Don’t cry, you baby. This is why your exam sucked.
I launched this column about a year ago discussing how law professors grade. I figured I would celebrate my anniversary at Above the Law by discussing some of the common problems law professors find grading essay exams.
Having said that, here are some ways your final exam may have gone awry.
- What you thought you wrote isn’t what you wrote. What we have here is a failure to communicate. You may very well know what you’re talking about, but how it sounds in your head isn’t how it reads to the grader of your exam. In a timed exam, it is hard to ensure you fully communicated the ideas you are seeking to express. This is how contracting parties get into trouble. What the parties thought a term meant sure doesn’t sound that way to a judge.
- You’ve made it impossible to understand your argument due to poor structure. Let’s start with the most absurd example, let’s suppose you have a contracts question, and you started your exam with a discussion of damage. That doesn’t make any sense. Immediately, your professor is going to wonder a) whether you know what you are talking about, and b) how very difficult it is going to be to follow you through the abrupt turns in your analysis.
- Your arguments are conclusory. The best explanation I’ve seen for the difference between an exam with conclusory reasoning and one that is fully expressed is Orin Kerr’s post on the subject. The reason professors write “why?” frequently on exams is that the exam has left out a portion of the argument.
- You misstate the rule. This is often how students nickel and dime themselves on exams: They miss issues. It is also why students suspect that longer exams get better grades. That’s in part true, but only to the extent that the longer exams address some of these key issues.
- Your grammar and spelling become the professor’s sole focus. Professors are used to typos and grammar mistakes. Sometimes, they can even be amusing. It makes us cry a lot when we see them on papers, but a certain amount of them we expect on final exams. Hower, wen yur axam sturts too bee ridicolos in teh amout of typoes and speling msitakes it realy makes yo seam stoopid. No, that last sentence wasn’t an exaggeration — I’ve had worse. This might be compounded by the fact your paragraphs lack topic sentences and your structure is nonsensical. At this point, you could be a law genius and we wouldn’t be able to tell.
- You run Out of Time. It’s a good REM song, but if I had a dime for every time a student wrote, sometimes at length, that they were out of time, I’d be rich. The optional “have mercy on my exam” paragraph that follows the declaration of being out of time has some irony to it.
- Ignore the facts. As I wrote last year, “in terms of content, the biggest mistake is usually ignoring any facts I put in the exam. Just citing the rule doesn’t excite me. It’s necessary, but the student has to apply the rule. A client is not paying you to memorize rules and then not help them.” This continues to be my biggest pet peeve. Your prof has spent a great deal of time writing that exam question (unless they were lazy and plagiarized Examples and Explanations), so the least you can do is use the facts that are provided to you. Doing so greatly improves your chance of earning a good grade.
- This is clearly a perfect way for a professor to tell when you aren’t confident about a portion of your answer. “Clearly, Paul Plaintiff was in the zone of danger because…” Clearly, is it? Or maybe obvious? Maybe “any idiot can see that Paul was in the zone of danger.” These types of statements suggest your analysis is wanting. You’re obviously sending a clear signal to your prof that something is amiss.
- Wasting time. Students waste time on exams in numerous ways. They may give an extended historical discussion of a legal principle in an issue-spotting exam. They may use weak topic sentences. The one I most often see is: “It’s very important that we determine…” Yes, it is important. So you should just go about determining it and not saying that you ought to determine it.
Every law professor has a “pet peeve,” or a list of pet peeves. Before you take an exam, you should not only determine what the professor perceives to be the “best answer,” but what mistakes students commonly make.
LawProfBlawg is an anonymous professor at a top 100 law school. You can see more of his musings here and on Twitter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Washington and Lee University School of Law
Access Past Exams from W&L Faculty
Policy - Exams may be used by W&L Law students currently enrolled.
Past Exams from W&L Law faculty are made available at the individual faculty member's discretion.
Log in to view exams organized by subject. In some cases, but not all, the faculty member has also provided a model answer or notes to accompany the exam.
Access Past Exams from Other Institutions
Institutions make exams available in a wide variety of ways. Some are password protected but some are available to the public. Take advantage of those exams that are available to test your knowledge and exam writing skill. Sort the spreadsheet below by subject, institution, or by the availability of a model answer and follow the hyperlinks to the outside institution's website for the full text of the exam.
Download the spreadsheet here
Library Resources on Exam Taking
The law library maintains a collection of resources to inform and assist students in exam preparation. Find these books primarily in the law library's open reserve collection. Ask a librarian for help and for finding additional resources, electronic or in print.