Okay, so I’m not afraid of exams – but I’ve never been more nervy about tests in my life. And I’ve DEFINITELY never devoted this much time to a final…not even for you, Astronautical Engineering.
Luckily, I started off the Study Period with a very satisfying Thanksgiving. It was way better than last year’s, when I was on alert and working a night shift. Now, the chefs cook a mean Thanksgiving meal for the cops and missileers in the field; full-on turkey, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, green beans, yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. I’m not the biggest fan of those last two things, so I asked the chef if I could just write them down with a “minus” sign or something, and get the rest of the meal without them. She said sure and I went happily downstairs, knowing I’d have some BOMB food when I woke up that night.
Only, when my crew partner woke me up at 10 pm, I had – you guessed it! – a big ole plate of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie 🤦🏼♀️
This year I also ate cranberry sauce, but alongside all the other Thanksgiving goodies. Ben and I went to our Air Force friends’ place, with their aunt and two nieces in from Minnesota; we ate a TON of food, drank some wine, and watched the Bears squarely beat the Lions. Of course, I benched Kenny Golladay from my Fantasy team five seconds before he had an absolutely KILLER game but…se la vie. The day was perfect.
Now, we’re just 8 days and roughly 5 hours from The First Exam. This week is called “Reading Period,” and it’s meant (YEP) for reading. There are three stages to exam-prep; as of today, Dec 2, we are in Phase 2.
Phase 1: Outlining
Outlining is the fancy-schmancy way law students study. Basically, you go back over the entire course – concepts, facts, cases, holdings, rules, policy implications – and synthesize it into a single document. Outlines are usually split into overarching concepts with smaller ideas and cases within each section, but it’s just whatever order makes most sense for you personally.
I can have the outline with me during the exams – they’re all open note. But I’ve heard if you’re heavily relying on notes during the actual test, you’re kinda toast. Outlines are more a tool for studying than a day-of resource. Now, when I remember that I’ve never taken these before and have NO idea what I’m doing, I get the tiniest bit panicky – so I’m just gonna explain my study method with confidence.
I started by taking the syllabus for each class; writing out the big ‘header’ concepts and a brief explanation of each; writing out each case name, a few details, and the holding/rule of each; and identifying any common law concepts (ie, something Judges consistently do w/o it being in a law or statute) or statutes/codes/rules that apply. Just for fun, I counted the cases in my Contracts class just to see how many there were…
113. There were one hundred and thirteen cases in that dumb class. And that is one class, of four. Outlining took FOREVER.
1b) Check yo work
Once my own outlines were done, I tried to identify questions I had or concepts I was still fuzzy on. Then I went to to a student-run bank o’ knowledge (think: old test answers uploaded, a million outlines, and professor reviews galore) to compare my outlines with ones on there. This helped a LOT because it made me 1. re-organize my own outlines into more coherent structures, 2. condense them significantly, and 3. ID more issues that I didn’t fully understand. I also went back (somewhat) through my class notes to supplement the outlines and clarify them further. That was rough – my organization was definitely lacking this semester.
Phase 2: Practice Tests
Thank GOODNESS some professor told us “you guys HAVE to take practice exams” because I truly had no idea. That wasn’t an option at the Academy – old exams just weren’t available. But after taking two old exams (neither of which went swimmingly) I am beyond thankful for this advice. These bad boys are no joke.
As I’ve said before, each one is three hours long and includes between 3 to 4 questions. Three of the exams will have 2-3 “issue spotters,” which test our ability to look at a situation and ID the potential problems with it, and 1 policy question, which broadly tests our knowledge of the legal difficulties underlying that subject. The fourth will only have one extensive scenario, but asks questions about the potential issues raised by three different parties.
Now, EVERY professor has said the key to success is “about quality, not quantity.” But my examination of past answers has determined THAT I NEED BOTH. People usually write like ten pages on these tests, and the good ones are ten straight pages of well-formulated FIRE. Like I said, I’ve only taken two and they were not super pretty. I identified most of the concepts on both, got at least one major thing completely wrong, and threw them all into an absolute garbage can of organization. yeesh.
These practice exams showed me that one, there is absolutely no time for digging through books and outlines and two, 3 hours is a loooooong time. I’m definitely going to take more full tests because I need to get used to that. Plus, the more tests I see, the more comfortable I’ll become with the format, expected answer formation, and timing standards.
Phase 3: Fine-Tuning
All exams are taken on specific software which tracks how much time you spent on the test, when you turned it in, and if you accessed the internet. In fact, I think it blocks the internet altogether…but I’m not going to test it. Before the first test, I need to download the software and take a practice exam on it; apparently, it’s NOT like Microsoft Word. I also need to hark back to my LSAT days to roughly map out the exam timing.
There are two big questions about timing. First, how much time should I spend reading the actual exam and outlining the answer? This obviously critical because, if you answer the wrong question, YA DONE. Plus, the difference between a good exam and a great exam is often the author’s organization and clarity. So far I’ve been GREAT at rambling, so this is something I need to spend time with. Second, how much time do I spend on each answer and how do I make sure I’m not scrambling at the end?
Additionally, three of the four exams are proctored in classrooms on campus. Even though they start at 2 pm, you can BET I’ll figure out exactly which building and what room they’re in the day before. Also, 10 out of 10 will take a 12:30 bus so that, even if the dang thing BREAKS DOWN, I can walk to school if necessary. Easier said than done, there’s about a foot of snow on the ground right now, but no need to add more stress onto an already stressful day!
The fourth and final exam is a take-home, and I plan to do it seated comfortably at my own freaking desk, in sweats (lol I’ll be in sweats for all of them, let’s be real) and starting as SOON as the test opens. I’ve never been a last-minute crammer; at some point, you just gotta call it good. But I need to make sure the software works on our wifi, that I can print off the prompt after downloading it, and (hopefully!) can hook up to a second monitor to display my outline on one side while typing the exam on the other.
This all started last Wednesday and I will be holed up until Wednesday, Dec 18. Just alternating between improving my outlines, reviewing notes, and mixing practice tests with real tests. I’m making myself go to yoga and run; Ben and I went to a Wild game last week (thanks Sam P for tickets!) and are going to a Hawks game on Thursday (my Christmas gift to…me, really). This Reading Week/outlining stuff really is a next level of time commitment, concentration, and effort that I’ve never had to exert for exams before. But I’m doing it, so here’s hoping it pays off!!