Exam Preparation: Golden rules of exam taking

(This information was taken from Saint Louis University School of Law Academic Success website)
(Based upon material created by Kris Song and presented by Prof. Kris Knaplund during the summer 2002 LSAC AATW conference)


  1. Argue from the Facts: This is the most important rule. Professors spend lots of time placing key facts into the exam problem – make sure you incorporate them into your answer! Make sure there is an application of facts in any answer you write.

  2. Answer the Call of the Question: If the question asks you to be a judge – answer the question as a judge would – more objectively examining both sides of the argument and coming to a decision consistent with the law that you learned in that class. If you are asked to be a lawyer, your conclusions should be in the form of advice. If the question is a policy type question, you need to (generally) factor in economics, social, practical, equitable consequences of any legal course of action.

  3. Say "Because": The use of "because" will insure that you explain the rules and relevant issues. Remember, most professors assume you will know the black letter law – it's the "because" that demonstrates to them that you understand the concept and can explain why that rule or concept applies under this set of circumstances.

  4. Watch Your Time: The best answer on question #1 doesn't make up for the last question that you didn't answer. Even if you got all the points for the first question (and second and third), it takes a lot to make up zero points on the last issue. Just remember that whether the allotted time is reasonable or not – you must answer each essay question. So, note the exact time that you need to begin a new question – and do it!

  5. Divide up the Issues and the Cast of Characters: The best way to guarantee that you have answered the question asked on the exam is to divide up the issues and the various people involved. You need to divide and conquer in order to succeed. Don't analyze two different issues or apply the law to two people in divergent factual situations in the same paragraph. Instead, spend 1/3 or 1/4 of your time framing the issues into a quick outline before you begin writing. Use headings for each new issue and separately analyze each character's legal status. This will help maximize organization – and points!

Four Common Errors in Exam Taking

  1. The Teaser: The student spots issues, but not much more. For example, they might write: "Consideration is an issue because there seems to be a bargained for exchange between the parties. Because there is a bargain here, the contract does not fail for lack of consideration." All this does is note an issue – and a possible outcome. There is no explanation of why or how the facts fit in this case. So, to avoid this problem, the life lesson is to go back to the facts and apply the law to those facts. Say "because.”

  2. The Dead Cow Beater: Hurray – you spotted an issue! But don't make the mistake of talking about it way past the time allotment – or the worth of the issue. But while the temptation to use every case, restatement and policy argument is great, once you nailed it, move on! Remember you only get a limited amount of points per issue, and an extensive discussion of one issue will not help you once you have completed a reasonable analysis. Students are most apt to fall into this pitfall when they want to be comprehensive. While you might pick up a few more points by overly enthusiastic analysis, you will also lose a lot more points because you won't get to the rest of the question (or exam). So, to avoid this problem – watch your time!

  3. The Scramble: Organization goes a long way in getting points on your exam. Remember, professors are used to reading legal documents and court decisions that tend to deal with one issue at a time. Students, particularly nervous ones, tend to start writing without organizing what they are writing. They try and shot gun every issue they see and put all they know into the blue book. The result is a mush of analysis. In that situation, the student is left hoping that the professor will see the correct analysis in line to a given issue. If you find yourself claiming that your analysis should have been given points because "I said that here," you are probably a scrambler. So, to avoid this problem – spend 1/3 or 1/4 of your time framing the issues into a quick outline before you begin writing. Organization will help you get more points from your analysis.

  4. The Glorified Outline: This error tends to occur when you have an open book exam. While it is great that you don't need to memorize every statute or restatement, there is a risk that you will become too dependent upon your outline and other notes. Do not copy your outline into the exam! Remember what the purpose of an exam is: to determine if you know the law well enough to answer specific issues found within the question. If you solely rely upon prepared discussions of the law, you will fail to consider the facts in the question. So, to avoid this problem, argue from the facts. An outline can be very helpful for the exam, but you have to remember to argue from the facts and apply the law to those facts.