• Wenee Yap

Advice from your Tutor: Law Exam Preparation and Technique


As the nightmare of late night study, spent pens and furiously tabbed notes draws to an end, spare a thought, if you will, for the person on the other side of your exam booklet: the examiner.

Sure, they may very well be the Devil Incarnate or the Absolute Jerk of Exam Marking. Truth is, us examiners have 2, maybe 3 weeks to wade through hundreds of exam papers in the grand Aristotelian search for meaning in the madness…or just a correct case citation. Or any citation. Please cite something. From the right jurisdiction. Antarctica is not a jurisdiction. Chinese law is hardly binding. Economic duress is a bewildering argument when restraint of trade was clearly the better argument. And no, really, it is not okay to continue citing the Trade Practices Act when it has been replaced by the Australian Consumer Law.

Sigh. I know my complaints will find few sympathetic ears on Survive Law. But indeed, as exam papers begin to pour into our pigeonholes and we struggle to decipher hieroglyphic handwriting and find the source of laws invented by desperate students (I know a student who once invented a whole new kind of trust in an exam), I do have one small, minor request: have some sympathy for the examiner.

Now, from the other side of your exam paper, I’m going to fill you in on a few of the worst exam offenders, so your paper never becomes the in-house private joke...

“I seriously underestimated this exam.”

You can smell the fear on the page. This student has read the exam question, realised that none of the cursory week/last 24 hours spent reading someone else’s notes has imbued them with any meaningful understanding of the subject, and sweated their fear all over the exam booklet.

Issues begin but then meander into irrelevance without any conclusion. Five different legal arguments are offered, all tenuous, and some completely incorrect. Arrows point in every direction, interspersed with hurried cross-outs of whole paragraphs or whole pages. Structure is also rather questionable.

How to avoid being this student

If you source your notes from another student, you must make them your own. One way to do this is by integrating lecture notes from your semester, ensuring you update the law when necessary; I once knew a student who forgot to cite the Civil Liability Act in a torts exam because they relied on a pre-CLA set of notes. Another way to make hand-me-down notes your own is by creating one-page summaries of each topic – a seriously good notes ‘short-cut’.

“I spent so much time perfecting a beautiful, publishable set of notes… I forgot to read them.”

Obsessive perfectionists that we are, law students love a good set of notes. The intimidation of fellow student factor is definitely a plus. This student is easily recognised: they waltz into the exam room with a 100 page set of notes, lovingly tabbed (all the way around), and if exam conditions permit, a thunderous pile of mildly relevant textbooks designed to thump their exam desks and stop the beating hearts of all fellow students. They have no idea what they are doing. Those notes may not even be theirs.

Like Chicago’s Billy Flynn, it’s all razzle dazzle.

How to avoid being this student

A good student can walk into an exam with 10 pages or less, perhaps supported by a larger tome of their (condensed) subject notes. The trick is to know when to stop with preparation – when you stop consolidating and condensing and tabbing your notes, and start reading, summarising into one page flowcharts or summaries, and finally doing practise exams. Generally, the final week or two, STUVAC, in other words, should be spent summarising notes, ensuring you understand the entire subject, and doing practise exams. Otherwise, you risk falling into the trap of a student I once knew who expended incredible energy on just one topic of a study group… which didn’t end up surfacing in the exam.

“I panicked and threw everything I knew about everything, law or otherwise, on the page.”

Quite a common ailment. Self-explanatory really. Symptoms include: unusually long responses (10 pages or more, depending on the handwriting size), total lack of structure, lack of coherent or logical argument, randomly cited law.

How to avoid being this student

Plan your response before you write your full answer. Move on to summarising and practise exams earlier so that the final few days before exams are not spent cramming the whole subject but revising it.

“I’m sorry. Ran out of time. See you next semester"

This student usually begins beautifully. Extensive explanation of every minor detail and confluence of legal argument. All counter-arguments, sometimes even from international law, thoroughly considered. Highlighting for headlines and key issues. Legible as a good read on Kindle. By page 5 or 6, though, the breakdown begins.

Time’s ticking. Caffeine waning. Life ending. So many issues left to be covered, not to mention other questions. The key contentious issues are usually rushed by this point, chased by a cursory conclusion and clearly the need for a good gin and tonic.

By the second or third question, the student is running on empty. Neat paragraphs descend into scrawled point form. Cases of any vague relevance are thrown into the mix, just because. By the time the exam is done, this paper is best recognised by a note on the final page, which I have seen on several occasions: “Sorry ran out of time. See u next semester :( "

How to avoid being this student

Plan your time before you begin your response. While students around you rush into page 1, take a breather and read the question twice, if not more, underlining key phrases that suggest certain law or issues. Make a brief dot point plan outlining what your issues will be, supported by cases, with a conclusion. This should not take longer than 5-10 mins. Then write your opus. Legibly. Highlight the introduction, issues, cases and law, and conclusion.

You see, contrary to how you may feel about your examiner, we don’t really want you to fail. We want you to blow us away. So, go to it.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was first published on Survive Law on 27 November 2011.

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