Wednesday, June 3, 2015

My Finals Survival Checklist

            This title was recommended to all of us bloggers as a topic that would be appropriate for this time of the year, and it may well be because a checklist is one of the most valuable documents a law student can create in preparing for a final exam. 


            Let me preface: finals are a bit terrifying.  In your first year, most classes like Property, Torts, Contracts, and Civil Procedure are 5 units and they are required to have a mid-term exam, which counts for somewhere between 15-25% of your final grade.  It’s meant to give you an idea of how you’re doing and where you might need to improve your understanding of the material or hone your exam-taking skills.  But that still leaves 75-85% of your grade to the final exam.  With subsequent courses, the final exam is often 100% of your grade.  And grades matter in law school.  They really matter.  Employers select interviewees based on grades.  Big Law partners mention Order of the Coif on their webpage 30 years after graduation.  So you want to do the best you can on your finals.


            One of the best techniques for doing well on a final exam is to create a checklist.  I did this for Contracts my first year, and it made all the difference.  A typical law school exam will have a fact pattern, a little story where the characters have legal problems with each other, and it’s your job to “IRAC”:  spot the Issues, state the Rule, Apply the rule, and come to a Conclusion.  (IRAC is an acronym you’ll hear tossed around all the time in law school.)  When reading through a fact pattern, I like to make notes as soon as I spot an issue or possible issue – sometimes it’s a red herring.   Some issues jump out right away and it’s easy to dive into those and begin your analysis.  But inevitably, there are other issues that are not so obvious, and that’s when it’s good to have a checklist.  Generally speaking, the professors are going to test you on all the material they covered during the course of the semester or the year.  A 5 unit class will have about 70 hours of lecture.  That is going to be A LOT of material, so having a checklist can be really useful. 

In the contracts final, as soon as the exam started, I used the scratch paper provided and wrote my 25-point checklist.  It was basically a list of all the topics we had covered.  It only took a minute to write it, but then I could go through my analysis and make sure I had covered every element on that list.  And there were a few issues I wouldn’t have spotted without the checklist.  As the adage goes, you find what you’re looking for.  And having a checklist is a very good way to make sure you find the things that will lead you to a better grade.

My Finals Survival Checklist

There is law school and there are finals, and they are two very different experiences. A tour guide at Loyola told me this before I started law school and I could not agree more. The entire campus environment shifts during finals. Emails stop, hours of operation change, and an aura of seriousness looms over the campus. It is easy to be overwhelmed with anxiety over the ominous curve and often only having one test to show that you have learned everything from the class. Thankfully, as I am preparing for my fourth semester of law school finals, I have picked up some dos and don'ts that alleviate some of the stress.

·      You know more than you think you do – With so many classes and topics dancing around your head, it is easy to feel as if you have not quite mastered anything. However, while outlining and studying, things the professor said and things you read magically start to come back to you like a dream in a Disney movie. I cannot quite explain why, but they really do.

·      Take care of yourself, eat right, exercise and sleep every night – Sounds cliché, but when you feel as if everything in on the line it is easy to start making small sacrifices to your health. For most students, finals period includes a week and a half of reading period and one to three weeks of exams. With almost a month dedicated to finals, it really is much more like a marathon, than the sprint of undergraduate exams; and sugar crashes and sore throats do not make for optimal information retention.

·      Environment is everything – Everyone studies differently and it is important to figure out where you study best. Some people study in the library, while others like local cafes, and still others like to study at home. I am a bit of a nomad studier, personally. I study as long as I can in one place and then a change in scenery keeps me from getting antsy. I have also realized that when I am studying independently, I am a stickler for noise. I invested in some good earplugs my first semester, and during finals they are never out of arms reach.

·      Don't overlook the important of knowing the logistics – Law school exams can make you feel like you are taking the SAT . . . every single time. There are assigned rooms, strict rules about what you can bring in, when you can and cannot take food and bathroom breaks, and specific rules for the particular exam from your professor. In particular, it is important to make sure you have the updated software and know where you are supposed to go for the exam. It is very easy to get thrown off your game when you walk into the wrong room for your final because you assumed you were with the same group of testers you were with for a previous exam or when you did not update to the latest software so you have to take the exam by hand unexpectedly . . . not that I personally know anything about those embarrassing situations J

My Finals Survival Checklist

With finals rapidly approaching, it is time to implement my 4-step end of semester routine. 

Step 1. Schedule time off.  As an evening student, the tension between work and academic priorities peaks during exam season.  I ask for time off strategically, such as the day before and the day of an exam, as well days during reading period.  Fortunately, this year I am able to take a few weeks off between my year-round position and my summer position, allowing me to focus wholly on my studies.

Step 2. Outline.  Professors teach material over the course of four months (or more for year-long classes).  It is impossible to remember every detail from every class, which is why law students typically outline their courses before finals.  Outlining is a way to review, organize, and shorten material on paper before exams.  This ensures material is fresh in your mind.


Step 3. Memorize.  I create a long outline that has notes and details covered in class; then I create a short outline that I memorize nearly verbatim.  The short outline lays out a structure for me to use when responding to exam questions and helps me remember important points from my long outline. 


Step 4. Practice.  Many professors have previous exams available for students.  Even if they don't, they often make sample exams available or recommend supplements with practice questions.  Practice is essential for me to be able to complete an exam efficiently and thoroughly.  Since many exams are designed so that a well-prepared student needs the entire allotted time, there is little room for trial by error, reorganization of answers, or excessive time spent remembering the rule.

While I generally follow these rules, sometimes I adapt them based on the exam format and time constraints for studying.  So when I am asked how I prepare for finals, my answer, like my answer to most law-related questions, is that "it depends."   

My Finals Survival Checklist

  1. Coffee—and lots of it!  When I’m feeling a little over-loaded with coffee, I sometimes switch to green tea.
  2. A quiet area as free from distractions as possible. 
  3. Lots of blank flash cards and comfortable pens (your hands might feel numb after writing hundreds of rules and cases on flash cards).
  4. Highlighters—zero in on those important rules and terms.
  5. Outlines—your own and those of others who’ve already taken the class, if those outlines are available.  It’s beneficial to compare/contrast.
  6. Snacks.  You might forget to eat otherwise.
  7. Some funny law school memes online to remind yourself that you are not alone in the struggle and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
  8. Understanding friends/family.  You might not see them for a while, and they should be able to handle that. 
  9. Dogs.  They are excellent de-stressers.  Nothing like a good, furry hug and game of fetch to break the monotony and make you feel like a human again. 
  10. The occasional break, whether it’s to hit the gym, go for a walk, or get a massage. 
  11. No matter how tempting it is—RESIST THE URGE TO STUDY IN BED.  It will not work.  And, no, you will not resume studying at 4AM if you fall asleep at 2AM.
  12. Having said #11, GET SLEEP!  Finals are a marathon, not a sprint.  It’s one thing to stay up all night finishing a memo or law brief, if you can spend the next day snoozing after you’ve turned the paper in.  But, for a 4-hour final exam, you cannot be dozing off.  You need to be on your A-game, and that’s not possible unless you’re well-rested.
  13. Make plans to attend the post-finals bar review, or make plans to go on vacation after your last final (if all else fails, there’s always Disneyland).  Then, tuck that idea away and do not re-explore it until your last final is over.
  14. Remember to get your vitamin D.  Sometimes I take my flashcards out to the backyard and study outside on a lounge chair.  Makes studying so much less unpleasant.
  15. After a particularly draining day, run a bath.  Soak.  Re-charge.  Get back to work.   

My Final Exams Survival Checklist

Final exams are coming in just a couple weeks.  Now that it’s my 4th semester of exams, I’ve narrowed down what I study. 


1. My list of cases for the entire course, with the notes I took on each one as to “standout facts”, “the takeaway”, and “nuances of the case” which include interesting ideas that were set forth in the court’s opinion.  I use this to memorize the case names and facts as best I can so I can think of them immediately.  


2. My stack of printouts of every case’s “pro” case brief that I found on line to read through each one in case I missed anything by reading the actual cases or from taking notes in class. 


3. My “List” list…this is where I write down every kind of rule and element to each rule, again to memorize it completely, with quick references to which cases they apply.


4. My Acronym Page.  This is the page where I write down the first letter of every single case, term, and element of rules I’ve memorized.  I create some crazy acronym so that when I sit down on the exam, the first thing I do in the first 5 minutes of that exam is to write it down so I have a quick reference list to use AT the exam…this way I don’t forget a rule or a case.  


5. My lucky ear plugs.  I’ve used the same ear plugs since my first exam in law school and will continue to use them until I graduate.  I know it’s gross but I feel they bring me good luck.  


6.  My quick before-exam prayer with my eyes closed, “God please let me get at least a B+ on this exam.  I’ve studied really really hard.  PLEASE GOD? (eyes squinting harder) Thanks much. (relax eyes)  Amen.”