My Advice for Law School Exam Test Takers. Tip #4: How to Tackle the Take Home Exam

December 4th, 2009

Check out my previous three tips on how to tackle law school exams (here and here and here).

This question comes from William on Facebook.

“So how about some words regarding take home exams?”

Tip #4: How to Tackle a Take Home Exam.

So your Prof announced that the exam will be a take-home and you will have some period of time (usually somewhere between 24 hours and 1 week) to complete it. Usually you will have to answer several essays, or perhaps draft a sample court document (motion, appellate decision, etc.). You will have access to all of your notes. You just cannot talk to anyone else. The prospect of having an extended period of time and access to all of your notes may make you think the exam is a walk in the park. Take home exams enticingly create a false sense of reassurance. But don’t buy it.

Preparing for a take-home exam is different than preparing for an in class exam. My thoughts:

  • Don’t waste your time making a perfect outline. Rather use the time before the exam to become extremely familiar with your notes from class, your lecture notes, and your textbooks. Tab the crap out of those sources. Make table of contents and indexes. You will have enough time to flip through all materials. In my mind, it is more important that you know where everything is, than condensing everything into a shortened outline. Further, by flipping to the original source, you will get lots of good details you can use in your essay to score some bonus points. Referring to your sparse outline may actually be a disservice in this sense.
  • Prepare to use the entire period, and time it right. One Professor allowed me to pick up the exam at any point during finals period, and return it within 24 hours. Final period ended on Friday evening. I picked it up Thursday evening at 9:00 p.m., right before the registrar office closed. Friday night when I got the exam, I spent about 4 or 5 hours just reading the questions and outlining. Before I wrote a paragraph, I considered every possible way I could score points. I think I flipped through every page of the textbook, looking for any issues I may have failed to spot. After writing my outline, I got a bit of sleep (I don’t do all-nighters), and woke up fresh Friday morning and tackled one question after another. Although I had budgeted all day, I finished around 2 p.m. I took a break, and reviewed every question 3 times to make sure I didn’t miss anything. By 7 p.m., I was finished, and I returned the exam. I would recommend a similar strategy. For exams longer than 24 hours, stretch out the review and writing process, but make sure you devote 70% of your waking hours to this endeavor.
  • One final consideration is mental stamina. I never once pulled an all-nighter at any point in my law school career. You may be tempted to stay up all night to work on an essay. If you do this, you may find that you cannot finish it in the morning. Quality suffers with a lack of sleep. Unless you know in advance you can generate your best work while working 24 hours straight, don’t experiment on take-home final day. Even a short cat nap can give you enough juice to finish up an essay. Definitely do not try to proofread while sleep-deprived. You will miss stuff.

Best of luck to everyone and please let me know if there are any other topics you’d like me to address.

Disclaimer: Caveat emptor. Take this advice at your own peril. If it doesn’t work, don’t complain. If it works, I appreciate gift cards.