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I’ve been working on my administrative law outline for two days straight, and I am pausing to write this article and impart my knowledge as a weathered veteran of two and a half years of law school. While there are many cheap, snide things to be said about law school exams, in keeping with the conciliatory spirit of the season, a few actual study tips are in order. Of course, if you haven’t started studying by now, you’re [insert your favorite expletive ending in �ed here] anyway. My first year, I had a section mate who always wore a suit to exams. He got a lot of curious questions (and curiouser looks), but his answer was the best advice I can give to a law school exam novice: Respect the test. It’s important to make the distinction between respect and fear, which seems to be the prevailing approach to exam taking. Respecting the test means recognizing the importance of the exam and doing your best to prepare and perform. Fearing the test means flipping out in the library at 4 a.m. An ability to grasp this distinction goes a long way toward assuring law school success, because it is counterproductive to spend several weeks in utter terror of four different exams. So there it is — respect the test. I’d skip the dressing up part, however (unless you’re taking the Virginia bar exam, where they require men to wear suit and tie and women to look “purty and submissive”). There’s the delicate issue of outlining. I’m a big proponent of the process in general. Here’s the thing: The value of an outline is not so much the finished product as it is the process of making it. Thus, copying large chunks of other people’s outlines isn’t helpful. I don’t think working with other people on the outline is very helpful either. The learning comes in retyping things from your notes and READING as you go — whether you want to or not, you’ll be learning the material. If you’re a computer note taker (as I am), I would suggest NOT simply turning your class notes into an outline. Instead, kill a tree and print your notes and then outline from there. If you make a thoughtful, comprehensive outline, the bulk of your studying will be done. That said, don’t use your outline as a crutch — you actually should know the material so your exam time is not eaten up as you flip through your outline looking for relevant material. Even more delicate than outlining is the decision to participate in a study group. By now, you probably have already made such a decision, but finals is the time where study groups (and friendships) can be stressed and strained. You need to be in a study group with people who study similarly to you and who have the same goals and expectations as you do. If you’re an outliner and someone else in your group isn’t, your priorities and your attack methods are going to differ significantly and likely make you incompatible as study buddies. Likewise, if you’re a mellow studier, one of those people who doesn’t freak out during finals, and you’re in a study group with someone who does, you’re going to be annoyed and it’s not going to work. Especially if you have formed a study group with your friends, reassess your compatibility as a group before proceeding deep into finals; your success on exams depends on it, and indeed, a bad fit could have a poisonous effect on your friendships. One of the best methods of studying is to work old exams, but not until you’ve studied (otherwise, you’ll be left feeling unprepared before you need to feel that way). I am always amazed that there are people who go into exams with no sense of how the professor tests, no clue what she did in the past. Taking prior exams can have great benefits — my criminal procedure professor just recycled the same true/false questions on his exam year after year, so if you had studied past exams, you actually had the answers to his current exam. Putting aside the obvious critique of this method of testing, imagine my joy when I opened up the true/false section and I had studied the questions word for word! Practicing on old exams gives you a sense of what’s important to the professor and should really inform how you study in the days leading up to your exam. I think one of the best predictors of success in law school is an ability to weed out unimportant information. Everything you cover in class WILL NOT be on the exam, and part of studying is filtering out some of that information. If there’s one note in the book on a topic, it’s probably not going to be on the test. Even if it is, it’s probably not going to affect your grade enough to justify laboring over it for an extra two hours to pick up two more points on the exam. If you’ve ever taken economics, this is the concept of marginal utility. You could spend three more hours and improve your score two points — but at some point you have to decide, is it worth it?. There is a particular danger here because people tend to focus on the little insignificant details and neglect to learn the most important concepts of the class. If you want a good grade, spend the vast majority of your time focusing on the main concepts, on the broader themes. In torts, focus on duty, breach, causation and damage, not obscure details that don’t lend themselves to a greater understanding of the subject matter. I am constantly amazed in review sessions when someone asks a question about some random matter that got a passing mention in class. You can just tell that the professor is flabbergasted, and it may even be prefaced with a remark like “Well, I would never test you on that, but since you asked …” Finally, the most important thing to remember is that you cannot study 14 hours a day for 14 days and be productive. Take time out to relax and to step away, giving your brain some time to absorb what it’s learned and to clear out space for new learning. Afternoon matinees are a great way to do this, as is popping over to the mall to do a little Christmas shopping. This does not mean, as one of my former roommates apparently thought it did, that you pop off for a week’s vacation right before finals. It does mean that I have found myself to be much more productive, and therefore to have learned more, when I mix up studying and relaxation. This is most important the night before/day of an exam. I’m sure there are people out there who would disagree with this advice, but I always go to bed early on exam night and I try to stop studying by about 9:00 p.m., especially if it’s a morning exam. If you have an afternoon or evening exam, look over the materials, but don’t cram too much — it will serve primarily to stress you out, and that’s never a good state in which to take an exam. You can do well on law school exams, but part of my approach has been to view each exam not as the most important event in the history of the world ever, but to take a step back and realize that it’s just a test. Most people in law school are there because they did pretty well on tests as undergrads. It is true that most people have not had a test worth 100 percent of their grade that covers such unfamiliar material, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a test. Remember what served you well in undergrad, take a deep breath, apply it to law school, and you will do well. Chris Clayton is in his third year of law school.

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