TLS was very helpful in my application and preparation process for school, so I wanted to give some feedback on what I’ve learned after my 1st year in the hopes that this will help someone else (although much of this has already been said in other posts). I am currently ranked # 2 in my class and have a 3.93 GPA at a second tier (albeit highly competitive) school.
First off, in my opinion you do not have to be a genius (I’m certainly not) or spend an exorbitant amount of time studying in order to be at the top of the class. The one “natural” talent that you can bring to law school that will give you a significant advantage is an ability to write well. Otherwise, we are all on fairly equal footing.
You do need to know the material. That includes the rules and some basic facts about the cases. But the real distinction comes in application of the rules/cases to a new fact pattern. In order to do that well you need to practice. Therefore, in my opinion, the number one most important thing to do in order to perform well on an exam is to take actual practice exams under real conditions. You don’t even have to have mastered all the rules or the cases before you start taking practice exams. You’ll pick up a fair amount of rule/case-based knowledge as you practice. When you are doing tests, make sure you write out the entire test and do not look at an answer or discuss it with anyone until you have done it yourself.
The next most important thing you need to know is your Professor’s style. If the Professor likes concise and to the point answers, then that’s what you need to focus on. If they go off on philosophical tangents about certain aspects of the law, then give them that. If they really focus on facts in each case, then make sure to recite all relevant facts in your answer and apply them to the law. If they focus on a particular case in class, then make sure to cite it on the exam. You can pick up these queues from how the Professor teaches the class.
Remember, the key to being at the top of your class is doing well in ALL of your classes. You’ll see some students acing some exams and getting Bs and Cs in others. That’s likely because they have the same test taking strategy in every class. The only way to do well in every class is to adapt your test taking style. Writing a long winded epic of an answer will look thorough and brilliant to one teacher and like you just threw in the kitchen sink b/c you didn’t understand the question to another. For example, I knew my Civ Pro teacher loved large rule sections at the beginning of every answer so I wrote out boiler-plate for every pertinent rule in the class. If I had done that for torts I would have bombed the test, because he hated long rules w/o application to the facts.
Other minor things: if you can, know the case names. Teachers will always say, you don’t have to know the case names, just describe what the case said or state the pertinent facts. That may be true, but I think citing cases by name shows a slightly deeper understanding of the material and also makes your writing more concise. Remember, your Professor will probably be tired and irritated from grading all the earlier exams by the time they get to yours, so you need to stand out and show that you really know everything about the material. Throwing in some humor can also help.
Another minor point, don’t get hung up on IRAC, especially if you find it is dragging you down or causing you to focus more on form over substance. While IRAC is necessary in your legal writing class, writing an exam is a TOTALLY different thing. I’m a fairly creative writer and when I tried to use IRAC, my answers came out forced and I missed a lot issues. If you’ve read “Getting To Maybe”, which I highly recommend, you’ll see that a good exam answer will lead you in a lot of different directions. You don’t have time to waste on IRAC. That being said, you should make sure that your answer does at least spot issues, state rules and have analysis/conclusions somewhere.
Also, this is really personal preference, but don’t feel like you have to spend a lot of time outlining before writing the exam. I was more effective reading the question twice, thinking a bit about it and then just writing the answer out. I know other people did better with an outline. Figure out what works best for you by taking lots of practice tests.
What you do not have to focus on (and almost everyone spends way to much time on this) is class participation. Grades are almost entirely based on the exam, so don't feel like you need to memorize every detail about a case or have a brief prepared before class. I have not briefed a single case in law school thus far and don't feel like I've missed out on anything. All of my time in class is focused on figuring out what the teacher thinks is important, writing down key rules and plugging them into an outline that I keep up to date throughout the class. Most of the time, when I got called on in class I could barely answer the questions and looked pretty stupid, but I'm not really too worried about that now. If you want to make up some points in terms of class participation the easy way, just send the teacher an email after class with a really good observation or question.
A final tip in terms of preparing for class: know what/why you are reading a case before you read it and only focus on those aspects of the case. There will be a lot of extraneous information/facts in each case, but the Professor only really cares about the single rule and supporting facts that it is intended to teach. Students in my class focused on these miniscule details that were totally irrelevant to the case and the class. Those were usually the same people who totally missed the point of the question on an exam. Stay focused. You have A LOT to remember so try not to waste your time with extra crap.