Law exams can seem very daunting. Law exams aim to test your knowledge of a subject, your ability to apply that knowledge to new problems, and your skill in formulating legal arguments. If you have understood the major principles and rules of law, how they apply in practice, have read the relevant cases and statutes, and can recognise the major legal issues, you are highly likely to pass the exam.
The strategies and techniques set out below are a good starting point for preparing for law exams. The resources listed at the end can help you to excel.
Frequent revision is crucial to retaining information and preparing for exams.
- For semester length subjects, you should set aside regular time (weekly or monthly) to revise and consolidate knowledge, perhaps in the form of exam notes. At the end of semester, make a pre-exam revision schedule that allocates time proportionate to the available marks for each assessment task.
- For intensive subjects, it is advisable to go through the readings and take notes before the subject begins. Take note of the important or contentious issues that are discussed in class, and at the end of each day try to record the highlights of the class discussion. When the subject is finished, return to your notes with the framework of the class discussion in mind.
Anxiety about law exams, particularly in your first semester, is very common. There are a wide range of reasons why anxiety develops in the lead up to exams. Part of the solution is managing the pressure that you place on yourself, or that others place on you. Anxiety can usually be overcome, or at least put to good use, by focusing on the three Ps:
Preparation, Practice, Performance Technique
Some anxiety can be good – it motivates us to work harder. If you are struggling with exam anxiety, however, you should contact the wellbeing centre.
- You can book a consultation with wellbeing through the Student Advising System: http://student-advising-system.unimelb.edu.au/
Ideally, your exam preparation begins in the first week and progresses steadily throughout the semester, perhaps with a few dedicated study days along the way. Alternatively, you may prefer the pressure of the weeks before the exam as motivation for focused study. Either way, your priorities in preparation are to:
- Consolidate a functional set of review or exam notes that covers the whole subject,
- Understand the major concepts covered, the key principles of law, and important qualifications and exceptions,
- Get to know the relevant cases and sections of statutes well and
- Practice past exams (under exam conditions if possible), including hypothetical and essay-style questions where necessary.
Note: Many students benefit from preparing for exams in small ‘study groups’, others are more comfortable working alone.
- For more regarding time management in the lead up to exams, see here.
Don’t overlook the role of practice for excelling in law exams. This involves rehearsing and actually articulating your knowledge and arguments in sentences on paper, testing yourself and your ability to work through different hypothetical scenarios (preferably under time constraints). How much time you allocate to practice depends on you: do you need to spend more time consolidating subject knowledge OR do you need to spend more time improving your ability to communicate your knowledge effectively under exam conditions?
- Past exams are available here
Part of your practice should involve attempting at least one question from an old exam under exam conditions (that is, within time limits). Then, seek feedback from your lecturer or other students. This will also enable you to calculate your exam writing speed – literally, how many words you can write in an hour under exam conditions. The slower your writing speed the greater the need to prioritise the main issues, use informative headings and write simply and economically.
In an exam, time = marks. You need to calculate precisely how much writing time you can spend on each question in an exam, proportional to its mark value. Once you reach the time limit on a question, move on. It is easier to earn marks by beginning an answer than by polishing or rounding off a competent answer. Put another way, the easiest way to lose marks in an exam is by not attempting the question.
- Skim all questions and (if you have a choice) decide which ones you will answer.
- Allocate time for each response.
- Re-read the questions and make brief notes for all responses.
- Plan your response before you start writing: identify the main issues (‘issue-spotting’) and the ideas relevant to the subject content (finding the ‘hooks’).
- Some students suggest you answer the question you consider to be ‘easiest’ first (to settle yourself and boost your confidence). Others like to leave the ‘easiest’ question for last, when they are tired
- Focus on the question: respond to THAT question, ALL parts of the question
- Plan your answer in outline form. Don’t write until you know what you will say!
- Structure your answers in a way that is easy to follow
- For hypothetical problems, use reasoning and apply case and statute law, don’t just state and cite
- Don’t indulge in argument where it is unnecessary
- If you run out of time, target the marks using short, direct points, but…
- Don’t use a scattergun approach (stating everything you know without considering its relevance to the problem at hand)
- Use clear, simple and direct vocabulary, along with the necessary terminology of the subject. Don’t worry about expression too much and don’t stop to perfect your grammar or edit: minor grammatical errors are generally overlooked in exams.
- Monitor your time and move on if necessary
Try to allow 5 minutes at the end of the exam to skim your responses and correct obvious errors or omissions (eg authorities), insert section and sub-section headings and add concluding sentences.
These excellent reference books can be found in the law library reserve, and are collected in the ‘Academic Skills Collection’ on the end stack:
- Richard Krever, Mastering Law Studies & Exam Techniques, 2014: Law High Use KL 130 KREV
Krever’s book has a whole section with sample questions, answers and comments for all the major areas of law.
- Claire Macken, Law Student Survival Guide, 2010: Law High Use KL 146 MACK
- Stacie Strong, How to Write Law Essays and Exams, 2014: Law High Use K 101 STRO
Strong’s book offers a good method for writing in law exams and essays, and also looks at how to adapt that method to writing in professional practice.
- Enid Campbell and Richard Fox, Students’ Guide to Legal Writing, Law Exams and Self Assessment, 2010: Law High Use K 101 CAMP
- You can often find subject specific guides to law exams