Exam Preparation JD Students Time Management and Wellbeing

Surviving Your First SWOTVAC At MLS

I know what you’re thinking: “is it seriously week 11 already? Didn’t I have my first PPL lecture just last week? What do you mean I have three 70% exams where basically every topic is assessable? Where am I and how did I get here?!”

Ok calm down. Take a deep breath. I can wait a minute while you compose yourself. No seriously its fine, take as long as you need. I’ve got nothing but time.

You’re good? Alright, where were we? Oh yeah, SWOTVAC is coming up! That’s right, you’re first semester at MLS is almost at end, and that came mean only one thing: Exams.

Now you’ll all have done exams before, whether just at high school or also at an undergraduate or higher level. But you’ve probably realised that studying the JD is a little different from year 12 English. The skills that are required, both non-assessable (like note-taking and time management) and assessable (like legal writing) are unique, and the breadth of information you’re required to understand and apply is pretty huge.

That’s why it’s important to approach SWOTVAC with the right strategy – which is exactly what the tips in this post will help you with.

Let’s dive in.

Tip 1: Don’t just fall back on your undergrad study habits

Approaching exams with an “attack dog” mentality where you read everything again, write volumes of notes and regurgitate your knowledge may have gotten you the big marks in undergrad, but its unlikely to in the JD. This is because this approach ignores the quintessential skill your being assessed on: legal analysis.

An easy way to ensure you don’t slip into this habit is to constantly ask yourself what you’ll need to do on exam day and whether or not your study activity is effectively preparing you for those two or three hours. This should probably tell you that encyclopaedic knowledge of every case in the course is worth little if you can’t distil and apply the principles; or synthesise different topics in a logical, concise and rigorous way.

The take-away tip? Study with purpose, and don’t be afraid of trying new things.

Tip 2: Write up a Study Schedule

The benefits of writing a study schedule are dealt with elsewhere and won’t be re-hashed here. It’s important to emphasise however that the time you have between now and your final exam is limited. Without a structure in place, it can be easy to spend too much time on one subject, one topic or one exam skill, or leave no time for non-law school activities, like catching up with family and friends.

Designing a study timetable that allocates a portion of your available time to each topic, leaves plenty of time to apply your knowledge, and gives you breaks is therefore critical to effective revision. It’s also likely to quell some of the pre-exam anxiety (or procrastination) by providing some certainty and routine to your study days.

Tip 3: Consolidate a set of functional exam notes

Again, nothing new here. The main points to emphasis are (1) in the exam, you don’t have time to be flicking through a hundred pages of case notes, so your notes should be as short as possible; and (2) exam notes are all about application, so look at past exams and ask: what is most logical way I can set out my notes so as to maximise your ability to demonstrate my knowledge in an exam response? This means stripping things back to first principles and adjusting your notes based on trial and error. Remember, your notes have to have an internal structure that makes sense to you, but also the requisite flexibility to apply to a difficult exam problem.

Check out advice on exam essays here.

Tip 4: Don’t panic if you’re confused

In law school there is good confusion and there is bad confusion.[1] Good confusion is where you read a practice problem and find that there are compelling arguments for either conclusion (e.g. that a contract has or hasn’t come into existence between A and B). Bad confusion is where you flat out don’t understand what’s going on can’t spot the issues and have no idea where to start your analysis (e.g. what is this ‘contract’ thing I keep hearing about?’)

For good confusion, it’s worth repeating the adage: “there is no right answer in law school”, and that your response can be as qualified as it needs to be. You still need to reach a conclusion (e.g. ‘there is likely to be a contract between A and B’), but, you can still express a degree of reservation about certain points   (e.g. ‘… however there may be some difficulty in proving considerations because of…’).

For bad confusion, you have to take it back to first principles. There’s no point endlessly reading cases and writing case/exam notes if there are conceptual barriers you haven’t dealt with, or terms you don’t understand. Look up explanations in the textbook, send your lecturer an email, or contact a fellow student. And be consoled: law school (and legal practice) is difficult, but not insurmountable. If you study strategically, seek out constructive criticism and get plenty of practice in, you’ll probably be fine.

Tip 5: Decide where you’ll do the bulk of your revision

This might sound like an odd tip, but where you study and who you study with can have a major impact the quality of your study and (perhaps more importantly) your wellbeing.

You might think setting up in the level 3 library is the obvious place to get cracking (and indeed might be the most convenient if you’re working in an independent study group), but you should also consider the drawbacks that attend that option. Seeing tens (or hundreds) of your fellow students every day can be distracting, and may also be quite stressful if they’re ahead of you in their revision. You might also start to feel a little claustrophobic if you spend three straight weeks in the same spot getting all your sustenance from Porta Via.

Our advice? Assess where you study best and try to make that place home. If you find going to the library stresses you out, try to study elsewhere or book a discussion room where you can (hopefully) find a little more peace of mind.


Tip 6: Don’t Stop Exercising

Fun fact: rats that spend time on a running wheel generate twice the new brain cells as those that are sedentary.[2] Whilst you might feel like your revision workload is crippling, and that you have little or no time for non-study activities, exercise might actually optimize your cognitive performance.

Even if it’s as simple as going for a short walk or jog in your break – you’d be surprised at how much big of an impact exercise can have on your study.

It’s also fun… and you deserve a reward for all your hard work.

Tip 7: Don’t Stop Sleeping

‘[L]aw school bravado’ seems to dictate that students who sleep less are somehow vastly more prepared and deserving of admiration from their peers.[3]

Law school bravado is also stupid and not connected to reality.

You need sleep to live. You also need enough sleep (typically in the ball park of eight hours) to generate energy and focus for sustained academic study. Even if you feel like you’re behind in revision, its unlikely that sacrificing sleep for study will pay off in the long term.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, attempt to address it by:

  • Cutting down on screen time in the hours before bed;
  • Cutting down on caffeine in the afternoon/evening
  • Creating (and sticking to) a sleep schedule (that is, going to bed and getting up at the same time every day)
  • Practicing a relaxing bedtime ritual
  • Exercise!! (see tip 6)

See the National Sleep Foundation website for more information.

Tip 8: Take breaks when you need them

No one can study 10 straight hours, so to avoid burnout you should take frequent breaks. Better energy management is the key to sustainable study.

 Tip 9: Support One Another

Law school is hard, but is made even harder when you feel like you’re competing with your friends. Share your knowledge with your peers, and if you’re worried that someone might be experiencing anxiety or depression, do what you can to ensure they seek professional help (see Tip 10). You’re success as a person and as a future professional (legal or otherwise) is not defined by a number – its worth making sure you and your friends are reminded of that.

Tip 10: Don’t be afraid to seek professional help

Sometimes the SWOTVAC period can become overwhelming, particularly if you have responsibilities outside of the course. Unexpected issues can arise at any time, whether they’re related to your health, your family or your relationship.

The University has a number of different services to help students through these difficult times to assist them reach their full potential while studying, Counselling, Academic Skills, Financial Aid, Student Welfare and housing are just some of these services.

If you do find a barrier to your studies, why not make a time to speak with Wellbeing staff. This is a resource exclusive to the Melbourne Law school in recognition of how difficult and demanding the course can actually be. Student cab make an appointment via the student advising system under ‘faculty enrichment services > Law Wellbeing.

You might also consider applying for Special Consideration.


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[1] Alison Monahan, ‘1L Tip of the Day: Good Law School Confusion and Bad Law School Confusion’ <http://thegirlsguidetolawschool.com/10/law-school-tip-of-the-day-good-confusion-and-bad-confusion/&gt;.

[2] Debra Cassens Weiss, Stress May Be Killing Law Students’ Brain Cells, Law Prof Says ABA Journal <http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/stress_may_be_killing_law_students_brain_cells_law_prof_says/&gt;.

[3] Christopher J Yianilos, The Law School Breakthrough: Graduate in the Top 10% of Your Class, Even If You’re Not a First-Rate Student (Career Press, 2005) 56.