Dreading Finals? Profs Share Exam Tips

exam stressIf you’re a law student, the season to be jolly doesn’t really start until you’re done with finals. Having one exam determine your entire grade is no joke.
That’s why it’s important to steer clear of rumors and misinformation, whether it comes from well-intentioned classmates or the vast jungle that is the internet. Fortunately, on Wednesday (Dec. 4), the University of Virginia School of Law published exam tips from three of the examiners themselves: Professor Risa Goluboff, who’ll be teaching Constitutional Law to 1Ls this spring; Professor Kenneth Abraham, who teaches first-year Torts and Tort Theory; and Professor Albert Choi, who leads first-year Contracts. Below are a few of their most helpful tips.
No matter how busy you are with classes, jobs, and extracurricular activities, you presumably have free time once in a while—and you probably like to spend it doing something relaxing. For many people, that means hitting the bars, cuddling up to Netflix, hanging out with loved ones, indulging in whatever hobbies you’ve managed to keep up during law school, and so forth. For fewer people, that means reading the news.
Still, if you want to be truly ready for finals, you should pay attention to current events even if it seems like a hassle. Goluboff said she has written exam questions about Obamacare and the Trayvon Martin case. Choi said that when writing exams, his goal is to make long fact-pattern questions “as realistic as possible.” “I rely a lot on actual cases and real events that took place,” he explained.
If you know you’re unlikely to seek out the news yourself, you could always make The New York Times website your homepage. You could even make Google send you email alerts about law-related stories.
Knowledge of the facts is crucial, but it’s not enough to really hit a home run. Professors look for the ability to analyze and draw conclusions; in other words, they look for thorough, in-depth understanding. “Our students are all already such good students that they’re all capable of getting an A-plus on an exam that asks them to give back the information that they’ve been given in the course of a semester,” Abraham said. “So I just assume they’ll be able to do that well. Then I go on to something harder.”
You should also be prepared to apply your knowledge in unexpected ways. “I try to produce problems that will ask the students to use what they know and what they’ve learned in the course and apply it to a problem or issue that they’ve never encountered before,” Abraham added.
Still, 1Ls get a bit of a pass. At UVa, a first-year class is more likely to include simpler fact-based questions than an upper-division class. For example, the exam Choi gives his first-year Contracts students has one long question and 10 short-answer questions. By contrast, an exam he would give his upper-division students would have nothing but a single question, one requiring serious analysis.
If you have an open-book exam coming up, it might be tempting to prepare scrolls worthy of an ancient Egyptian tomb. But Choi and Goluboff give a few good reasons to resist the temptation.
Assuming you really know the material, preparing just two or three pages “will allow you to make those connections in writing your essay much faster,” Choi said. Plus, according to Goluboff, condensing a long outline into a few pages is a good study tactic in and of itself. She advises students to organize their cheat sheets by pinpointing themes from the course and deciding which cases fit under them.

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