By: Jenny Lane, Manager Student Engagement, Helix Bar Review
Perhaps your last semester grades were not what you hoped to achieve. Or maybe you were pleasantly surprised! Regardless of how you performed overall on your first set of law school exams, it’s statistically likely that mistakes were made. And there is always room to improve!
It can be frustrating to see results that do not match the amount of effort you put into studying. But remember, mistakes are how you grow as a law student and as an attorney. You might not win every case in court, but you will discover valuable lessons to use for the next trial. Start applying that same philosophy to your law school grades.
Here are some steps you can take to make sure that you’re improving your skills (and scores) each semester.
Step One: Take some time to reflect.
Self-assessment is essential to your success as a law student. To improve, you must first identify strengths and weaknesses in your test-taking skills and study habits. Let’s talk about each in turn.
Evaluating exam performance.
The first step to improving on last semester’s performance is to review your exams. You may be saying to yourself, “but I’m not going to be tested on the Erie doctrine again, why should I bother?” Good question! Even though the material may not come up again (in law school – however, it’s fair game on the bar exam), you can learn a lot by breaking down your answers.
If possible, review essay responses on your own before meeting with your professors. This will ensure a productive review session later. Read each question carefully and try to issue-spot as you go along. Do you see any arguments you may have missed? If so, consider whether the stress of the exam experience may have caused your brain to freeze or whether the time pressure led you to read too quickly and miss key facts.
Then, compare your answer to the grading rubric or sample answer if you have one. If your professor hasn’t provided a key, use your outline to help you determine if you missed important issues or crucial parts of the rules. Assess everything – from formatting to legal analysis. If you don’t know where to start, use this worksheet to help you through a guided exam review (create your free Ask EDNA! account) to access this resource along with other lessons, worksheets, and events to guide and support you on your law school journey!). As you examine your essay responses, it’s more important to note errors in structure, organization, issue-spotting, and analysis than it is to note specific errors in the law. Look for patterns across exams – for example, did you often fail to raise and dismiss plausible arguments that were ultimately not winners? Or did you regularly miss points for not including enough facts in your analysis? This will help you know where to focus your practice for the next semester.
Once you’ve self-assessed your exam performance, it’s time to get some external feedback from your professors. Reviewing exams with your professors can be difficult, but be open to constructive criticism. Be prepared to discuss the exam thoroughly and have specific questions at the ready. Try not to be intimidated (and power through if you are) since it’s your professor’s job to help you learn how to think like a lawyer – and this is all part of the process. Professors are a fount of knowledge when it comes to exam dos and don’ts – they’ve graded many finals and may have valuable tips that will help you perform better on future exams. You just have to be willing to ask for help!
If you would like to learn more about exam review strategies, check out the free Ask EDNA! lesson What Can You Learn From Your Law School Grades?
Critically assessing your study habits.
Now that you’ve autopsied your exams, it’s time to evaluate your study habits from last semester. Did you prioritize law school over other activities? Were you regularly prepared for class discussions? Did you start outlining early enough in the semester? Did you utilize practice questions? Did you use supplements to help fill in any gaps in your studies? Be honest when assessing your study habits – only you know the answers to these questions, and they will be key to your plan for improvement.
If you answered “no” to any of these questions, consider switching up your study plan. Don’t feel like you must flip the script entirely, though. Maintain practices that worked and tweak those that didn’t. Think about how much time went into a study task. Was it necessary? Was it productive? Was it worth the energy, effort, or stress? If not, consider ways to achieve the results more efficiently. There are many small but impactful changes that you can make during the next semester to help you succeed. Re-commit to the law school process and don’t give up!
Step Two: Come up with a plan.
It’s not enough to identify skills you want to develop or strategies to improve upon – you should also put together an actionable plan for improvement. For example, if you struggle with time management, commit to using an online planner or written agenda to visually track your weekly progress and identify where you may need to spend more time on certain classes or assignments. If you found yourself often flying by the seat of your pants last semester, set goals for what you would like to accomplish weekly to stay on track with outlining, case briefing, reading, and practicing. If you studied alone, consider joining a study group or vice versa. Once you find the study method that works best for you, stick with it.
You don’t have to create a plan on your own. You have support and resources all around you. Talk to an upper-level student about how they adjusted their study program throughout law school. Ask classmates in your section if they’re doing anything differently this time around. Your school also has someone (or multiple people) on staff to support its law students. Whether in the office of academic success or student affairs, these are people who advise law students year after year. They’ve seen it all and can listen to your self-diagnosis and help you to come up with a plan based on your strengths and weaknesses.
Step Three: Exercise self-care.
Law school is hard. Full stop. And it can feel really defeating to put your all into something and not achieve the results you hoped for. If you’re feeling disappointed, give yourself time to process your first semester results. Make sure to reach out for assistance if you feel that test anxiety or learning differences played a part in your performance. You should not feel shy about asking for help – many people find they need additional support in law school.
Do something each week that will recharge your batteries. Whether it’s watching your favorite TV show, taking your dog for a walk, grabbing lunch with your friends, or playing pick-up basketball at the gym, take time to do something you love outside of law school.
Try not to compare yourself to others during this process. Everyone has a different growth curve in law school, so it doesn’t help to worry about how you measure up to your peers. This can be easier said than done when everyone around you is obsessed with the grading curve, but it is important to focus on what you can do to help your circumstances. If you’ve done your best, you’re doing law school right.
Finally, remember that your grades do not define you! The world is full of successful lawyers who earned sub-par GPAs. If you learn lessons from your missteps and use the tools at your disposal to improve your performance, you’ll achieve your professional and academic goals. You can do this!