the issues … but not the obvious ones

Do not write pages and pages on issues that should obviously turn out one way. Mention it but spend most of your time focusing on the important issues instead. If you spend too much time on the obvious issues, you will never get around to providing an adequate analysis on the important issues.

2. State the relevant rules of law … but do not state every rule of law that you know

It is true that you want to state all the applicable rules of law but there is a fine line between writing every rule of law you know and writing and analyzing the applicable rules of law.

A much better approach than writing every rule of law that you know would be to focus primarily on those rules that are most relevant to the facts. The former makes you look unfocused and may result in the professor having less confidence in your answer. The latter makes you look like a good lawyer that can zero in on the important issues.

3. Use facts to support your arguments … but do not restate or summarize all the facts at the beginning of your essay

It is true that you want to state specific facts when you are making arguments using the law or the facts. But summarizing a fact pattern that the grader is very familiar with (after all, he or she wrote it) will make them glaze over your answer and feel bored.

A better answer would begin by simply diving into the important issues. Note that you will probably not lose points for needlessly restating the facts, but you will waste valuable time (when every second counts!).

4. Use facts to support your arguments … but do not make up new facts and then discuss the facts you made up

While it is true that you want to make arguments using facts (and how they could be interpreted), you do not want to completely change the facts. Indeed, if you do so you’re answering your own question—not the professor’s question. A better answer might try to speculate on unknown facts.

Many students—even the best students—tend to do some of these things as a way of coping with anxiety or stress. If they are nervous or if they are unsure what the answer is (which is a good sign because it means they are spotting the important issues!) they will resort to, for example, only discussing obvious issues, changing the facts, or restating the facts.

Instead of falling into these time-consuming traps, focus on zeroing in on the important issues, applying the relevant law to the important facts and arriving at the conclusion that makes the most sense. Remember that many times there is no right answer. If you really don’t know the answer, you are probably on the right track.

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About Heather Buck

Heather graduated cum laude and in the top 10% of her class at Wayne State University Law School. She received numerous scholarships and awards at Wayne. Heather passed the Michigan and California Bar Exams. After law school, Heather spent about three years clerking for various judges at the Third Judicial Circuit of Michigan.

Heather teaches JD Advising’s Michigan Bar Exam, Uniform Bar Exam, and California Bar Exam courses. She also tutors private students for the bar exam, all first-year law school classes, and the MPRE.