What’s the Point of Taking “Practice” Exams?

Blank screenIf you’re a law student, you’ve probably got a ton of people telling you to take practice exams. It’s critical! It’s important! You have to do it!

I happen to agree, but I think it’s helpful to consider why you’re doing it.

What’s the point?

Four Reasons Why Practice Exams Are Helpful

There are at least four reasons why practice exams need to be part of your law school exam preparation strategy:

1. You Need to Experience the Terror of the Blank Page

It’s one thing to think about taking a law school exam. It’s another thing to actually do it.

As Exhibit A, I offer my first law school exam — which I failed.

Luckily for me, my law school had an introductory class, which wasn’t graded and had its final exam in mid-October. I was a model student, even for this ungraded class. I went to every class, I did the reading, I took notes, and I even studied for the exam (trust me, this was a minority approach).

On exam day, I got the test, read through it, outlined an answer on some scratch paper, then went to grab a drink of water. All good. But when I came back to start writing, I froze. I had no idea where to start.

Panic set in. My carefully outlined answer suddenly made no sense to me.

I had no clue what to write, and just sat there for a few minutes with my mind whirling. At some point, I started typing, but it was total stream-of-consciousness. By the end, I felt okay (I had written a lot, after all!), and I wasn’t that concerned about passing. Everyone passed this class, right?!?

Well, not so much as it turns out. When I got word that I’d failed the exam, I was shocked. The professor sent my answer over with comments, and, reading over it, I could see why I’d failed. My answer made very little sense, wasn’t particularly responsive to the question, and failed to address the one point he’d told us repeatedly he wanted addressed. Oops.

It wasn’t because I didn’t know the material, it was because I panicked and wasn’t able to convey my knowledge.

The first few times you sit down to write a law school exam, I can pretty much guarantee some version of this story will happen to you. Figuring out how to start discussing a complicated legal problem isn’t easy, and it takes practice.

Make sure you practice on your “practice” exams, and not on the real thing!

(This experience also taught me a helpful exam strategy: always begin typing your answer before you take a bathroom break. It’s a lot easier to come back and pick up where you left off than it is to start from scratch.)

2. Practice Exams Teach You to See Patterns

On a more substantive level, taking multiple practice exams (arguably as many as can locate and have time for), teaches you to identify common patterns that recur over and over.

Take Civ Pro, for example. Unless your professor is a complete iconoclast, the final exam is going to cover jurisdiction. Once you’ve seen a few exam questions that touch on jurisdiction, you’ll be a lot better equipped to identify it when it shows up on your exam.

Frankly, there are only so many topics that can be tested in any law school exam, given that each course covers a closed universe of law. Once you’ve analyzed a handful of exams in a course, it should be fairly apparent what’s most likely to show up. These are the things you really need to know.

On the flip side, working on practice exams also teaches you less common, but easily tested, patterns that your professor likes to use.

For example, are you aware that you’re strictly liable if you own a wild animal that attacks someone? Yeah, I had no idea either, until I missed the issue on the first practice Torts exam I took. Having missed it once, I’ll never forget it. And, yes, it did show up on the final exam, despite having never been discussed in class.

While I’d argue it’s not worth cramming your brain full of every tiny exception-to-the-exception-to-the-exception that might arise on an exam, it is useful to make a mental note of weird details that you see on practice exams (particularly if the exams are from your professor). If it shows up once, there’s a decent chance it will show up again.

3. Practice Exams Teach You What Your Professor Wants

The single most important thing you can learn from a practice exam is what your professor considers a good answer. (If your professor didn’t give you any model answers, this sucks, and I’m sorry. If there’s any way you can get even one model answer, do it. Beg, borrow, steal, whatever. Particularly if you’re a 1L, it’s really unfair of your professor not to provide a model answer. You can tell him I said so.)

Assuming you have a model answer, pay attention to it!

Deconstruct it, for substantive content and for style. Are there headers? Are words underlined? How are paragraphs split up? How are issues addressed (IRAC, etc.)? What’s the tone?

All of these things are subtle, and some people would argue they make no difference. Maybe that’s true, but why not make a minimal effort to copy what your professor provided as a model? Obviously there’s something she likes about it!

Don’t go overboard here, but odds are your professor selected a model answer that struck him as a thoughtful, well-organized answer. The closer you can get to that ideal, the better.

Just remember: There’s no Platonic ideal of a “good answer” in law school. Whatever your professor considers “good” is good enough.

4. Practice Makes Perfect

Finally, the dirty little secret of law school exams is that you’re not really taught how to do well on them in law school.

Class is all about reading and analyzing cases, and the exam is all about applying your knowledge of legal doctrine to a set of new facts. These things are related, but very loosely.

If you don’t practice applying your legal knowledge to a set of facts, you’ll be sorry!

I know this sounds kind of schoolmarmish, but it’s true. Reading about the law and studying an outline are NOT the same thing as analyzing a set of facts and drawing legal conclusions.

Think about it. If I asked the average first-year law student going into a Torts exam to tell me the elements of battery, I’m sure 99% of them could do it. That’s not actually very hard. If, however, I had the same people read a really complicated set of facts about a cat burglar wearing a glove who knocked a vase onto the head of what he thought was a dog but was actually a person, and asked them if the invader was liable for battery, how many could answer with confidence? Only the ones who’d practiced applying their knowledge.

Law school exam taking is a new and different skill. It’s unlike what you’ve done before, and, to master it, you need practice.

Note that I didn’t say you need to be a legal genius, or even all that naturally gifted. It’s not magic — it’s a skill. You can learn skills, and you can learn to take exams.

But you’ve got to practice. Learning by doing is more effective than just reading.

Ultimately, you have to learn to apply your knowledge, not just possess it.

So get started on those practice exams!

Read On:

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