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The Beauty of Prior Exams

Working with old exams is the starting place for passing everyone else up on the curve. My guess is that only 20% of your competition will do anything with past exams, let alone what I am going to recommend.

Remember, I told you to stop reading your case books with four or six weeks left before exams. The reason is that you need plenty of time and focus to do the outlines, memorize them cold, and then you should engage step two of Ninja exam prep. In step two you use as many past tests as you can find on the particular exam you are taking to go on the offensive and master how your professor tests the topics of the law in his class.

For some wonderful but unknown reason, law schools typically put together exam questions from prior years for almost every law school class. These exams are probably bound and put on reserve in your library.  With apologies to the U.S. Supreme Court Reporter, these volumes of exams are the most important set of books in the library. Get up from your laptop and find them right now.

After all, think about what is found in this treasure trove. Your professors have probably taught their subject matter for several years now. Here’s another secret: there is probably no substantial difference between their second year of teaching that class and the class you are taking now.  In truth, the basic foundations of the law of contracts or torts or property haven’t really changed in 50 or 75 years, and so there is no need to change a course about those foundations from year to year. Frankly, it is also true that law professors are like anyone else, and once a law professor fi nds a comfortable groove for teaching a class, he or she is unlikely to move out of it.

So, when they come to class every day and identify the important parts of the law for you, you can bet they have covered the same material about 10 or 15 times before. And if that is the case, let me ask you: How different do you predict their exams are going to be from year to year? Sure, the exams are not going to be identical to a prior years exam—although I once had one that was—but they are going to be very similar. The same subject matter will be covered. The same kinds of questions will be asked and the same kinds of answers will be called for.

Do you see the power in this? You have the opportunity to look straight into the mind of the professor who is drafting your exam, by reviewing how he or she drafted your exam seven or eight times in the past. I don’t care how creative that professor might be, but after a few years of exams, they are going to run out of tricks. Every exam will be a litt le different, but they are going to be repeating a surprisingly small number of themes.

You have memorized a topic list cold from your outline. The past exams are going to show you exactly how your professors formulate fact patterns and questions to test people on each topic of law covered on your outline.

It’s a miracle!

Think about another aspect of how these past tests can help you. Have you ever read a law school exam question?  Law school exams are not exactly fill in the blanks. No. The typical law school test question is a fact pattern which tells the story of some fictional situation. The fact patterns are famously crazy, with multiple heroes and villains, endless twists and turns, tunnels that lead no where, and ghosts in the corners. Law professors lead boring lives, some of them; writing exam fact patterns might be the most fun they have all year. 

I keep telling you that the only thing that matters for law school grades is how you perform when you sit down and write out your exam. How you pull that off means everything. Now let me ask you a simple question.  If the first time you ever saw the one question that was going to test your understanding of the law of negligence was when the clock started running and you turned over the exam to see this question—how do you think you would do?

This fact pattern tests about eight different torts doctrines all at once. How would you do against a person that has the exact same knowledge as you, but who has also studied every example of how your professor tests the law of negligence in his old exams?

Let me tell you how you would compare. You would end up in the middle of the class, and he will end up on the money side of the curve. Why? Not because he knows more than you. He doesn’t. It’s because he knows how to handle that four hour period of time called “the exam” far better than you.  It’s not even a fair fight.

One Comment

  1. Thomas Allred
    Posted November 16, 2010 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Love your blog. I went to the local Barnes&Nobles to find your book, and they said they are waiting for a reprinting. In other words, no luck. Is there another place to order it? Thanks in advance.

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