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What to Do If You're Stuck Taking a Closed-Book Exam

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Law school exams are terrible, but they do have one thing going for them: they're almost all open-book and open-note exams. Make a great outline and you can relax about having to memorize every nook and cranny of the law. But not every exam is an open one. In some exams, it's just you and your mind left to conquer those hypotheticals and pound out those essays. And they're tough -- maybe the closest thing to the bar exam you'll get before the bar exam.

But they're not impossible. You just have to have a unique approach to conquering the closed-book exam. Here are some tips to help you out.

1. Make an Outline at the Very Start

Just because you can't bring an outline to the exam doesn't mean you can't make one once you're there. We're not talking about a full, 50-page long outline reviewing all relevant laws and caselaw, of course. We're talking a simple attack sheet.

You'll want to go into the test with notes in mind. These could be guides to tackling hypotheticals, a list of the most important cases to reference, or a checklist of points to cover in your responses. Once the exam starts, jot that stuff down before you forget it. Then you'll have it there to help you out once you dive in to the actual material.

Just make sure you're not writing a book. The notes you make at the start shouldn't take more than a minute or two. You'll need the rest of the exam time to actually take the exam, after all.

2. Create a Normal Outline, but Don't Depend on It Alone

Most exam studying focuses on creating a killer outline -- then relying on that outline to carry you through the exam. That's not gonna work here. But you should still create an outline nonetheless! The simple act of compiling your notes, organizing them, and narrowing them down to the most important is going to be beneficial, and a great way to guide your studying.

You'll want to try other study strategies too, though. Consider making flashcards for important terms or cases. Try using mnemonic devices to help you hang on to information. And, most importantly, take practice exams. As many as you can.

3. Memorize the Material That Matters Most

Like any exam prep, the key for studying for a closed-book exam is focusing on what matters. Is your understanding of the main concepts strong? Can you explain and cite and apply the most important caselaw? These are the things you'll want put your energy towards. You've got limited brainspace, after all, so don't waste it on obscure details that are unlikely to matter much on the exam.

If you're not sure what matters, look at what was covered the most in your class. There's a reason certain cases, concepts, and fact patters get emphasized more than others. And if you're still confused about expectations, talk to the professor and other students and dive in to past exams for hints on what is most likely to come up.

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