UVA Law Alumni Serve Up Their Best Exam Tips

Students

UVA Law exams start Dec. 5 and end Dec. 17.

December 1, 2015

They survived their exams, and so can you. As classes end and the exam study period begins, recent alumni of the University of Virginia School of Law offer their best tips for tackling fall finals.

Kelly Camp '14

Mayer Brown
New York, New York

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
Study the same way you always have for exams — it's been successful for you in the past. Don't feel pressured to join study groups or make hundreds of note cards if that's not how you've historically dealt with tests. Don't take your cues from your classmates — none of them have been a 1L before. Only you know what is best for you. Exams are stressful enough without stressing yourself out by feeling like you have to do what everyone else is doing.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew about exams as a 1L?
Unlike in college or high school, 1L exams are not about rote memorization. You won't be tested on every case your professor mentioned in class or about the facts of every case. The greater importance lies within the synapses that tie the case law together. Being able to think critically about why a case is important and extrapolating from there will be more valuable on an exam than regurgitating your outline. Professors want to see that you can adapt the concepts, not recite them.

 

Kathryn Clifford '15

Law Clerk, Southern District of Florida
West Palm Beach, Florida

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
Don't forget your morning coffee.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew about exams as a 1L?
I found the most helpful way to study for 1L exams was to take, or outline, as many old exams in the subject as possible. If the professor doesn't release old answers, compare with friends in your section or go ask the professor during office hours about the question. This process helps you figure out what material you are comfortable with and what material you need to focus on, which allows you to narrow your focus of what to study.

 

Tom Heffernan '15

Latham & Watkins
New York, New York

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
Do something else besides studying. Don't get me wrong, you absolutely need to work hard and put in the time outlining and reviewing. But sitting inside a room for hours on end every single day will fry your brain and become counterproductive. Go for a run, watch a movie, or have a nice dinner downtown. Do something to give your noggin a rest. It may seem like you don't have any time for a break, but you do. You'll be way fresher, happier and saner come exam time.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew about exams as a 1L?
Take practice exams, and time yourself when you take them. The timing restrictions on law exams were really hard for me at first, because I like to take my time when I write. I ran out of time on my first two exams 1L fall. Taking practice exams under time restrictions will help you learn the material, and help you become more accustomed to thinking of and writing your answers quickly.

 

Sejal Jhaveri '15

Law Clerk, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia
Richmond, Virginia

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
It can feel really overwhelming to study for finals, especially as a 1L. I think having structure is really helpful. Schedule your practice tests and set goals for when you want to get your outline done or when you want to focus on a particular subject. Also, build in some time to relax and sleep. Studying for exams requires you to be at your best, so make sure you make time to do whatever it is you really enjoy. I would always make sure I got a chance to go the gym and read the news each day.

 

Joel Johnson '15

Law Clerk, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia
Alexandria, Virginia

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
When creating your outlines, don't focus on mastering the facts of every case. Rather, make sure you know the one or two propositions for which each case stands. And don't be afraid to structure your outline in a way that is different from the way in which material was presented during the semester. I always tried to organize the content in a way I thought would be useful during the exam. That meant placing topics in the order I anticipated they would arise. Within each topic, I ordered the statements of law in the way I anticipated my argument would progress.

If you can, build time into your study schedule to practice applying the rule statements from your outline to various fact patterns. For me, practice exams were crucial, especially during the first semester. Law school exams are unlike most exams you have taken in college. The more practice exams you take (and review), the better you will do on the real thing.

In writing your exams answers, don't be afraid of ambiguity. The point of fact patterns is to create as many ambiguities of law and fact as possible. Your goal is to exploit those ambiguities by arguing both sides and thinking through all the logical possibilities. So don't be alarmed if, after reading a fact pattern, you don't know the definitive answer. Instead, use your essay to explore all angles. By the end, you'll be able to state a conclusion, and frankly that conclusion won't matter that much. In the world of law school exams, the old maxim of fortune-cookie wisdom holds true: the journey is more important than the destination.

 

Megan Kayo '13

Clyde & Co
San Francisco, California

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
My best advice for 1Ls taking exams would be to take practice exams. Don't just re-read your notes from lecture or the book, but actually practice applying that information to past exams. In practicing and when taking exams, make sure to analyze every point. Don't just spot and list issues but also explain your evaluation of the issue.

 

Denise Letendre '13

Henrico County Attorney's Office
Henrico, Virginia

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
My best advice is to stay calm during the exam. On almost every exam I took when I read through the questions the first time, I freaked out because I didn't think I knew any answers. I would then go back and try to find one question I could start working on, and once I got going, answers for the other questions came to me and I ended up just fine. Even if you feel like you don't know the answer, just try to start writing. More answers will come to you as you work, and you can always delete things that no longer make sense.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew about exams as a 1L?
I wish I knew that grades can be a bit of a crapshoot sometimes. In my first semester of 1L, I got my best grades on exams I thought I did the worst, and vice versa. The best thing you can do is just study your hardest and let the chips fall where they may. If your grades end up being not as good as you had hoped, remember that you have another five semesters to improve your grades. It's all a process. While it seems confusing and scary now, by the time you are a 3L, exams will be old hat to you. When I finished my final exam of 3L year, I thought, "Wow, I think I finally know how to take a law school exam." And that meant it was time to move on to bigger and better things (like the bar exam)!

 

David Martin '15

Judge James L. Robart, USDC Judge in the Western District of Washington
Seattle, Washington

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
Especially as a 1L, I found it crucial to maximize the number of practice exam questions I took under timed conditions. Exam writing is a completely new experience, and it involves writing skills unlike any you have used before. Efficiency is the biggest asset you can have, since all of the exams will involve more issues than you could possibly identify and discuss in the limited time allotted. The inexperience with this style renders the exam-writing learning curve very sharp, which makes it an efficient place to spend your limited study time. Of course, you cannot write quickly and cogently without also knowing the material well, but I would advise not to focus on the material at the expense of completing practice exams.

Another thing I learned slowly is that different professors are looking for different writing styles; some want you to skip the easy issues in order to address what would be the crux of the dispute, whereas others want you to walk through the analysis step-by-step. They are typically not trying to hide this from you, and will tell you what they are looking for if you just ask. Take your professors seriously when they tell you what they want.

 

Alex Matthews '15

Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman
Washington, D.C.

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
Know your audience. Taking a law school exam requires you to craft your answers with an individual professor (and the way they taught a particular course) in mind. Much like in the practice of law after graduation, writing an exam requires you to know your client (the professor) and to speak to the matter at hand (the exam question) in a way that conveys your expertise and how it comes to bear on the relevant issues you've spotted.

Every professor teaches their course in a different manner, and it's therefore important to address the areas of the law and issues that your professor focused on in class. If it wasn't discussed in class, it likely won't be relevant to the exam. If you keep up with class notes, incorporate them into your outlines, and practice applying what was discussed in class on a few sample questions, you can and should feel confident going into finals!

 

Jason Norinsky '13

Weil, Gotshal & Manges
New York, New York

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
The best advice I have for taking exams is to make friends with upperclassmen that did well in the class and ask them for outlines and study aids that they either made or used (if the same professor). This helped me immensely throughout law school since you have someone who already did well giving you their resources. It also helps you structure the course better than starting with a fresh outline.

 

Brian Polley '12

Baker & McKenzie
London and Houston, Texas

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
Do practice problems! Spend some time with a few friends in your class trying to anticipate questions, and then actually write out responses to at least some of the questions you come up with. You will definitely be wrong about some of the questions you expect, but it's still helpful to actually practice writing responses under time constraints. This is much more helpful than outlining.

 

Rhett Ricard '15

Law Clerk, U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina
Greenville, South Carolina

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
When studying for exams, do your best not to get overwhelmed or discouraged. My best advice to avoid being overwhelmed is to allow adequate time to prepare (i.e., don't procrastinate!). My best advice to avoid being discouraged is to reflect on why you came to law school in the first place and use that motivation to energize you to continue working hard.

The best thing to do when taking an exam, is not to "freak out" during it. Calmly do your best, and even it's a terrible exam performance, just forget about it immediately afterward. No single exam will define your future success!

 

Madeleine Rodriguez '12

Foley Hoag
Boston

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
While digging into the details and holdings of individual cases, don't lose sight of the general themes or guiding principles that shape a particular area of law. They may not have been obvious as the semester went on but by exam time you should have a much clearer view of how everything comes together. If you're a few pages into an answer on a contracts exam and you haven't really addressed how to make the non breaching party whole, you've likely missed the point.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew about exams as a 1L?
Taking the time to sleep and eat well are is just as important as getting in yet another hour of studying. You won't make it to the fourth exam if you don't take care of yourself. Also, Caleb Nelson doesn't mess around.

 

Lynn Schlie '13

Miles & Stockbridge
Baltimore

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
Don't tempt yourself with distractions while you're studying. Either turn the Internet off, or use Internet-blocking programs like ColdTurkey or SelfControl to limit your access to distracting sites like Facebook and Gmail (which will block Gchat). Don't worry, you can always turn it back on again when you need a break.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew about exams as a 1L?
I wish I had known to focus less on memorizing the details of cases and rules, and instead focused more on understanding the themes and legal theories behind them. If you're looking at a fact pattern, you can still write a pretty good response if you understand the legal theory, even if you can't recall a case name. The same is true for practice, you may not have an on-point case, but if you understand the legal theory, you can still make a compelling argument.

 

Samantha Seikkula '15

Latham & Watkins
San Diego

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
Remember that it is everyone else's first time taking law school exams as well. It is easy to fall into a trap of thinking that you need to study a certain way or log a certain number of hours in order to be successful. In reality, you should stick to what works best for you. Being at Virginia Law, you have had a high level of academic success in the past. Don't let those habits go out the window because you think that they do not apply to law school based off of what you've heard. Listen to other people's advice, but ultimately, know yourself.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew about exams as a 1L?
Exams are only a test of your knowledge, not your worth.

 

Ashley Singletary-Claffee '15

Willkie Farr & Gallagher
Washington, D.C.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew about exams as a 1L?
Make sure you talk to your professors about their preferences for exams! Some professors (though they might not readily admit it) like shorter, more concise/organized exams, while others may like a "brain dump" of all the information that you've learned in the semester. Every professor is different, so you'll never know what's going to get you the most points until you ask. Your [Peer Advisors] and other 2L and 3L friends can also be great sources for information like this!

 

Allie Smith '15

Baker Botts
Dallas

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
Although I really had never been a big "study group" person in college, I found working with other people very helpful in law school. There's no better way to study for an exam than to take the practice exams offered by your professor. Sitting down with classmates and going over each other's answers and the model answers will help kickstart your brain into thinking about how your professor likes to test the law. If your professor offers office hours, also go over your answer with her. Creating an outline that works for you and learning the law are important, but applying what you've learned on practice exams will make you more confident when you sit down for the real exam!

 

Caroline Courtney Stewart '15

Law Clerk, U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
Do practice exams! Find as many of your professor's old exams as possible and try to answer them. If your professor doesn't reveal old exams, try to find other professors' exams or discuss hypotheticals with your friends. Doing the practice exams helps you thoroughly understand the law and exposes where you may be confused. It also helps you spot issues on the exam.

 

Vanessa Tarpos '15

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
New York, New York

Looking back, what do you wish you knew about exams as a 1L?
If you are working hard, do not compare yourself to others. Everyone studies differently and there is no "one size fits all" approach to studying for 1L exams. If at the end of December you can say, "I tried my absolute best and I gave it my all," then things will work out the way they are supposed to.

 

Jonathan Young '13

Greenberg Traurig
Atlanta

What's your best advice for studying for or taking exams?
Do as many practice questions as you can and review the model answers. Most 1L professors give out a few sample questions to help give you experience with law school essays. If they haven't, ask them if they would consider doing so. You can also get sample practice questions from your friends in other sections and from the Internet — the subject matter taught in 1L classes is generally the same, but spend additional time on the material that your professor emphasized.

 

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