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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.

Open book exams are different, to be sure. But they certainly are not easier. The same number of “A”s are given in these exams as are given in any other.

Still, open book exams are different, and a few words about the differences are called for.

First, and foremost: prepare for an open book exam exactly like I have told you to prepare for a closed book exam.  While the unwashed masses are slouching—even only a litt le—your exam prep is getting you ready to be the machine you are in the closed book exam. Your issue spotting is going to be stronger than the guy who doesn’t memorize his outline. If you have outlined answers to the exam, you are going to be much more savvy with the exam than almost everyone else in the exam.

Everyone else has the materials of the class at hand in the exam? Good. They relaxed their exam prep for that very reason. As a result, you are likely to have more of an advantage in an open book exam than a closed book exam, not less.

Should you do anything differently for an open book exam? A couple things make sense. First, if you are using a laptop and the exam rules permit it, you should pre-write all of the rules that you will need to know for the exam in a Microsoft Word® or other word processing file that you can cut and paste from easily in the exam. Put them all in one file and then use your “Find” command—for Word, it is “Control F”—to locate the particular rule you need quickly.

There is also the question about what to bring. Some things are obvious. You should bring your outline. Don’t use it unless you must, but bring it. Bring a pre-written outline of a stock answer, for reference as you outline your exam answers. Again, I would not use it unless I had to. Finally, bring your class notes— pre-tabbed for quick access to the major doctrines—but don’t plan on using them. Bring your case book as well.

But beware of the temptation of the open book exam. Understand that no matter what you bring into an open book exam, you should almost never use it. In short, the only time I would use any of the materials I brought to an open book exam is when the professor has surprised the class with an oddball question or series of questions that are meant to test obscure knowledge of some very specifi c matt er.

Once again, reviewing old exams is the key here to knowing how to prepare for open book exams. By studying the prior exams, you are going to learn what things you should prepare for the exam that might be particularly helpful, or not. You will also know whether your professor is likely to use an open book exam to throw curve balls at the class.

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