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Nine ways to shine in law exams

24 April 2013 

Nine ways to shine in law exams

1. Remembering is only the beginning...

Many law students rightly focus on memorisation – for which there are some excellent tips here. But this is just the first step in the revision process although incidentally this is why University of Law LPC exams are open book- so exam assessment is a question of understanding and application as opposed to memory. Step two is to ensure a full understanding of what has been put to memory. At which point students should be able to do what is necessary to get a top grade: i.e. apply their legal knowledge analytically to exam questions. In his excellent tweeted exam tips series, Professor Gary Slapper explained how this is done:

‘In writing essay answers, use paragraph openers showing examiner how your material pertains to the question,’ tweeted Slapper, adding that this approach is far superior to ‘notes recitation’. In a subsequent tweet he expanded on this with an analogy, explaining that: ‘Your answer should be more like filling out a very difficult form & less like painting a wall’.

2. Employ the ‘grandmother’ test

But how can you tell when your stage of learning has gone beyond memorisation to the understanding that will facilitate a Slapper-esque answer? Einstein had a good test: ‘You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother’.

3. Don't question spot – but do use past papers where they are available

In a recent 'Prezi' – available here – Bristol University law lecturer Steven Vaughan recommends that students be smart in using past papers to help them identify which questions are more likely to come up in an exam. He provides this example of how to do so:

‘In company law, we study what is known as ‘veil piercing’, when the rights and liabilities of a company are treated as if they are the rights and liabilities of the shareholders in the company. The tutorial for this topic is spent EXCLUSIVELY working through a problem question. Then, for their formative, my students had another different problem question on veil piercing. Given this, how likely/fair do you think it would be for me to give them a veil piercing question in the exam?’

Still, drawing upon his own experience as a student, Vaughan warns against over-relying on past paper question patterns in a way that could lead to under-revising of topics.

‘I had studied seven topics [for my EU law paper], but had decided I would only revise four of them... I opened my EU law paper and I cried. I actually cried...three of my topics had ‘come up’...the fourth topic wasn't there,’ he remembers.

And don’t forget of course that some exams do not give you a choice of questions anway!

4. Avoid commercial essay services

In recent years a number of essay writing companies have begun targeting law students preparing for exams. Aside from the questionable ethics of such services, there is the issue of quality – or lack of it – associated with paid-for essays. This has been highlighted in The Guardian; where some less than impressive commercial ‘model answers’ were exposed. Far better to use official model answers to gain an insight into how it should be done.

5. Feed your light-hearted side

Students are often reminded of the importance of keeping themselves in a healthy physical condition during exam time. But equally important is maintaining a good mental state – for which regular doses of light relief help. One law student recommends ‘holding a squirming puppy’ because ‘you get to be human again’, another impresses the importance of hanging out with friends (ideally not in the pub), while the aforementioned Vaughan urges students to choose a ‘revision anthem’ (his was by Destiny's Child) and play it frequently.

6. Learn key spellings

Certain words are frequently misspelt by law students, observes Slapper. They include homicide, appellant, appealed, grievous, judgment and argument. Getting key spellings like this wrong looks bad. Other words are often confused with each other – including principal/principle, effect/affect, dependent/dependant criterion/criteria, datum/data and advice/advise.

7. Take a deep breath

Few people experience full-scale panic during exams, but many are afflicted by milder symptoms of psychological meltdown. One of the most common is the compulsion to rush into answering a question before considering whether it is the most appropriate option. ‘Picking the wrong essay question has done for me in the past,’ recalls UCL law graduate Tom Webb. ‘On one occasion, I found myself 15 minutes into a question before I realised that I really should have been answering another one. It was a real waste of time that I couldn't get back.’

8. Resist exam post-mortems

‘Know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind,’ wrote journalist Mary Schmich in a famous 1997 essay that would form the basis for Baz Luhrmann's subsequent music video ‘Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’.

This sage advice applies nicely to those navigating the exam period, when post-exam worries about one paper can, if left unchecked, disrupt students' final preparations for their remaining exams. The reality, as Schmich conveys, is that such concerns are not only a waste of energy, but usually misguided. Move on.

9. Don't get bogged down in exam tip articles

As Legal Cheek pointed out recently, there are a lot of law exam tip articles out there. Peruse them – as you're perusing this one – but don't obsess about rigidly adhering to every pearl of wisdom ever published. Ultimately, exam success is about figuring out what works for you – and doing it as best as you can.


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