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How to Survive your First Law Exam

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So you’ve survived 13 weeks of tutorials, lectures, hideous assignments and the social awkwardness of being the new kid at law school. Now it’s SWOTVAC and, unfortunately, your first ever law exam is looming.

There are a few things I wish I’d known about university exams, particularly those of the law school variety, before I sat them for the first time. If you’re heading into that dreaded exam room in a few days or a few weeks, here are some handy hints…

Prepare for Everything and Anything

This is pretty straightforward, but the number of things that can go wrong during an exam is surprising. Pack clothing for all types of weather: if it is 10 degrees outside, chances are it’ll be 30 degrees in your exam room with a couple of thousand stressed-out students. The point? Wear layers. Plenty of layers. It’s hard to concentrate in a three-hour exam if you’re dripping sweat on the exam paper.

Also, it’s worth bringing some back up material to the exam – these materials shouldn’t be relied on during the exam as you have your awesome notes (see below), but having the extra information may come in handy if a small and obscure point of law comes up that may have escaped your condensed notes. I had a situation in a Principles of Public Law exam where one of the questions was based on a single slide in an entire semester’s worth of PowerPoints, and unsurprisingly, many lost marks on this question. Having the course material and textbooks next to you in an open book exam can only be reassuring!

Condense your Notes. And then Condense them Again.

I took about 40 pages of notes to my first law exam. From memory, I looked at them around 3 times in 3 hours. The horrible reality of a law exam is that you simply do not have the time to pour over your notes and write down every little detail that may be relevant. Of course, the more you include, the better you will do, but it is not worth including details that add little to your argument and prevent you getting through the first problem.

Condense your notes into a user-friendly document that follows the format of a problem answer – this will save valuable time flipping back and forth between topics. Some find sticky tabs useful for this purpose, though I personally find all of the pretty colours too distracting, and leave them for my everything-I-have-ever-written-this-semester set of notes. Keep factual summaries brief and stick to the main points of law, unless the facts of the case are particularly relevant.

Don’t Rely on the Notes of a Friend of a Friend of a Smart Friend

Many law exams are open book, which means you can take in anything, even notes lovingly prepared by a previous HD student, and ace the exam, right? While this technique may work for a very, very small percentage (I’m yet to meet such a law student), contrary to popular belief, using someone else’s notes isn’t that much fun; especially if you are looking at them for the first time during the exam.

Creating your own notes will mean you can format them in a way that suits your writing style best, and preparing the notes will help you to revise. In addition, there is a risk with old notes in that they may be out-dated. You don’t want to accidentally reference s 52 of the Trade Practices Act – this probably won’t score you points with your marker.

That said, seeing a previous student’s notes can still be beneficial, provided you use them properly. Take particular note of the format and the length – this is undoubtedly the most confusing thing about creating your first set of exam notes.

Treasure your HDs, but don’t Expect them

The reality of law school is that all or your peers are smart. You may be used to studying like crazy (or not) for subjects and then acing the final. While this is obviously possible in law, it’s harder than high school and there’s more to a law exam than simply regurgitating the material. This is not to say that HDs are unattainable, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t do as well as you’d hoped – there’s no doubt you will improve next semester!

Don’t Ignore your other Subjects

If you’re doing a double degree it’s sometimes tempting to ignore your non-law subjects, as they are usually easier and less demanding. However I wouldn’t recommend this at exam time – your other subjects are still assessable and they will appear on your transcript alongside your law grades. Given that double degree subjects are often easier to do well in, it is not sensible to ignore them completely, as they could be a handy way to boost your GPA, and also give you options if you change your mind about a career in law.

Keep Calm and Stress Less

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Going into the exam a mess isn’t going to do you any favours. Ensure you are prepared the night before, get a good night’s sleep (all-night coffee fuelled study sessions, while common in law school, are not recommended) and make sure you have transport sorted.

Good luck!

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