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December 04, 2007

Exam & Study Tips: To Stress or Not To Stress

By Erin Opperman

What is my number one recommendation for keeping sane as a 1L during finals? Hang out with 2Ls. They already have jobs, they don’t care… talk to them about where they are in the study process, and you will realize that you’re way more prepared than they are. At least momentarily it will make you feel like you’re ahead of the game. The scary thing about finals the first semester is that we don’t know what to expect, and like when you go around that first dark corner on the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland, nothing is worse than that big looming question of “what the fuck is gonna happen next?” But, if you don’t know any 2Ls, or the 2L you do know is one of the rare breed that is still a gunner after his first year, here are some tips for making it through the next few weeks without wanting to pound on Dean Z’s door and demand that she explain why she hates you so much as to have ever admitted you in the first place.


Stress feeds on stress, and it has been scientifically proven that the hormones released from the adrenal glands when you’re stressed inhibit the formation of new memories and the retrieval of old ones. So do your memories a favor and chill out. Have a beer, go for a run, or sleep in late and skip Contracts (just kidding, Professor White!). But in all seriousness, not stressing at all is impossible, and when I saw my very experienced, very together friend freak out the other day, I knew all bets were off. According to Professor William Miller, stress is useful, and giving yourself a false sense of security with those 100 page outlines is counter-productive. Prof. Miller says that has “always had my doubts about those crazed outlines about as long as the casebook. They seem to give people a sense of security, but a sense of security ain’t always the best thing to have -- it may undo the useful anxiety that prompts the adrenaline that you need to be firing on all cylinders in the exam.” So maybe a balanced approach works best. Don’t be arrogant and go into an exam thinking that because your professor gave you an affirming nod every time you spoke in class you’re on your way to a sure A, but at the same time, don’t think because you’re confused or haven’t done the 20 practice exams your classmates say they’ve done, you’re doomed.

Preparing for the Exam

With regard to the outlines, whether they’re useful or not, like everything else in law school, depends on the person. If you go that route, there are varying ways to create one. You can start from scratch, go through your briefs, class notes, or the different color highlights in your book and compile three months of information into a neat and understandable little (or not so little) outline. The upside of starting from scratch is that the act of creating the outline is the studying; by the time you finish you will probably remember, and hopefully understand, most of what you went over this past semester. The downside of starting from scratch is that not many (if any) of us have the enormous amount of time that it takes to outline. On the other hand, everyone knows at least one upperclass(wo)man who has had or knows someone who’s had your professors: email your FYI leader, who has hopefully been sending you “outline goodies,” and start from there. Professor Jill Horwitz says that with outlines, you should start broad and make them more concise as you understand more, and more than one 2L I spoke with said that what worked for them was taking a couple of outlines that they found helpful, compiling them, and then adding in their own notes. This in itself will also be studying and will hopefully leave you enough time to go over them again, along with any other supplements you may think are important. Once you refresh your memory, review your material, and realize you do understand what 2-207 says (ok, not what it says, but that it is the section you’re least likely to understand), you can go on to the next step: practice tests.

Every 2L and 3L I spoke with, along with the majority of the professors, say that practice tests are the most helpful study method. Law school exams aren’t about memorization and regurgitation; they are about understanding what your professor is looking for on the exam. According to Professor James White, every subject has limited issues and the same ones will repeat themselves on tests, so if there are tests available from the past four years, look at them! The best way to do this is by getting old exams from the UM Law Library website, upperclass(wo)men, or the professors themselves. Go over them with your classmates, specifically classmates who will bring a different perspective than you to the discussion. Professor White also says it isn’t what is on your outline you should pay attention to. It’s what comes up when you go over a practice exam that isn’t on the outline that you should write down. I should note, I have been advised several times that it is good to look at practice exams well in advance of the final -- both so you can ask your soon-to-disappear professor any questions you may have, and so you know what to focus on during review itself.

Taking the Exam

The critical task on exams is, given the facts in your ever-so-long hypothetical, to spot those elusive issues. Professor Christina Whitman says that “learning the arguments for and against ‘the rules’ [that apply to a given issue] is at least as important as learning the rules themselves. Then, when taking the exam, consider whether the facts or proposal before you can be used to show the force (or the irrelevance) of the arguments or the purposes served.” Both White and Whitman state that the first thing to do is to organize your answer. Whether you make notes, a short outline, or different patterns of circles and squares, have some idea of what you are going to say in your answer before you write so recklessly that you get lost in your labyrinth of the Model Penal Code. Both professors and upperclass(wo)men alike say to use concise but poignant topic sentences. Don’t just state what the rules are (the professor already knows -- and may have written them), but apply them to the facts in a way that shows your professor that you know what they mean. At the same time, use cases, statutes, and applicable codes to anchor your professor to your analysis.

Another important thing is to manage your time. Both small and large-scale time management is key during an exam. On each single question, consensus is, spend 30% of your total time organizing your answer before writing anything down. For the total exam, if professors have not given you suggested or firm time limits for each question (or groups of questions), then look through the exam briefly before you start and set your own time limits. The idea is to give yourself time to answer everything. Whitman says, “Leave enough time for the last question. Almost everyone cuts it short on that one, so it’s a good place to pick up points that distinguish you from your classmates. And it shows you have discipline!”

When it comes down to it, you’ll never have enough time to do everything you want to in preparation, nor write about everything you think of on an exam. A certain 3L I know shared a very encouraging story with me, explaining that on her very first law school final, she freaked out, only answered one essay question completely, and still passed. So, resolve to do your best, accept that grades may or may not reflect your understanding of the subject, and take solace in the fact that you go to an amazing law school. And really, unless you’re looking to succeed Dean Caminker, you will get the job you want anyways.