How To Ace* Law School Exams (Or Any Other Exam Paper)

Hi! As of this writing, I am currently a final year student doing my degree in law in the UK. Over the past two years, I have been through some gruesome stuff, a major portion of it comes from studies.

How the law would be tested on is very different from what you have experienced prior to your university years. Different expectations are held on how you write your answers. So, even though you may give them an essay that might have gotten you an A* in A-Levels (college), you might only get a B or worse, a C in your first university assessment. How you found your way through A-Levels is probably not going to work entirely through uni if you plan to study law. That is just because the whole grading system works differently, examiners look out for different elements and what attracts or appeals to them are also completely different from what techniques you have already acquired and habitualized during your college years.

I should probably remind you that the advice I am giving, you need to take it with a grain of salt. I am no A student(as of now), but I can confidently tell you that I am definitely a Second-Upper (B+) in grades. I have gotten As with some of my work, most of them being coursework and written assessments. I am still trying to figure out what could be the final piece of the puzzle to push my grades to an A for actual timed examinations. Some of the advice here, probably works with other courses that examine on written work as well!

Edit: As of 2020, I have officially graduated ‘through Skype’ with a First-Class Honors in my law degree! Hard work and a little self-critiquing will pay off.

How my law exams work is that a quarter of the final marks solely come from coursework(independent research and writing on a specific topic or question) The rest of the three quarters come from written examination of 4 questions on a time limit of 3 hours.

Written exams are harder. Because the law is so bulky, it is hard to put everything you want to write down in such a limited time span. What you have studied and garnered throughout revision might deserve you an A, but there is a high chance you would not be able to put everything down in time so your work gets downgraded to a B+ or maybe a B if it doesn’t get on the markers’ good side.

I would not be touching on coursework. For most coursework, you would have plenty of time to dwell on how you want your work to be, thematically and ideally. If you cannot get an A for your coursework, it will be tougher for you to get an A in the actual exams. The two are correlated to an extent, you can tell by some measure of how much work someone generally puts in by looking at how well they did with their coursework. However, it matters not too much. I understand too that most subjects are solely assessed on written examinations.

Again, the law is bulky. It ranges from a wide range of topics, from the common to the obscure. It is hard to keep interest in everything you learn. There will definitely be some subjects where you feel like it is just a chore to get through.

That was me during Land Law. Personally, I am not keen in studying commercial areas of the law. I am much more of a social issues kind of guy. I love exploring human psychology and behavior, which is why I love Tort Law and Family Law so much. These two modules are heavily based on common sense reasoning and societal principles. It was easier for me to understand, digest and debate on issues center to these topics.

But I had to get a good grade for Land Law, no matter how dry or a bore the subject could be. Little did I know, the subject had more to offer than I thought. Land Law was all about social issues. I only realized that after a few months of intense reading. Covenants, constructive trust, proprietary estoppel… The connection of land agreements to social behavior and relations is not drawn automatically to you, it is for you to draw that line yourself. I ended up getting 2 points shy away from an A for Land Law and it was one of my highest scoring subjects of the year.

And that goes for any subject. Any module you choose in law is likely to be incredibly political as well. As much as Family Law is driven by familial morals and social responsibility, many of the policies are politically driven to advance some other motive or intention.

These lines and connections to issues you have heart to can help you love the law for what it is. But these connections rarely come on a spontaneous occasion or some eureka moment. Most of the time, they come from deep reading of various source material and analysis by many other knowledgeable academicians.

The hardest part is learning to love what you learn. Once you got that down, it is relatively easy to love any other module you are learning. Studying is not a stagnant process, it is fluid like water. Sometimes it’s a trickle, other times it streams like a rigorous flood. But once the tap is open, you always get water running no matter the circumstances. The key is to get the tap open, even if it means forcing yourself to like what you hate. Learning can only bring good, your most hated subject will redeem you soon enough if you give it some more time and effort.

Learn to Love, Love to Learn.

Problem questions present scenarios of people troubled with complicated legal issues, the questions would then look to you for advice on their best interest on what actions they could take and how they could advance them through legal terms.

You should never get philosophical with such questions. This is not the best time to start putting out existential questions in your answers to impress whoever is reading your script. Problem questions want solutions. You need to work through your answer with that mindset so that you do not steer off the right track. Always follow the history case law and legal precedent present itself.

Normally, there are multiple solutions. That does not necessarily mean the more you give, the better. In a sense, it kind of means that you at least have the law in some grasp and that you most likely put in quite an effort to studying. But the examiners are not looking for you to merely spit out solutions to a problem. Of all the solutions you have provided, one of them has to be better than the others. It is your job to elaborate why this is so. Some of these answers are also incredibly subjective to taste: what one thinks is the best might not be what the other thinks as well. Again, it is your job to make yourself sound convincing. Why should we rely on this statute provision instead of that one? Why don’t we rely on equity to help us? Do you think the claimant can be reasonably satisfied with the compensation predicted from this path of solution? Asking questions is the key to answering questions well.

Remember, your job is not solely to provide the best solution. You have to do more than that. Let’s say in a real-life scenario, your client does not want to go with the first option you suggested. You have to come up with Plan B. If things do not go to plan, then plan C. Maybe even D if something came up and so on… There are usually multiple solid resolutions to a legal issue imposed. However, it is unlikely that you will be able to write them all down and give decent details on it in time. Therefore, you have to choose.

You choose the ones you are most confident in giving the best compelling answer. Usually, the most compelling answers will also result in more thought out and developed scripts. Remember to look at both sides of the issue: in general, this is the respondent’s problem just as much as the claimant’s. Bust out why some arguments might fail, why some may succeed. Offer your personal opinion on it, and make the final claim. Justify every reason you impose on paper with a principle or existing case law.

But what makes an answer pop out, is the pacing and the development of it. This is something for you to figure out on your own. A well-drafted solution is well-paced, it offers elaborations at reasonable lengths and does not dwell on a particular legal sub-issue for too long. Such as skill can only come with a ton of practice in writing. These elements make or break an A grade.

Getting Scholarly with Essay Questions

Essay questions tend to be very open-ended, sparing a lot of space for creativity and innovation for students to formulate answers.

It is vital to not get your head too deep into the well in answering. But by all means, you should get your skull as deep as you can whenever you are studying and stop when you are revising. To be capable of answering essays, you need to be well-rounded with the issues encircling certain areas of the law. You build this circle of issues you are well-versed with, the arguments for and against. You widen this circle as much as you can but not too much to avoid getting things messed up or forgotten. You build a circle of info you are comfortable in basing your answers with.

There is this advice that goes around: do not go in the examination hall with a memorized essay answer in your head. That is somewhat true, but sometimes you need to start from a basic answer to an essay question akin to a blank template but extremely malleable in content. What you should do, at least, is to bring in your head with a free-flowing answer to an essay question which gives room for you to improvise with additional information. It would be better for you to go in without any rigid or firm answer to any question but you have to start from some foundation somewhere.

Similarly, the way you get better grades is by asking better questions and establishing answers to them. A lot of the times, students usually ask the same questions which they provide identical answers to. You want to avoid that if possible. Ask questions that invoke some conflicting thinking, maybe even instill some emotional feelings. With that said, there is probably going to be a ton of research and self-reflecting for you to be able to come up with such questioning ideas and opinions.

You want to avoid just copying some academician’s or judge’s stance on an issue without some great justification. If you really have to, ensure that your work is not plain replicating what another person feels on the issue. A very easy way to combat this is to introduce flaws to someone’s particular opinion or ideal. That way, it seems that you have analyze the person’s perspective instead of just regurgitating it out on your exam sheet. Another method is to introduce other viewpoints and make a comparative analysis between them. All these, help make your answer seem more genuine and mature. It feels more like your work than some student reciting the journals and textbooks they read.

Be wary, time is of the essence. You are most definitely not able to put down every great idea or discussion into your answer. It matters little if you have read plenty but cannot write half of it down in time. Yet again, practice makes perfect. Only by practicing constantly will you be able to formulate your words and thoughts in a concise and accurate manner. With essays, that is the heart of a good piece of writing. With such limited time, you can only offer such limited debates and interesting conversation. The primary objective is to be compact and precise. That can be tremendously difficult when it comes to certain areas of law, where everything is lengthy and almost unfinished in a sense. This is a skill that needs honing, which is why if you are practiced within an area of a specific topic, the words to conceptualize your thoughts would come to you naturally on the spot without extensive thinking and recalling.

This only applies if your lecturer marks your paper.

They say the law is what you make it to be, to your interpretation. What’s good could be better, what’s bad could be worst. While the law does remain objective in a lot of parts through many of the common law principles that reinstate how the law deals with a certain issue, many parts of it are up for debate.

As a law student, one of your main priorities is to get this division right. Some parts should remain untouched, some parts should be violently harassed at as much as you can. To pass exams, you have the responsibility as a law student to get the “objective” part of the law right.

But to ace it, you have to do the “subjective” part good justice too. Some lecturers favor certain arguments than others, so it is better to just offer them exactly what they like. For example, a lecturer might disagree with the idea of Brexit without a deal. It would be wise for you to approach any discussion with his/her view in mind, even favoring their view if you have to. If the lecturer likes to make fun of Boris Johnson and heavily criticized his antiques, you would not want to hold him in great light in your script if that was so.

Throughout classes and tutorials, lecturers tend to be quite vocal and explicit with how they feel around contentious legal issues. It is quite easy to catch on the stance they take on the law if you pay close enough attention. Sometimes, they offer both sides of the argument but one would usually stand out from the other. That is a hint to how they feel on the side of the issue. Go to them personally and ask them for more insight, they would give great explanation but more often than not it is usually from one small, tight window.

Don’t shy away from your professor. The more questions you ask, the better you are at getting to know their point of view.

But if you do plan to go against how your examiners feel, you must do substantial preparation for such a task. Make sure your arguments are planned thoroughly, points drafted meticulously, defense and justifications reasonable and almost considerate of the opposition. You should acknowledge the opposition’s view just as much as yours, even if you think one is superior than the other.

The law is magical in the sense that someone can write the same thing as the other but give off a different meaning and impression on the reader.

As a law student, you would be spending most of your time buried in books and journals. You should not be placing undue reliance on a single textbook, instead your reliance ought to be on a range of reading material. The same principal can be reiterated in different manners, collectively furnishing a more comprehensive understanding of the topic as a whole.

What is more mystical is that the law can be expressed in the same sentence with the exact words but the meaning behind it can be totally different because the contexts laid down are unalike. The more you read different materials, the stronger your grip on the subject in-hand.

The rest of the advice sticks out as more miscellaneous than actual exam/studying tricks.

I understand that in classes, some individuals stand out more than others, like the ones who regularly have a bunch of questions to ask after the lecture has ended. It is okay to feel a bit inferior to them in terms of intellect. Do not let their habits of questioning intimidate you. There is no such thing of measuring how smart you are based on how many questions you pose to your lecturer. Asking questions is no sort of way indicating a person is doing better than you in grades but it is only indicative of the effort they publicly show. If the lecturer answers the question in public to the whole lecture, it is just as much your win as it is theirs.

Other people will be working harder or just as hard as you, don’t get chipped. You are always the bar.

By the midway of your first year, you should at least have some idea of how your writing style is like and what your preferences are. For me, I always found myself gravitating towards journals and academic discussion rather than case judgements. Use that to your advantage. Establish an authentic writing style that is you. Without a doubt, your writing style is going to look similar to someone else’s, especially some author or academicians after reading their works on repeat. The trick is to make your style seem like you were inspired and influenced by these writers rather than imitating them so that it feels distinctive. Refine your writing style and work on improving it to make it distinguishing.

I always thought this was foreign to a lot of people but familiar to only a niche. And if it was not so, everybody would be excelling in exams. Getting good grades is one of the best feelings I have experienced so far in my life. And from what I have read online on psychology blogs and forums, such a feeling is apparently identical to “feel good” acts such as some ecstasy drugs and sex because the satisfaction and positive emotions from such an achievement activate the same part of the brain and releases similar chemoreceptors that make you feel proud of what you did. Doing great in grades is literally addictive. Once you have reached that point, the motivation to do good is always there. But beware, the fallout from achieving slightly worse grades can be extremely stressful and dangerous.

Other advice people usually give is to work constantly and do not cramp everything in the last minute. The term “constantly” is really up to you. Revising every 2 hours a day is also considered constant, but it is not necessarily enough and it depends person-to-person. What constitutes as enough is entirely up to you, it is a feeling you have to grab hold to when you found it. Or as I would say, there would never be enough when it comes to studying the law, but there is such thing as studying enough for the exams.

Read plenty and most importantly, practice a ton. Most people just read a lot, but they do not practice holding their pen to paper. I hope I was able to help out a few worried and confused students out there. Being raised from a strict family with intense academically focused motives, my mind is sort of wired to always try my best, especially in academics. I know there are many people out there who are born from such backgrounds, specifically the kids from conservative Asian families. You may face your very first academical defeat in a long time from your first law exams and the least I want you to do is to beat yourself up for it.

Growing up, I come to terms that the law exams are unforgiving and ruthless. You cannot get an A if you are “born smart”. All the people I have seen that have gotten As have put in relatively and considerably more work than others, spent significant portion of their free time working on their notes. For the first time ever, you actually have to work to get a grade you deserve. Most of all, enjoy what you learn, learning after all is a ton of fun!

Gentle, reflective, manic.