My wrist starts hurting when I just think about it. In fact, I remember how after one of my first essay exams in law school, I went to a fast food establishment, ordered my food and dropped the entire tray on my way to the table. Quite embarrassing... but not as embarrassing as failing your essay test, so let’s get to business. Here is what professors and other stakeholders have to say on the subject of taking an essay exam.
- Start off by looking through the entire exam packet to determine how many questions you have and how much time you should allot to each question. Also, make sure no pages are missing.
- Start reading the problem at the end. Yes, that’s right, go directly to the call of the question, which usually appears at the end of the fact pattern. Your brain would like to know first what the context is for all that mumbo jumbo. Otherwise, if you read the facts first, you brain will start firing in all directions that may have nothing to do with the question. Harness that brain power by focusing it.
- Once you know the question, do the first cursory reading of the facts. Aim at general understanding but take note of the issues that jump out at you. High-light or circle the key phrases. Make notations of the legal concepts at issue on the margins.
- Read the fact pattern again, slowly. Look for more words that trigger issues or application of legal elements or test prongs.
- Scrutinize the facts: Why are they mentioned? What is their legal significance? You may score some extra points by spotting less obvious issues.
Now you are ready to plan your answer.
- Determine if you want to organize your answer by parties or causes of action.
- Make sure you address all the prima facie elements, counterarguments and defenses that apply.
- Make a brief outline using the IRAC or CRAC paradigms. Mnemonics can be very helpful here to save time.
- Make sure your answer is responsive to the question asked, that’s why the planning stage is so important.
- Use subheadings.
- State your issues.
- Use the right legal terminology when you state the applicable rule of law, its elements or prongs of a test.
- Discuss the elements in the logical order.
- Make sure you analyze how the law applies to the facts, not just write the conclusions. Professor Vernellia Randall has some good examples of how to distinguish analytical sentences from conclusions.
- Provide conclusions for the reader.
- Don’t repeat the facts, use them when you discuss how the law applies to the facts.
- Be objective. Address and evaluate all counterarguments and defenses.
- Be precise and concise.
- If the professor allows it, write on every other line and every other page. That will leave you more room to fit in any extra thoughts you may have later.
A few notes on time management
- Do NOT borrow time from another question to finish your argument. Say to yourself that you will come back to it if you have time at the end and move on.
- If there are 5 minutes left and you know you won’t finish writing your essay, outline the issues with whatever bits and pieces you have time to mention. It may give you some partial credit.
- Once it’s over, it’s over. Forget about it.
If you would like to listen to more advice and the discussion of common errors that students make, CALI Radio has Top Ten Tips for Successfully Writing a Law School Essay.