It’s the last day of classes. There are 5 days until your first law school final exam. You know you aren’t prepared to take the exam but you don’t know how to be. Those 5 days are stretching out in front of you— daunting. You’re used to schedules just being decided for you by classes, but now you have five unstructured, terrifyingly empty days in front of you to figure out how not to fail. And you’re freaking out.
Okay, deep breath. You’ll be alright. In and out. You’re going to be okay. Seriously.
For many law students, law school is the first time they’ve ever had a reading period or break between the last day of classes and their final. It makes the whole experience feel insurmountable sometimes. But the comforting part is that lots of people have done this before you, and we’ve all survived.
Know first: there’s no right way to do reading period. There is no one recipe for success that applies to everyone. Use the time in the way best suited to you, and you’re doing it right. Honestly, the only way to do reading period wrong is not to do reading period. If you were looking for a silver bullet, sorry.
What is important is creating a plan and sticking to it. Whatever your plan is, use it. It’s easy to make a minor exception for yourself and then another and another until you just have one giant exception to the plan. So don’t start yourself down that path. Be intentional about your plan and then follow it. At the same time, know that no one thing is going to make or break your success on an exam, so one mistake or deviation from your plan is not a monumental disaster.
Second, you don’t have to have a study group, but just because you’ve never had one before doesn’t mean you can’t start now. I never had a study group in undergrad, but my law school study group has been invaluable. Study groups are emotional support to brook the terror, and they’re amazing sounding boards to help work through academic content or talk through practice exams. And no two study groups are alike. So, like reading period, there’s no right way to do a study group.
A few things to know about study groups:
- You don’t have to be in one. It’s optional. Sometimes it can be helpful, but plenty of people succeed without one, so if it’s really not your thing, that’s cool too.
- Even if you have a study group, it doesn’t mean you can’t also study on your own. It’s not an either-or choice. Maybe you study on your own all year and then you have a group for your reading period. Study on your own during reading period but join a group to go over exams together. You can combine study styles to your heart’s content.
- You don’t have to be in a study group with your friends. Sometimes it actually helps not to be with your friends because you’re less likely to get off topic. Sometimes it helps to be with your friends for moral support. Try it and see.
- Study groups can change. If one study group for one class didn’t work for you, try something different the next time around. Pick different people or different strategies or all of the above.
- It’s never too late to start a study group. Just because pre-reading period you didn’t set up a study group doesn’t mean you can’t join one now. Just because you didn’t have a study group for the last exam doesn’t mean you can’t join one for the next exam. Ask around if you’re interested. (Pro tip: if you’re worried about not being able to find one, no one says no to someone who comes bearing food. Just saying.)
- Rely on your study group to help you do your work, but don’t expect your study group to do your work for you. That is, your study group is a resource, but you’re still going to have to take this exam on your own.
- Speaking of which, create your own outline. Do not just use study group members’. Do not. Do not. Do not. If you remember anything about studying for reading period, remember that you need to outline on your own.
Well what are you actually supposed to do during reading period? Well, it’s really up to you what you choose, but there are a few core guidelines.
First off, regardless if you’re in a study group or not, practice, practice, practice. One of the toughest things about law school exams are the tight timelines. Even if you know all the content inside and out, sometimes the time makes it hard to show that you know what you’re doing. It can feel like a lot of pressure. So take at least one— if not more— practice exams during reading period. If you can master your nerves at the timing of it, your brilliant legal knowledge will shine through. Plus, your law school probably has a database of past exams your professor has given that you can check out to get a feel for their exam style. (AND many professors are super awesome and will even look over practice exams you’ve completed and give you pointers on what to do better next time if you give them enough forewarning and ask nicely.)
Even if you don’t take a practice exam in a timed scenario (although I still advocate trying it at least once before your first ever law school exam), it’s useful to at least outline answers to essay questions and/or do multiple choice questions and then check them against the answers. If the answers aren’t available, you can talk through your answers with your study group if you have one.
Additionally, the ideal scenario is that by the time you enter reading period, your outlines are already done. You need to budget time to actually study the outline and do practice exams, so do not plan to spend the entirety of reading period outlining. You need to give yourself time to digest the concepts you’ve learned/outlined.
This is not to say that you can’t touch your outlines at all during reading period. In fact, my group’s strategy is bringing our completed outlines to our study group session two or three days out from the exam and then going over each topic of it together, point by painstaking point. We literally spend an entire day or two taking turns reading our outlines aloud and talking through sticky issues. It’s a good exercise for auditory learners to hear the entire course condensed into a few hours/days or for visual learners to reread a condensed version of the course, and you have to engage with the content if you’re talking about it or trying to find what someone else is talking about in your outline which is a good way to make connections between topics that were initially learned weeks apart.
(Yes, we know, that our strategy is more intensive than many other study groups’, and that’s okay, too. Do what floats your boat. Many other study groups may elect to do flashcards together or talk through only key concepts, and then spend the bulk of their time doing practice problems together. My group only spends 6-8 hours the last day before the exam comparing multiple choice and essay answers on practice exams. What your group does is up to you.)
If you’re a visual learner, learn visually. Make a flowchart. Use note cards. Draw a mind map. Create charts. Grab a study room and cover the entire whiteboard with a diagram of the course. And if it doesn’t make sense to someone else, it doesn’t have to; you’re doing it for you. You’re going to take the exam, so study the way you learn best.
Study for an open-book exam just like you would for a closed-book exam. The books you bring with you into the exam room are useful (1) as moral support, (2) to cite specific provisions or language from a source of law, or (3) refine very particular issues should you have time at the end of the exam. But that’s about it. That is to say: you are not going to have time to look everything up during the exam itself, so you still really need to learn the information.
When you’re done studying for the day, be done studying for the day. If you’re studying at school, make sure you leave the law school at a reasonable time at the end of the day. My study group usually came together 10 AM to 5 or 6 PM with a 1 hr lunch break. And while we went home afterwards and did some independent studying, I don’t think I ever actually studied past 10 or 11 PM because after that my brain needed time to just be. The cool thing, though, is that even while you’re not consciously studying, if you’ve immersed yourself in studying all day, while you’re sleeping or watching TV your brain is still synthesizing and organizing the information you were looking at. So prepare yourself with strange CivPro dreams.
Also, I beg of you, take care of yourself. Reading period can be intense, but do not forget to eat and sleep and bathe. Self care, y’all. You need to take time to unwind. Before an exam AND after. Take breaks throughout studying to get lunch with your study group or take some quiet time for yourself. And the day of the exam, once it’s over, don’t talk about it with anyone or worry about what-ifs, just take the rest of the day completely and totally off from studying. Just relax. The most important thing is not to consume yourself with studying to the point that you just become a ginormous ball of stress; you will fall apart if you cannot take care of yourself. And your grade will suffer as a result.
Finally, just breathe. Trust in the process. You are going to be okay. You’ve been getting ready for this all semester. Your professor has prepared you with all the tools you need to ace the exam. Believe in yourself and all the amazing moments that led you to this point. Just take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. In and out.