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Study Aids, Strategies & Exam Prep: Exam Strategies

Print and online study aids for required and suggested 2L and 3L classes most of which are part of bar exam study.

Exam Database

Exam-Taking Guides

Exam Strategies

You've heard the old sayings: Fail to plan and plan to fail. If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up anywhere.


Those old sayings have a lot of relevance when it comes to law school exams. You need a plan to do well on law school exams. You just can't show up for the exam, read the questions, put pen to paper and expect to do well. Or at least, most students can't. You need a strategy.

You can develop your plan by focusing on three distinct areas--before the exam, during the exam and after the exam. The following are some strategies that you can apply to the process of taking a law school exam. Some of the strategies you applied in undergraduate school, some are common sense, but most concern the unique skills and approaches that you need to succeed in law school.

If your professor gives you any advice or instructions about how to prepare for or take her exam, follow those instructions over any strategies you might read here. This includes any suggestions on exam preparation, the questions you are directed to answer on the exam, and the way in which the professor wants those questions answered. See the following pages for more information

Exam Structure Workshop

Presented by Matt Carluzzo, Assistant Dean of Students and Academic Success

Tips for structuring and drafting a law school essay exam

Watch Video

Outlining Workshop

Presented by Matt Carluzzo, Assistant Dean of Students and Academic Success

Reviews the purpose of outlining, what an outline is (and is not), and the basics of how to start outlining.  

Watch Video

Preparing for Finals Workshop

Presented by Matt Carluzzo, Assistant Dean of Students and Academic Success

Watch Video

Tips & Recommendations for Take-Home Exams

A few reminders:

  • Keep outlining. Since you are free to consult your materials during the actual exam (if you need to!), you want to create materials that demonstrate a solid understanding of the course and capture how various sub-topics fit together.  
  • Study your outline. It can be tempting to think that once you've created your outline, you're basically prepared to take the final.  You have your outline right there to look up anything you need to, right?  Not exactly.  Of course, having access to materials at your fingertips allows for a great "safety net," but remember that your exams are still timed, and you definitely won’t have time to actually learn the law during your exam.  So, it's still important to study from your outline just as you would for a closed-book exam.
  • Remember to write out rule statements fully and completelyWhy? Because you know (or should know by now!) that you'll absolutely be expected to do so on exam day - especially on open book exams.  Converting bullet points or sentence fragments to complete and coherent sentences takes time, and that's not something you want to spend limited time and mental energy doing on exam day.  Write out those rules exactly as you will on exam day now, while you've got the time.     
  • Prioritize attack outlines. Think of questions to consider or steps required for a complete analysis of key sub-topics.  Supplemental resources (e.g. Gilbert Law Summaries, Emanuel CrunchTime) often include flow-charts or other sequential orders of questions/analysis that can add to your understanding of how to "attack" various substantive issues.  Dean Emerson sent a detailed message yesterday with a ton of useful information about electronic study aids/additional electronic resources provided by the library (the contents of which are attached for your reference).        
  • Make a condensed issue-spotting checklist.  You can't get credit for something you don't address on exam day.  Missing issues - especially major ones - is one of the most frustrating things that can happen on an exam.  While there's no way to guarantee that you won't miss an issue, creating a condensed outline (a single-page is a reasonable goal) of the topics covered (i.e. no rules, just topics) can be used as a safeguard before deciding that your exam is "finished."  A quick review of the checklist will allow you to ask, "Is there anything on this list that I haven't written about it my answer?"  If so - and especially if it's something you know is a big issue - you can then review the fact pattern to look more carefully for that specific issue.  Not every topic covered in class is tested on exams, but the ones that you spent the most time on typically are, and they are the ones that hurt most if you miss them.         
  • Keep practicing.  Usually the experience of making it through first semester exams eliminates the need to further convince law students that there is simply no substitute for taking and writing out practice questions and exams.  Put simply, it is the most valuable exam preparation there is.  


Physical and Emotional Health

It goes without saying, that you want to be in top form for your exams.

  • Don't cram until the last minute.
  • High mental anxiety can prevent you from achieving at your best, and it can also work its way out in your body in any range of physical ailments from headaches to backaches to stomachaches to colds.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Eat nourishing meals.
  • Exercise to keep your body and mind sharp.
  • If your mind starts to wander, and anxiety, worry and fear start filling up the places where sharp analysis and memory should be, reclaim your mind.

One of the best ways to calm yourself down and refocus your mind is to breathe deeply!

  • When we're stressed or worried, we stop breathing or we take shallow breaths.
  • Breathe deeply for 10 minutes, focusing on every breath in and out.
  • After 10 minutes, you'll feel some of the benefits of a more relaxed body and mind.
  • After about 20 minutes, your blood pressure and heart rate will be regulated, energy-building endorphins will flow into your system, your mind will clear up, and your recall will improve.

Even given the above, sometimes you get sick. If a serious illness prevents you from taking or arises during an exam, check the student handbook for what you should do.


Adapted and revised from  presentations by Professor Ruth Gordon, Professor Leonard Packel, and Sheilah Vance, former Assistant Dean for Academic Support, at Villanova University School of Law, November 16, 2001, at a study skills workshop titled, "Successful Exam-Taking Strategies," and on articles on exam-taking techniques by Ruta Stropus, Director of Academic Support, and Charlotte Taylor, Assistant Dean for Multicultural Affairs and former Assistant Director of Academic Support, at DePaul University School of Law, and Linda Feldman, Director of Educational Services at Brooklyn Law School.