How to Prepare For an Open-Book Exam

Open bookLaw school exam tutor extraordinaire Lee Faller Burgess of Amicus Tutoring is back with advice on preparing for an open-book law school exam. If you missed her post on preparing for a closed-book exam, check it out, too.

The Open-Book Test: A Primer

More and more law schools are offering the open-book exam. What does that typically mean?

There are various different versions — here are a few:

  • You are allowed to bring in your own notes and outlines.
  • You are allowed to bring in your own notes, outlines, and textbooks.
  • You are allowed to bring in your own notes, outlines, textbooks, and supplements.
  • You are allowed to bring in a one-page sheet with notes on it.

So basically depending on what form the exam is given, you are allowed to use some sort of reference material.

Sweet! Smooth Sailing. Right?

If you have one of these tests, you are likely thinking right now, “Yes! I don’t have to memorize all this material!”

Sorry, friend — you are wrong. And here is why.

On an open-book test — all the students have the law in front of them. How do you differentiate yourself?

How Can You Stand Out on an Open-Book Exam?

You’ve got several ways to stand out from the crowd on an open-book exam:

  • You must understand the rules better than the person sitting next to you. That means you have studied them and know how they apply. Make sure you are applying the correct law to the fact pattern.
  • You must know the attack plans and the best way to approach a given answer. Your answer should be clearly organized and written with confidence.
  • You must analyze better! If you didn’t spend weeks memorizing material, your professor is going to expect you to be able to make excellent arguments — because you spent all that study time practicing the application of the law. Right? Right.
  • You must work faster than the other students. And the best way to save time is — wait for it! — to not use your reference materials.

That’s right, my friends, the key to success on an open-book test is to not need to reference your notes. That is because you know the material so well, it is in your head!

Think of how long it takes to flip through an outline (I don’t care how many tabs you have). More time than it does to pull the rule out of your head.

Don’t waste time looking for material. Spend the time writing an “A” answer instead!

Even if you don’t memorize everything, aim to limit reference material.

For an open-book exam I used to take in two sheets of paper that had attack plans and notes on them and that opened like a “book” in my binder. No flipping. Just referencing. It made me feel more confident when I was writing my answer, but I didn’t waste any time flipping through the outline.

(Note from Alison: Great tip! Having everything visible at once can remind you of things you might be overlooking and serves as a great subconscious check.)

Are Open-Book and Closed-Book Exams Really That Different?

So, you might still be asking yourself, “What is the difference between an open-book and a closed-book exam?” The answer is — not much.

You need to KNOW the material to the best of your ability for either type of exam.

  • You need to know it so well that you don’t need to look at references.
  • You need to have practiced so much that you can consistently produce an outstanding analysis.

This is the same advice I give for a closed-book test.

Don’t let the promise of an open-book exam make you feel like the exam will be easy!

It is just as hard as any other exam (sometimes even harder!).

Prepare for it with the right mindset and you will do just fine.

— – —

Thanks, Lee!

If you’d like to learn more about Lee and get some of her general exam taking advice, check out the interview we did a while back: Nervous About 1L Exams? Get Advice from a Rock Star Tutor or take a look at Myths About Law School Exams. She’s also weighed in on what to do if you fail the bar exam.

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