Ten Exam-Taking Pitfalls to Avoid

by Paula A. Franzese on


Franzese 2

Paula A. Franzese

This excerpt is taken from Franzese’s new book, A Short & Happy Guide to Being a Law Student. She is a ten-time recipient of the Student Bar Association’s Professor of the Year Award.

Exam-taking is a skill that improves with time and practice. To enhance your performance, keep in mind the following tips, intended to help you to avoid common, easily-remedied mistakes.

1) Be sure to answer the call of the question.

The call of the question is what the exam is asking you to do with the given fact pattern. It typically appears at the bottom of the hypothetical, often in bold print. For example, you might be asked to “Determine Jane’s rights and remedies as against Jake.” Answer the question(s) asked. Do not answer questions that are not asked. Do not waste precious time on tangents. Often, a student will lose points simply because he or she overlooked part of the call of the question, and failed to respond to one or more of the points asked.

2) Be issue-inclusive.

Spot as many relevant issues as you can. For each issue presented, note the relevant facts as well as any countervailing or competing considerations. For example, on a Property exam, if you are analyzing a restriction on land as an easement, also consider whether that same restriction could or could not be construed as a real covenant, or perhaps an equitable servitude, or maybe a mere license.

3) Follow through and define relevant legal doctrine.

Be sure to articulate the elements of all relevant causes of action. Define pertinent doctrines or concepts. For example, if the exam presents a nuisance issue, in answering, first define the nuisance. There, you might begin by noting that “Jane should proceed against Jake for nuisance. Private nuisance is the substantial and unreasonable interference with another’s interest in land.” Proceed to apply the exam’s facts to the legal standard. You are being tested in considerable measure on your ability to apply salient legal doctrine to facts. Be sure to link your statement of the law, then, to the relevant facts presented. A helpful way to remember to do this is by resorting frequently to the word “here.” For example, “The elements of adverse possession doctrine require that the possessor’s use be continuous. Here, Jill’s possession was interrupted for six months.”

4) Organize your response.

Take time to outline and organize your answer. The use of headings can be very effective. Ultimately, the substance of your answer is far more important than its form. But a cogent, orderly, and organized format is a great plus. For that matter, if you handwrite your exam be sure to write legibly. To enhance overall readability, skip lines and write on every other page.

5) Do not restate the fact pattern.

Do not recount or summarize the fact pattern for its own sake. Your professor knows the fact pattern. He or she wrote it. Instead, be sure to apply the law to the facts presented. Selectively incorporate the relevant facts, connecting them to the applicable rule of law, theory and doctrine.

6) Do not present vague, run-on kitchen sink narratives of the law.

Unlike many college exams, you are not being asked to provide a treatise-like recitation of a whole body of doctrine or theory. Avoid any generalized discussion. You are being tested on your ability to spot the relevant issues and apply the law to the pertinent facts in an organized and concise manner.

7) Be a good lawyer.

As you sit down to take the exam, declare to yourself, “I am a good and wise lawyer.” A good lawyer must make value judgments, sift the relevant facts from the irrelevant, and respond ethically and professionally. Think about your most positive legal role model. It might be a particular judge or attorney whose work you admire. It could be a fictional character. Internalize that person or character’s best attributes and reflect those on the exam.

8) Do not surrender your common sense.

Think about and note the practical implications of the result that you are exploring. Make value judgments, such as “This is plaintiff’s weakest argument,” “This is the issue that most favors the defendant,” “I would not advance that cause of action because it is almost sure to fail,” “Initiating this claim is apt to burn bridges between the parties” and so on.

9) Budget your time and do not exceed the recommended time limit for each question.

This is perhaps most important of all. Carefully establish a time budget for each exam and honor that budget. You will be penalized for failure to get to a question. Force yourself to move on once the allotted time for a given question has run out.

10) Once the exam is over, let it go and move on.

Do not get weighed down by second-guessing yourself or doing post-mortems, particularly when you have another exam to prepare for.

Paula A. Franzese is the Peter W. Rodino Professor of Law at Seton Hall University. She was recently named one of the 26 best law professors in the United States in the book, What the Best Law Teachers Do (Harvard University Press). After earning her J.D. from the Columbia University School of Law, Franzese clerked for Justice Alan B. Handler of the New Jersey Supreme Court and served as a litigator with Cahill, Gordon, and Reindel.

To order a copy of A Short & Happy Guide to Being a Law Student, click here. All royalties from the sale of the book go to public interest law fellowships.

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