Taking a Law School Essay Exam

Of course every professor is different, and each class is different too, but there is some general advice that students have found helpful in most essay exam situations.

What To Do First?

  • Read the directions carefully.
  • Count the pages of your exam to ensure you have them all.
  • Review the point allocation for each question and budget your time accordingly. Some professors will give suggested time allocations. Stick to your time budget; you don't want to lose points because you didn't finish the exam.
  • Consider doing a quick "data dump." Some students memorize a brief checklist of issues and immediately write this checklist on scratch paper when the proctor starts the exam. Spend no more than a few minutes doing this – it's just a reference tool for you.
  • Remain calm. If you find yourself becoming tense, stop, take a deep breath, and re-focus yourself.

Attacking the Questions—Before You Start Writing

  • Read the call of the question first. Are you writing a memo? Do you represent a particular party? Are you writing a judicial opinion? Are you looking for all the torts in the fact pattern, or just the torts of A versus B?
  • Read the fact pattern once to get an overview.
  • Read the facts again slowly, highlighting key facts and issue spotting. Consider a third reading if time permits.
  • Some issues will pop out at you (and everyone else). Get the easy points with the obvious issues, but watch for those underlying, less obvious issues—these will score you the extra points needed to get your test score above the mean.
  • Scrutinize the facts: most facts will have legal significance. If you remove a fact, how does it change your analysis? If it changes things, then it's an important fact.
  • Rank your issues by importance and plan to spend the most time fleshing out the more important issues. (The more important issues usually have more facts associated with them.)
  • On scratch paper, briefly outline your answer: identify the issues and how you plan to address them.
  • Spend time preparing to write: for a one hour question, spend about 15 minutes analyzing the issues and outlining (planning) your answer.

You're Ready to Write!

  • Use headings to separate your issues or identify causes of action.
  • Use IRAC format (Issue, Rule, Analysis (application), and Conclusion). Focus on the analysis section—that's where the points are. (A few professors do not like the IRAC approach, at least in its obvious form. Always be alert to what your professor likes.)
  • Apply the law you learned in class to the facts of the fact pattern. Break the rule into its elements and discuss the relevant facts under each element.
  • Think of your reader as an intelligent lay person. Of course, your professor knows the rule; but your imaginary reader does not. You need to present the rule and its elements.
  • As a general rule, attack the issues in the order in which they appear in the fact pattern.
  • Argue both sides of the main issues. You can use the argument/counter-argument format. "X will argue….However, Y will argue…"
  • Remember those pre-prepared arguments you memorized; use all that are applicable under the facts.

Writing Tips

  • Be concise. You don't have the time to be flowery or wordy: Stay focused.
  • If the professor permits, write on every other page and every other line, especially if your handwriting is poor. Your answer will be more legible, and you will have room to fit in any extras that you think of after you've written your answer.
  • Stay in the role assigned by the call of the question.
  • Write in the third person.
  • You won't make points with conclusory statements. The word "because" is your friend! Avoid being conclusory by forcing yourself to write "because" after your statements. Example: "Defendant breached his duty of reasonable care to plaintiff because he failed to post warning signs of the danger."
  • Be organized to the extent you can be. Use headings to signal you are taking up a new issue.
  • Use the professor's buzz words and phrases.

What Should I do If I'm Running Out of Time?

  • If it's 5 to 7 minutes before the end of the exam and it's clear you're not going to finish your essay, stop writing. Finish your essay by outlining the remaining issues. If you have time, add some meat to the outline so the professor can see you recognized the issues, but didn't have time to write. You may get partial credit.
  • It's far better to allocate your time wisely in the first place.

The "Race Horse" Exam

  • In a race horse exam, issues will be coming out of the woodwork, and there is no possible way you can address them all in the time allotted.
  • Quickly list the issues you spotted and identify the "big fish" issues. Outline how you will attack those issues.
  • Address the "big fish" issues first, then the lesser issues.
  • Consider spending the last few minutes of the exam outlining the issues you spotted but didn't have time to address.
  • If the exam has more than one essay, be disciplined and stick to your time budget. The temptation will be to continue writing on the first essay until you have addressed all issues. DON'T DO IT! Any extra time spent on the first essay is time stolen from your second essay.
  • Remember, everyone is as crunched for time as you are. Remain calm and don't let the time crunch freak you out. You don't have time to freak out.

The "Thinker" Exam

  • In a thinker exam, the way to answer the question may not be obvious, and you will need to think about the answer for a longer time. Sometimes these are policy-related questions to which there is no real "right" answer.
  • Generally (not always), thinker exams will not involve a time crunch, and you will have plenty of time to formulate an answer.
  • Spend extra time outlining an answer for a thinker exam.
  • Often the question will require you to take analysis done in class to the next level or explore the policy arguments.
  • Don't let the fact that the answer doesn't jump out at you freak you out. The answer isn't jumping out at anyone.

Exam Don'ts

  • Don't lose touch with your common sense;
  • Don't write introductory paragraphs, at least on horse race questions (there's no time);
  • Don't make up your own facts;
  • Don't discuss law not raised by the facts;
  • Don't make jokes (unless you are very sure your professor shares your sense of humor!);
  • Don't identify yourself;
  • Don't use the first person ("I think plaintiff will win");
  • Don't leave the exam early. If you have extra time, re-read the fact pattern to see if you missed any issues. You may be surprised.


Please visit Academic Success & Bar Programs in Warren Hall room 206, call (619) 260-4793 or email lawacademicsuccess@sandiego.edu.


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