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Open Book Exams

For the most part, One L exams are closed book exams. Still, there may be a professor here or there in the One L year that allows for open book exams. Open book exams also appear more frequently in the second and third years.

Generally speaking, the distinction between open book and closed book exams is wildly overstated. The allure of having class notes or outlines in the exam is so intoxicating for many middling law students that they tend to greatly overestimate the value of having materials in an open book exam.  Open book exams are curved just like any other exam, but the confused One L somehow concludes that the open book exam he has in a couple days will be easier than the closed book exam he has next week.

And so what does he do? He relaxes about 20% in his exam prep in the days before the exam. “It’s OK,” he says to himself with confi dence. “After all, its an open book test” he thinks, like it is going to be a leisurely stroll in a fl ower garden.

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What Do I Do if I Totally Freak Out in an Exam?

Totally freaking out in an exam is possible for any of us. I took about 20 exams during law school, and I was well prepared for all of them. I am not given to any extraordinary levels of anxiety. Still, I had a minor completely-freak-out moment on one exam. 

Biomechanics tell us why.  Part of my legal practice involves the subject matter of how police officers deal with stress, and the impact that stress can have on their mental and physical performance. The science of this topic is established and well known. In short, as your body incurs stress, your heartbeat tends to rise. As your heartbeat rises, your mental and physical functionality decreases. If your heart beat spikes suddenly, you will have the standard symptoms associated with a panic attack.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Best Grade in the Class

In most law schools these days, you have the option of writing your exams in a blue book or typing them on a laptop that you bring to the exam. I strongly advise everyone that can type to type your exam answers rather than write them. If you can’t type, go take a typing class and learn how.  It’s more important than you might think.

Some of you that have taken law school exams probably have had the experience that I had in 1994, with my “Wills and Trusts” class exam. After walking out of that exam, I thought to myself: “That is the greatest exam performance I have ever had. I am going to book this exam.” Booking an exam is the term used for having the highest score in the class on the exam. I really thought I had. I knew the material backwards and forwards. I understood every question clearly, spotted every issue. I nailed the answers, both in information and form.

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What to Do Between Exams

Typically exam season is the last two weeks of the year, with exams scheduled each day. If there are five One L classes with exams, typically the exams are scheduled with one on every other day. For example, One L exams at many law schools are typically held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of the first week, and Monday and Wednesday, or Tuesday and Thursday of the second week. Upperclass exams are scheduled in no particular way.

There isn’t much time between One L exams, but once again, what you do with that time can give you a signifi cant advantage over the others in your class. About one-half your class is going to use that time to finish their outline for the class—which is way too long in the first place—and then just read it over and over until they run out of steam the night aft er the first exam, and the night before the next one.

Re-reading your outline isn’t a worthless thing to do, but it isn’t worth very much either. We don’t want to know the possible ways to use your limited time between exams. What we want is the best thing to do with that time.

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The First Thing to Do After Turning Over a Law School Exam

You are given four hours for your exam. Truth be told, you probably only need two of those hours to actually pound out your answer on paper.  Unless you have a sadist for a professor —and I suppose that is possible—you have plenty of time to answer your law school exam question. And I suggest you use it. Slow down, take your time, and use it all.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. If you are a “huge middle” student who has a habit of starting answering the exam before you finish reading it, it could very well be that you won’t have an extra hour or more than you need to answer the exam. You probably need five or six hours to finish the exam. Over and over again I remember taking my time, finishing an exam an hour early, and then listening to somebody going on and on about how they didn’t finish the test, and they can’t believe how the professor was such a jerk to put more on the exam than could be answered in four hours.

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Game Day: How NOT to Use the Time Given In an Exam

By now you know what I think about excelling in law school. It all comes down to getting an advantage in how you perform during that four hour period at that end of your semester that converts all your work in a class into a number you can never erase. That’s it. When it comes down to it: the only thing that matters is the exam.

As a result, I have given you a lot of advice about how to prepare for the exam. Smart outlining is one piece. Prior tests are a second important piece. Outlining prior test answers is the miracle drug. And if you implement all these exam preparation tactics I have given you, you will have a signifi cant advantage over the “huge middle” in your preparation for exams.

But what about game day itself? Are there things you need to think about with regard to the exam itself?

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Law Schools During Exams: Cuckoo’s Nest

Let me make a general statement about the environment of a law school during exam season. In a word? MADNESS. What do I mean? People become absolutely crazy during exam season. You’re a One L and you think you know what I mean by that because you have been through finals in college, right? You have no idea. People you know and love go absolutely bonkers during exam season in law school. Ever see that zombie movie 28 Days Later? It’s like that.

So, my first piece of advice? Stay away from the zombies. Don’t go to the law school to study for exams. During exam season, there is only one reason to go to law school: to take your exam and get the heck out of Dodge. Going to the law school library to study for exams is like going to a casino to start a personal savings plan.

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