The first step is to read the exam instructions carefully.
- Are you required to answer all the questions?
- Are there limits on the length or form of your answers?
- How much time do you have for each question?
- Should you discuss a particular jurisdiction's laws?
- Will points be deducted for incorrect answers?
- Can you write an explanation of your answer on a multiple-choice exam?
If an instruction is unclear, ask for a clarification, rather than hope that you have interpreted it correctly.
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After you understand the exam instructions, you are ready to read the questions. Some people prefer to read all the exam questions before they begin to write any answers to get a sense of the exam's overall structure and to allocate time among the questions if the times have not been specified. Reading all the questions immediately also can allow your thinking to begin on the answers to all the questions. Additionally, if you are not required to answer the questions in the order in which they are given, you can find the question that is easiest for you to answer. In this way, you can take a running start into the exam and warm up for the more difficult questions.
People often immediately read the entire exam for another reason, however, that actually may hurt their performance. Because an exam is testing a limited universe of knowledge-the materials covered in the course being tested-some people think that they can determine which questions are designed to test each of the course topics. In a property law exam, for example, they might think that the first question is the concurrent ownership question, the second question is the landlord-tenant question, and the third question is the license question. ,
To a degree, this approach is accurate. Because of the time constraints of an exam and the large body of knowledge to be tested, professors usually will not test the same topic in depth in more than one question. This assumption is a dangerous one, however. First, if you incorrectly believe that a question raises a particular issue, you may then incorrectly believe that the issue is not raised in any other questions. Second, the professor may test different aspects of the same topic in different questions. Third, and most serious, this approach may cause you to be less comprehensive and creative in your answer to each question. By neatly categorizing the questions by subject matter, you will constrain your thinking about the problem.
You also may prefer not to read the entire test immediately to avoid increasing your feelings of confusion and panic. If you are having difficulty focusing on the exam or keeping the facts and parties straight, reading several more sets of facts probably will increase your confusion. Additionally, while you are writing the first answer, your thoughts about the later, problems may disappear. In this case, the time spent reading the entire exam will have been wasted. As with the other aspects of taking exams, you should determine the method that works best for you and stay with it unless special circumstances dictate otherwise.
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Once you have selected a question to answer, you should read it three times before beginning to write. The first time, focus on the facts and on the exact question you have been asked. The exam question usually will not ask you simply to discuss the applicability of a particular legal rule to the facts. Instead, the question usually will be framed more generally. For example, the question may ask: "Does your client have any causes of action against the manufacturer of the product that injured her?" Before reading the question a second time, start to identify the issues that the facts may raise. Based on the course materials you have studied, you will recognize that certain relationships between people and certain types of conduct create legal rights and liabilities. You must determine which of those rights and liabilities are involved in the exam question. If the question does direct you to consider the applicability of a particular rule of law, think about the elements that are necessary to satisfy that rule and about potential defenses.
As you now read the question a second time, your mind will be focused on the issues that the problem potentially raises. Look for the facts that have a bearing on those issues. In addition to the issues you spotted during the first reading, new issues may appear to you now that you have the complete fact pattern in mind. With respect to these additional issues, follow the same process of considering the necessary elements and any potential defenses. Think also about any related causes of action. For example, if a landlord who fails to provide a lock on a lobby door may be liable for negligence, consider whether that failure also constitutes a breach of the lease.
You are now ready for the third reading. With this reading, ask yourself why each fact is in the question. If the problem states that someone is seventeen years old, ask yourself why the person's age is mentioned. Is the issue of legal capacity relevant to the problem? If the problem states that a person is married, is an issue of marital rights in properly involved? Of course, the professor may have added these details merely to dress up the problem or even to mislead the unwary. But never assume. Instead, search for the reason for each fact.
As one further check of the completeness of your issue spotting, run through an outline of the subjects you have studied in the course. If the test is open book, you can use the index of the casebook or a written list that you have prepared. If the test is closed book, memorize the list of topics. Not every topic will be included in the exam, but thinking through them will help ensure that you have not overlooked a relevant issue.
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