What Are Law School Exams Like? – JD Advising

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What Are Law School Exams Like?

One of the most frequently asked questions by students considering law school and/or starting law school is, “what are law school exams like?” This is a fair question because the answer, like most law-related questions, is that it depends! In this blog post, we provide an overview of what to expect on law school exams as well as how you can excel on exam day. For additional useful tips on how to approach final exams, read JD Advising’s post about how its founder earned A+’s on 55% of her law school courses!

What Are Law School Exams Like?

How are law school classes graded?

To fully understand law school, it is relevant to understand how law school courses are graded. Final exams are highly pertinent to your success in law school. Law school tends to be a completely different than what students might have experienced during their undergraduate years.  First, unlike undergraduate classes, many law school classes are graded exclusively based on the final exam. Oftentimes, there are no official homework assignments, no quizzes, no papers, and no mid-term examinations that factor into your grade. However, remember that this may vary, and some of your classes may have mid-terms, quizzes, participation points, and papers.

In the common situation where your grade is only based on your performance on the final exam, you will have to be extremely diligent in your studies because there is no other way to monitor your course progress.  For tips on how to stay accountable and best manage your time, read JD Advising’s discussion about five law school time management tips!

Final Exam Types

In-class Versus Take-Home Exams

Most exams are taken in the classroom. However, for some post-1L courses, professors may offer a take-home examination that the student will complete at home or somewhere else that allows you to focus, like a library.

Unsurprisingly, the location of the examination will often also impact the timetable for that exam.  In-class examinations are set for a specific date and time. However, take-home exams usually have a period of a few days during which the student must complete the examination. After 1L year, law students may find that they have a mix of traditional in-person exams and take-home exams. Balancing the locations of your exam will allow sufficient time for studying for all your classes. To this end, our recommendation is that you do not begin your take-home examinations at the last possible moment – you never know what else may land on your plate and impact your ability to complete the examination.

Question Formats

Law school examinations also vary widely with respect to the format of questions. Some examinations are completely one format.  These exams tend to be solely comprised of long essays, short essays, or multiple-choice questions.

However, as you might imagine, most exams are a mix of all of these formats (e.g., some short answers, a set of multiple-choice questions, and a few longer-form essays). Examinations with a variety of question formats are more flexible in that the student will likely have at least some type of question format for which they are most comfortable.

Closed-Book Versus Open-Book Exams

Law school final exams also vary in terms of whether you can use your notes or other class materials when completing the final exam. Some in-class exams will be open-book exams which might allow you to use a text book, class notes, or your outline when completing the exam.  Other exams are closed-book meaning you are relying solely on memory when taking the final exam.

Open-book exams may sound like the easier option, but that might not necessarily be the case. Unfortunately, many students fall into the trap of not preparing as thoroughly for open-book exams as they would for a closed-book exam. It’ll be easy because you can just look up the answer, right? Well…not exactly. Many times, open-book exams will have certain limitations. For example, students can only rely on their casebooks, students can bring in only one page of notes, or students cannot access the internet while taking the open-book exam on their laptops.

Additionally, there’s the limitation of actually finding the answer during the exam.  Just because you have access to your class notes doesn’t mean that you can spend the entire exam period searching for the correct answer.

You need to be just as prepared for an open-book exam as you are for a closed-book exam in order to secure that high score! This includes memorizing class material even though you have access to it during the exam. Without diligent work during the semester and without fully preparing for the exam, you are putting yourself at risk of drawing a blank during the examination. Like with most situations, control what you can control and study with equal effort for all exams whether they be open-book or closed-book.

How To Prepare For Law School Exams

Now that you have a general framework for what law school exams might entail, it is necessary to discuss the tried-and-true methods for successful preparation for a law school exam! Professors usually provide information on the format of law school exams on the syllabus for the class. Importantly, most professors will let you know what formats of questions to expect on the exam.  For additional tips, read JD Advising’s post on the Top 5 Tips to Prepare for Law School Exams.

Schedule

Time is a precious commodity in law school. Between studying, student groups, work, and family obligations, students can get so busy! This makes actively scheduling time to study important for law students. While most students are not already thinking about their exams on the first day of class, it is important to prepare a schedule.  This not only helps you keep up with classes, but you can also stay on top of creating and studying your outline. This includes planning to meet with professors or teaching assistants about questions you may have, working with your study group (if you have one!), and taking available practice exams.  Additionally, as law school final exams draw nearer, establishing a study schedule for all your exams to maximize your potential to do well is crucial!  For additional tips on how to put together a study schedule, check out our post on daily law school study schedules.

Practice Tests

Aside from outlining, what’s a great way to prepare for final exams?  Use your professor’s prior exams to practice! Sometimes professors make these readily available to students.  If your professor doesn’t make them available, sometimes law schools keep old exams on file in the library or other designated place.  By practicing with your professor’s former exams, you’ll have a better understanding of how your professor approaches material on the final exam.  This reduces the number of surprises on exam day!

Outline

Finally, we cannot end this section without discussing the power of outlining (and outlining early!). Students really should begin outlining at the beginning of the semester as opposed to starting during the final exam reading period.  After each class, try to designate time to go through your class notes and update your outline.

How do you outline? You take your class syllabus and review it against the table of contents of the textbook you are using for the class. This approach essentially creates the bare-bones outline, which you will fill in over time as your class works its way through the syllabus.

We cannot emphasize enough how actively outlining throughout the semester is key to succeeding on law school exams.  Unfortunately, many students do not begin to prepare an outline until the last few days before the exam.  Instead of memorizing their outlines leading up to final exams, they are still creating them! Preparing your outline, learning the concepts on that outline, and taking practice examinations are interrelated practices that successful law students maintain.

Memorize in Law School, Good Grades In Law School

What to Expect on Exam Day

Are Law School Exams Hard?

The short answer is yes!  Law school exams are academically rigorous, which means that they do feel hard when students are completing them. Because a law school final exam typically encompasses a whole semester’s worth of cases and concepts, law school exams require that students be thoroughly prepared on exam day.

Also, most law school final exams for 1L classes operate on a grading curve. The curve means that a few students receive A’s while most students receive B’s and C’s on the final exam. This can be a difficult reality of law school for many law students, most of whom did well on the LSAT and did well in their undergraduate education. Students can’t control the curve or how well their peers do on the final exam. But students should control what they can control – how attentive they are in class, how consistently they outline, how much they study, how often they attend the professor’s or teaching assistant’s office hours for help, and their mindset.

Midterm exams tend to be very similar to the final exam. Some classes have a midterm exam, but they often make up a smaller portion of a student’s final grade. Regardless, we recommend that you take the midterm just as seriously as the final exam. For a deeper dive, read JD Advising’s discussion about how to study for law school midterms!

Are Law School Exams Written Or Typed?

Typically both options are available, but it’s important to check with your professor so you know for sure.  We recommend that law students type their exams because typing offers students more options! For example, typing usually allows you to reorganize your answers. If you start typing an answer, but halfway through, you realize that a different order of the paragraphs you just wrote is more coherent, you can move those paragraphs around. Additionally, typing your exam means that everything is legible – which is important for earning all the points you can!

However, there are two caveats. First, some law professors require that students handwrite their exams. Second, most law schools require law students to download a specific program for the exam-taking process. Take care as you type your exam as these programs typically don’t have a spellcheck function.

Are Law School Exams Multiple-Choice?

Multiple choice components are becoming more popular with law school examinations! Whereas law school examinations have historically been essay-only, law schools are adding more multiple-choice components to exams.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that multiple-choice questions on an exam make for an easier exam.  Those questions are typically designed to be tricky, and students can only excel by really knowing and understanding the course material.

Are Law School Exams Timed?

Usually, yes. If the examination is one you must take in class, there will be a time limit for the exam. However, if the exam is a take-home exam, there is typically a window where you can pick up and drop off the exam which serves as the timer.  However, having a time limit on a final exam is not always a bad thing. Law school is preparing you for the bar exam, and the bar exam has strict time limits on how long an examinee has to provide their answer. Think of timed law school exams as practice runs for the bar exam’s standards.

Can You Ask Your Professor Questions While Taking A Law School Exam?

Generally, no. There is usually a proctor administering the final exam.  Most students don’t even see their professor on exam day!  As such, that proctor will not know the answer to the technical questions a law student may want to ask. However, you can ask the proctor questions with respect to the testing program or technology issues. Sometimes professors administer a midterm or other non-final exam. While your professor may be able to address a technical question, students will find that professors will generally not provide substantive answers or even answer at all. These are examinations, after all!

However, law school exams are not impossible. Active learning and preparation can help you succeed on final exams. We recommend JD Advising’s free webinar about law school exams,  law school study aides, and a discussion of how to avoid panicking during exams. You can do this!

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