A Theory of Exam Prep

By Dave Woods

I have a friend who thinks of his exams as monsters he needs to slay. Like Theseus preparing for the Minotaur, he arms himself with an array of weapons: hornbooks and nutshells, withdrawals from outline banks, pre-written proto-answers, even lectures on C.D. to operationalize his commute. My theory of exam-prep entails a lot less accouterment because, for me, the exam isn’t the Minotaur—it’s the Labyrinth.

I’d say you don’t take the class: you take the professor. And your professors are smart people who, pretty much by definition, did really well in law school. They had a lot of options. Yet this cadre, and its colleagues, chose to write and teach the law for a living. They forwent a more lucrative or more celebrated path because they really care about the nature of the law. I suspect they see in it a principle that needs championing or a puzzle that needs solving. I think they became scholars to publicize and explicate those unique facets of the law.

We are one of the audiences with which they share those insights. So, when we write technically perfect—but traditional, anodyne—exam answers, aren’t we disappointing them? If our professors had long ago decided that the law texts already had the answers, would they have become professors? I don’t think so. That makes handing them textbook exam answers seem almost like an insult.

I’ve never bought a hornbook or read a nutshell. I’ve never done a CALI lesson. All I do is take the syllabus, read every assigned page, and go to every class I possibly can. Once in class, my motto is “There are no tangents”: wherever the discussion goes, I do my very best stenography. I try to get it all into an outline—not an outline that tracks well with the box-standard version, but one that tracks the actual (perhaps seemingly obscure, perhaps discursive) course chartered by my professor. I want to discover my professor’s unique take on the law, and there’s no other way to do that.

Admittedly, this method means outlining a pretty subjective version of the subject. There’s the danger of becoming the student just trying to tell the professor what he or she wants to hear. I definitely don’t recommend that. But if you think of your exam prompt as a labyrinth, and think of your exam answer as a serpentine path to the solution, a path illuminated by the uniquely crafted advice of your professor, I think you not only show that professor that you got the point, you actually do get the point—a point more exciting and unexpected than anything you’ll find in even the best nutshell.