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by Sandra J. Ware, Esq. | March 10, 2009


Sandra J. Ware, Esq. is the author of Guerrilla Tactics for Law School Academic Success. She served on the law journal and was appointed as an Academic Success Tutor during law school. Ms. Ware currently practices law for an insurance defense firm in New Jersey.

While the first semester of law school is very trying, the second semester has its own challenges. Although by now most first-year law students are gaining confidence and have hopefully recovered from the shock of fall semester grades, law students frequently avoid the opportunity to learn from past exam mistakes. Some law students want to leave the past behind, others are too busy with new opportunities, such as joining campus organizations, or applying for summer employment, while others simply don't know where to start in analyzing their past exam performance. Regardless of the reason, it is important to revisit exam results to carefully analyze what went right and, more importantly, what went wrong. Thus, you need an action plan to help evaluate your fall semester exam performance. The suggestions below work well with mid-term exam results as well.

First, although it is certainly distressing to fail to achieve the success you hoped for in your exams, keep in mind that unless you are one of the fortunate few, the great majority of your classmates will feel the same way. If you do get what you consider to be a bad grade, don't go into denial or make excuses for yourself: no one cares if the professor had it out for you, or you took your exam while suffering from the flu. Unfortunately, that's life! However, if you decide to be proactive and learn from your mistakes, many benefits can be gained that will be helpful the next time you take exams.

Professors often offer an opportunity to review your exam answers or schedule a conference to discuss exam performance, so do not hesitate to take full advantage of this golden opportunity. Professors who hold these conferences usually encourage discussion of substantive matters as well as suggestions on how to improve your exam-taking abilities. Be prepared to discuss your exam results in an open-minded, non-defensive fashion. Often you will have access to your exam paper and an answer key ahead of time. Make sure you are as prepared for this appointment as reasonably possible. This is not a time to become argumentative and blame the professor for your problems, or cry on the professor's shoulder about how all of your personal crises affected your exam performance. The professor has heard it all before, and you will not earn sympathy points.

Should you schedule an exam conference if your only reason for meeting with the professor is to argue for a higher grade? The answer depends on your law school's policy for changing grades and whether or not you truly feel you have a legitimate concern. Most law schools make it extremely difficult to change an exam grade except in cases of grading errors. Many professors consider all grades as final. Still others allow students the opportunity to write a paper to demonstrate that they understand the material and will consider raising the student's grade if the paper is satisfactory. (Consider this opportunity a blessing from the law school gods and work your little tail off on that paper.) Some professors merely point out that they have not raised a grade in decades, and do not expect to do so in the future. If you do go to a conference with the intention of arguing for a higher grade, be prepared for the professor to give you an unequivocal 'no.' Use the exam conference as a way to gain meaningful feedback for purposes of your future exam performance and exit the conference gracefully!

Consider using a checklist in reviewing your exam answer. Using a checklist will assist you in determining what went wrong and how to fix it. Some suggestions for your checklist include: did you understand and follow instructions; did you understand the exam questions; were all major issues spotted and addressed in the exam answer; were irrelevant issues injected into the answer; were all the issues properly analyzed; and did you apply the law to the facts and argue both sides if necessary? During the meeting, do not be shy. Try to not only get the professor's opinion about your performance, but be very sure to understand and fully digest any constructive criticism before you leave the appointment. By the time the appointment is over, you should have a better understanding of where you went off course during your exam. Be sure to re-evaluate any notes from this session during your preparation for spring semester exams.~

If you feel you did absolutely everything you could have possibly done to prepare for the exam -- read and briefed every case, attended every class, avidly participated in study groups, and prepared the most incredible outline -- but you still didn't do as well as you expected on your exams, you will have to seriously consider changing your study plan for the second semester to improve your grades. If you need an objective opinion about last semester's study plan, turn to a friend or classmate performed better than you during the first semester. In addition, this is also a good time to consult with your law school to see if there are any services available to assist you in re-structuring your study program. Be prepared to listen to any criticism of you study techniques and be willing to eliminate those techniques that do not work.

If you did not do so during the fall semester, go back to the library and make copies of all the old exams for every class that you are taking during this semester. Old exams serve as a good guide as to what to expect during the semester and give you an idea of what the professor may consider important for the final. Throughout the semester, carefully review the exams and write out your answers to the questions.

Take some time to evaluate your state of mind as you attend class and while you are studying. Are you actively involved in the learning process or are you daydreaming or just going through the motions? Are you losing track of salient legal points in the middle of reading a case in your textbook? Did you attend all your classes and actively participate? Did your outlines have too much detail or too little detail? Once you've revamped your study methods, you will then need to consider reevaluating your time management.

In spite of good intentions, many law students slack off mid-semester and then scurry to catch up just weeks before final exams. Discipline yourself to stick to your schedule. Remind yourself that you have invested a substantial sum of money into your law school education. Is that bar crawl really worth avoiding a large assignment considering all the money you are spending on your education? Are your other activities compromising your law school grades? If so, it is time to take a look at whether the time frittered away on these activities is worth the toll this takes on your grades. Of course, it is important to set aside time for rest and relaxation, but do not ever forget the importance and need for preparing everyday up to exams. While not doing well on exams can be unsettling, remember that as long as you are willing to fix your shortcomings, you will be able to improve your overall law school performance.


Filed Under: Education|Grad School

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