You are given four hours for your exam. Truth be told, you probably only need two of those hours to actually pound out your answer on paper. Unless you have a sadist for a professor — and I suppose that is possible — you have plenty of time to answer your law school exam question. And I suggest you use it. Slow down, take your time, and use it all.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. If you are a “huge middle” student who has a habit of starting to answer the exam before you ?nish reading it, it could very well be that you won’t have an extra hour or more than you need to answer the exam. You probably need ?ve or six hours to ?nish the exam.
Over and over again I remember taking my time, ?nishing an exam an hour early, and then listening to somebody going on and on about how they didn’t ?nish the test, and they can’t believe how the professor was such a jerk to put more on the exam than could be answered in four hours.
Here is the antidote to the “huge middle” approach to exams: plan on using 25 to 33 per cent of your exam time getting comfortable with the exam and outlining your answer or answers. You know the material, trust that it will come out as you read the problem and spot the issues. It will. So, relax, and slowly read the question and then, only after reading through it once, begin the slow and careful process of outlining an answer on a separate piece of paper from your exam blue book or your laptop.
As you spot the issues in the fact pattern, your prior effort to memorize your outline cold and practise outlining answers now pays off in gold; the topics of your outline will systematically ?y to your mind as you write down each piece of the analysis you must address.
Once you have fully written out your outline, then go back through the problem slowly again to make sure that nothing is missing from your outline. Let me say it again: take your time. It’s going to be OK.
If nothing else, by the time you work through this process, whatever exam anxiety or leftover agitation from your neighbour furiously starting his scribblings will be gone. Your next step is simple: moving through your answer outline slowly, writing out your answer in IRAC format, deliberately working through the issues, rules, and application to the facts, one issue at a time.
The payoff from outlining your exams is twofold, at least. Outlining your exam answer provides you with a place where you work out all the organizational challenges the problem presents. If you take your time ordering the way that you address the issues you spot at the outlining stage, you will eliminate the mess that comes when you try to do this in your answer itself.
Secondly, outlining your answer and then working from the outline to write your answer has the valuable psychological effect of removing the uneasiness and pressure of “coming up with your answer as you go along.” Something about writing out an answer the ?rst time you think of it leaves you with the feeling, through the entire four hours of the exam, that you don’t know the answer until you have ?nished writing the whole thing out. This adds a level of needless anxiety to your pen or your typing for the entire time you are writing.
But when you outline ?rst, and take care in doing it, you spend your whole time writing with con?dence that you know the answer — there it is on the outline, after all — and your test-taking outlook makes a subtle shift away from “do I know the answer?” towards focusing on how to write out the answer you already know well. Your mindset somehow turns from just getting the answer down, to actually carefully crafting the answer.
A lot of people are going to have substantively the same answer to the question you have, because everyone that is in the big middle or better knows most of the law. The difference you are going to have is that your exam is going to be cleanly organized, and the writing is going to sing. It’s the difference between an average grade and one at the top.
Finally, you are probably going to have some time leftover after you are done. It may be hard to believe, but I don’t have strong opinions about what to do with this time. Some people re-read their answers to catch mistakes. That is probably a useful practice. If I had a lot of time I would sometimes rewrite my entire answer, if only to improve the handwriting, or add a helpful point here or there. If you are typing — as I am going to recommend — that won’t be an issue. With the laptop option, you should probably use the time to edit the writing, line by line, to make it as clear and direct as possible.
Gary Young is adjunct professor of law at the University of Nebraska College of Law. His book Law School Ninja is a no-nonsense strategy for how the ordinary student can beat the curve in law school. He can be found online at lawschoolninjabook.com and he tweets at @lawschoolsensei.