Exam Taking Tips
criminal law

copyright © Ray Moses 2001-2017 
all rights reserved

                         VIDEO                             VIDEO

Rule One: Be ready for the unexpected. (1) (2)

Rule Two: Accomplish the great task by a series of small tasks. 

It is a fundamental principle of human behavior that individuals
seek to accomplish their tasks with minimal effort.

People don't read.
Steve Jobs

We don't plan to fail. We fail to plan.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

If you're going through hell, keep going!
Sir Winston Churchill

Ignorance is bliss,
Until exam time rolls around.

I don't know, I don't care, and it doesn't make any difference.
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

Law school is the opposite of sex. Even when it's good, it's lousy.

Sample Short Answer Essay Question:
Define the universe, and give three examples.

Cheating on exams in the electronic age -
Exam proctors (or is it proctorologists?) look for stuff like this.

Life isn't really all that serious.  (1), (2), (3), (4), (5) (6 -Coping).
It all depends on your point of view. (1)*, (2) (3)

Ramen noodles build character, and
practice exams can be useful.

Michigan Professor McCormack weighs in on preparing for exams.
Guapa y muy inteligente.


    The Importance of Doing Well in Your First Year
    Law Schools Differ in Their Value Sets, Mission, and Student Body
    Classroom Participation and Preparation Law School Exams Differs from Your           Undergraduate College Experience.
    Study the Table of Contents of Your Casebook and the Hornbook
    Create a Checklist of Crimes and Defenses.
    Bookmark a Glossary of Criminal Law Terms and Learn Them
    Make Yourself a Comparison Chart Contrasting Crimes and Defenses Under
         the Common Law, the MPC, and Your State's Penal Code
    Make Yourself an Outline
    Review Jury Charges (Instructions) If Your Teacher Is Emphasizing Elements
    Take Full Advantage of the Resources, Suggestions, and Hints that Your Teacher                  Has Made Available
     Anticipate the Questions
     Get the Jump on the Exam
     Use the Internet to Find Some Sample Questions and Give Yourself
          a Mini-Practice Exam Under Timed Conditions
     Private Enterprises Will Be Happy to Teach You How to Succeed on Law
          School Exams in Exchange for A  Bit of Lucre
     Open Book Exams Are No Easier Than Closed Book Exams
Where to Begin
Read the General Exam Instructions
Read the Instructions Within the Essay Question. i.e., the "Call of the Question",
          Before You Read the Hypothetical Facts of the Question
Essay Questions & IRAC
Read the Question from Bottom to Top to Bottom. 
Outline Your Essay Answer Before Starting to Write
Start at the Beginning Stay on a Clear Course to the End
     Don't Start Your Essay Answer with a Flowery Memorized Prefatory Statement.
Don't Restate All of the Facts, Only the Relevant Facts
Don't Add Facts to a Question, Unless It Is Essential
Don't Fill Up Your Narrative Answer to the Essay With a String of Case Cites
"If" Is a Dangerous Word - "Because" Is a Good Word
Don't State Legal Conclusions Without Reasons
You've Got to Dig Quite a Few Issues Out of a Mountain of Facts -  You Probably            Won't Spot All of Them.
Handle the Issues One at a Time.
Keep Your Mind Open to Both Sides of the Issue and Think Before You Write
Apply the Principles You Have Learned in an Organized Manner
Sort Out Who the Actors Are, and, in Your Answer, Use the Same Label
Your Professor Used in the Question
Use Bold Headlines
Use Plenty of Paragraphs and Leave the Grader Some White Space for
Comments, Maybe by Double Spacing Your Typewritten Answer and Writing
on Every Second Line on a Write-On or Blue Book Hand-Written Answer
Use Complete But Simple Sentences with Short, Correctly Spelled Words
Write Cleanly, Legibly and Big
There's Not Much Time or Cause for Humor or Levity
If You Have Time, Go Back Through and Review Your Answers,
Lightly Highlighting Headlines and Key Phrases and Words
OBEY THE EXAM PROCTOR - "Time is up. Please stop writing."
Clear the Decks
Steel Yourself Against Panic
Look At Your Professor's  Previous Exam Questions, and Practice Answering Them
Don't Overlook the Codes When Studying for the Exam
Look At Videotaped Advice from the Person Who Made the Top Grade
in a Recent Class Taught by Your Professor
Make Healthy Choices
SONG - "Law School"

The law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship.
Joseph Story
U.S. Supreme Court Justice

Jack Kerouac's approach to life is appealing, but if you are a law student, finals are like taxes, inevitable. So you might as well get ready. These are some random thoughts on preparing for and taking my first year criminal law exam. The suggestions may be of some use to students in other criminal law sections and other law schools. Many of the tips also apply to exam taking in general. These tips are guideposts, not hitching posts. Your approach to the exam should be based on your own perceptions and inventiveness, but, to me, it's all about proper preparation and execution.

Adjusting to the Law School Experience

The importance of doing well in your first year [ See Findlaw article on first year success, and, if you're just starting your 1L year, read the 22 myths in Peter Lake's, When Fear Knocks: The Myths and Realities of Law School, 29 Stetson L. Rev. 1015 (2000); 29 Stetson Law Review 1015 - 1327 is devoted to Maximizing the Law School Experience.] Before I get to specific suggestions, let me point out the importance of doing well on the 1L core courses taught during the first year. Criminal law is one of those required first year courses. The grades you make in the first 30 semester hours set the tone for the rest of your law school career. This is so because these early grades will be a determinative factor in whether you will be invited to join your school's law review or journal. Your first year scores will also influence whether you will be able to gain a summer clerkship at a good law firm. Grades during the first year will play a big role in one's ability to transfer from one law school to another. Those who don't do well in the first year can, by dedicated effort, dig themselves out of the hole, but without a first year grade cushion, a threat is always present. One bad semester in the second or third year can spell disaster to the student whose average hovers just above a "C." So, the message is: Gut up the first year, and devote yourself to doing well on the exams. See the Law Nerd's advice on achieving great Success in Law School (1).  See also What to Expect in Law School Classes, Briefing Cases, Survival Tips and SMU's First Day Tutorial. If you tanked the first semester, here's some guidance from SLU re pulling yourself out of the tank in your second semester (1). These free undergrad time management forms and study skills tips and this info re organizing your study schedule can be quite useful. Professor Langbien, a scholarly chap who wrote a top-notch book comparing the German criminal justice system with our own, has taken a turn at advising you how generally to write answers to a law school exam exam. You may even find some advice on a YouTube video. [Note: Below you'll find a slough of links to student produced 1L criminal law outlines. I don't guarantee any of them.]

There is a burgeoning  body of literature that caters to the apprehensions of the law student who is trying to survive and/or excel in law school. I have listed ten publications. I wouldn't fork over dinero for any of them, but I would definitely find out if any of the bunch is in my law school's library. If so, I would scan the available group and decide if any seems to merit a more serious read. Here's the list that illustrates the sort of books-of- advice that may be available in your school's library: Calleros, Law School Exams: Preparing and Writing to Win, Aspen (2007); Darrow, Mastering the Law School Exam: A Practical Blueprint for Preparing and Taking Law School Exams, Thomson/West (2007); Dernbach, Writing Essay Exams to Succeed (Not Just Survive). Aspen, 2nd ed (2007); Ramy, Succeeding in Law School, Carolina Academic Press (2006); Burnham, Introduction to the Law and Legal System of the United States, West, 4th ed. (2006); Molitero, An Introduction to Law, Law Study and the Lawyer's Role, Carolina Academic Press, 2nd ed (2004); Shapo, Law School Without Fear: Strategies for Success, Foundation Press, 2nd ed. (2002); Hegland, Introduction to the Study and Practice of Law, West, 2nd ed. (2003); Miller, Law School Confidential: The Complete Law School Survival Guide by Students for Students, New York, St. Martin's Press (2000); and Fischl & Paul, Getting to Maybe: How to Excel On Law School Exams, Durham, North Carolina Press (1999). (1 - for a professor's perspective, take a look at "Inside the Law School Scam")

Law schools differ in their value sets, mission, and student body. All of us are aware that law schools vary widely. Members of the academy (law professors) call this institutional pluralism, i.e., law schools differ. To take one example, there are over seventy state sponsored law schools (I attended one of these, i.e., the University of Texas in Austin.), roughly fifty religiously affiliated schools, e.g., Baptist, Catholic, Disciples of Christ, Jewish, Latter Day Saints, Methodist, etc.,  (I attended one of these, i.e., Southern Methodist University in Dallas.) and a group of other independent law schools that are neither sponsored by the state nor affiliated with a religion (I attended one of these, i.e., Northwestern University in Chicago.). That's just one example of pluralism. There's no reason and not enough space here to say much more than that about the panoply of law schools out there. It'll be up to you, first, to figure out the kind of institution you are attending and, second, to adjust yourself to your intellectual surroundings. Don't expect it to be easy. Studies tell us that law school is tough on your physical and mental well-being. Expect to lose some freedom of choice. The design of first-year "everything hinges on one exam" grading system is almost sure to promote anxiety. Harkening to my own 1L experience, it can be difficult to combine law school with family, marriage, and/or work. If you run into problems, seek counseling - your school will have people on staff whose job it is to assist you in adjusting to the first-year stress.

Classroom participation in law school and preparation for the law school exam differ from your undergraduate college experience. In college, we often attend large class sessions and listen to a teacher lecture about the subject. We take notes. We study the notes and memorize facts. The information flows from the college professor's brain onto our class notes. Class discussion in many college courses is often minimal. In college, our grades are often based on a series of tests, e.g., pop quizzes, mid-terms, research papers, final exams, field studies, etc. Law school is different. You will be called upon in your first year classes to stand up in a group of other students and orally discuss (recite) cases you have read and briefed. Your law professor will invite you to offer a public analysis of subject matter that you have read but have not mastered. The professor may grill you with a bewildering set of hypothetical questions, expecting you to give prescient answers based on a knowledge of law, facts, and policy. Unless you majored in public speaking as an undergrad, the law school emphasis on class discussion can be stressful, even when you have a grip on the material. You may wonder why you should be required to stand up in class and talk about the subject when the person who is paid to teach the class, and who knows a lot more about the subject than you do, seems to do nothing much more than ask questions. The law professor obviously knows the answers to most, if not all, the questions that s/he is asking you to answer. Wouldn't it be simpler for the prof to just give you answers? You could write the information down, memorize it, and regurgitate it on the exam? Why should you be required to brief cases and then have to stand up and be interrogated about them?  It's because lawyers get paid for two things, talking and writing. Yeah, that's what lawyers do. They analyze legal problems and write and/or talk about them for a living. If you look at it that way, it makes sense that some of the law school experience should be about giving you practice in analyzing, writing, and talking about legal matters. It's what you are going to be doing for the next forty years. Might as well start now.

Of course, you much prefer leisure activities to studying. Of course, you don't want to be told what to do by some egocentric professor. Admittedly, lots of the stuff in the curriculum is not exhilarating. But you're here and that means you have four choices re the pressure. They call it the Four "F" Rule -  fight it, flee from it, flow with it, or love it lustfully. My suggestion is that you pick one of the last two - either go with the flow or embrace it with unbridled passion. If you run from it - coming to class unprepared, you'll never really know what's happening. Being a law student is not about what you can get away with. Hating school is even worse because it sours your personality - you wind up eating the menu rather than the meal. In short, confront the difficult while it's still easy or at least manageable. Accomplish the great task of doing well on the final exam by a series of small tasks, i.e., preparing every week. (1 - a blawg guiding the female law student)

The classroom activity in law school differs from the law school exam. In class, we spend  most of our time examining cases (stories about people) that typically involve one crime and one to three dissectible issues that are clearly apparent when you read the appellate court's discussion of them in the opinion(s). In class, we also study specific issues in the penal codes or common law of crimes. The essay portion of the criminal law exam is somewhat different from what we do in class. Long essays focus on problem solving.  The typical long- essay entails a hypothetical story or scenario that involves multiple actors, usually four to eight, committing an array of offenses and having a panoply of potential defenses. Your job is to discover the crimes and defenses packed into a mountain of facts and dig them out for issue analysis and discussion. You may also be called upon to contrast and compare the crimes and defenses that could occur under more than one set of laws, e.g., TPC, MPC, and C/L. If your exam includes objective multiple choice questions, you'll always be instructed to pick the best response; the best response may not be 100% factually perfect, merely the best, i.e., most accurate, response.

Attend class, listen actively, and take notes. As I say later, your professor will be unable during the classroom sessions to avoid giving you some hints about what might be on the exam. You'll hear those hints if you are actively listening instead of multitasking. Take notes when the discussion turns to doctinal law and its applications to facts. You are going to need to know some doctrine.

Review your classroom notes. Do a brief review of your notes shortly after class while your memory is fresh. Do a more orgaized, intense and lengthy review periodically, e.g, each weekend. Staying current on your classroom notes is essential preparation. [Basic truths: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Prior preparation prevents p--s poor performance.]

Here it is  -  Tips on Study and Preparation for Your Criminal  Law Exam (1)

Study the table of contents of your casebook and the hornbook you are using. It's quite easy to be overwhelmed by what appears to be a massive amount of unconnected material. You can see all these trees, but you wonder how big the forest is and where its boundaries are. The way to get a bird's eye view of the forest is to study the table of contents in your casebook. Most of them cover the same subjects, sometimes in different order, e.g., Sources and Nature of Criminal Law; The Principle of Legality; Theories of Punishment (1); Death Penalty and Capital Murder; The Criminal Act - Actus Reus; Omission; The Guilty Mind - Mens Rea; Voluntary and Involuntary Intoxication; Mistake of Fact: Mistake of Law; Complicity; Corporate Criminal Liability; Attempt;  Impossibility; Solicitation; Conspiracy; Criminal Homicide - Intentional and Unintentional; Causation; Assault & Battery; Justification Defenses: Necessity (Choice of Evils), Defensive Force (including Self-Defense, Defense of Another, Defense of Property, Defense of Habitation), Public Authority, Mistake re a Justification Defense; Excuse Defenses: Duress, Mental Illness - Insanity (Distinguished from Incompetence to Stand Trial and Be Executed) & Diminished Capacity, Mistake Excuses; Entrapment; Property Crimes (Including Larceny/Theft, Embezzlement, False Pretenses, Burglary, Robbery); Rape and Sexual Assault. Also, study the table of contents in the hornbook you are using, e.g.,  Dressler's UCL. It will be more precise and will differentiate between the common law and the Model Penal Code. As a fallback, use the table of contents of Parts I (General Provisions) and II (Definition of Specific Offenses) of the Model Penal Code as a framework for your outline. The BRI sales pitch provides a printable free pdf 15-page table of contents for the 76-page outline that they want to sell you; the free table of contents gives you a good overview of the subject matter that you may face in your crimes and defenses course and the bar exam.

There is a logic to the criminal law course. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are a finite number of major topics that will be covered. You'll find your topical outline in the table of contents of your casebook and hornbook. I suggest that you also print out this excellent summary outline available online at no cost from LexisNexis. It's good as a quick refresher. [Note: My students will find that this little outline is hyperlinked by page to each subject on the Assignments web page.] No matter which criminal law casebook you use, bookmark this web page for the audio case files summary of the text of almost all of the cases contained in the jambalaya of casebooks on the market. Here's another handy summary of cases that are contained in many criminal law casebooks; you'll find some of yours in the summary. Here are online casefile briefs of the cases in casebooks by Dressler, Cook & Marcus, Kadish & Schulhofer, and Robinson. Several years ago, one of the most knowledgeable criminal law scholars, Professor Dubber, posted this very useful set of hyperlinks to key cases. The list contains all but recent cases. [Note: For some reason the professors that write criminal law casebooks all seem to favor the same cases. There's a lot of incestuous redundancy. It's probably easy for them to copy each other, but, as a matter of professional courtesy, shouldn't the first prof to find an interesting case out of the available thousands have exclusive claim to it for his or her casebook?]

Create a checklist of crimes and defenses and practice with a good crime movie. Using the table of contents of the casebook and UCL, make yourself a checklist of crimes and defenses. The list won't be extremely long. Here are a couple of efforts that might be styled as quasi-checklists; these might serve as starting points for you. (1 - Univ. of Chicago BLSA), (2 and 3 , the latter being more of a checklist, by a chap, apparently now a lawyer, named Dave Case who warns you of the foolhardiness of relying on other people's notes - I like his style.) Learn to use your list. How? Find yourself a good crime movie that's chock full of crimes, parties (complicitors), and defenses. There are lots of 'em. I like Heat (1) and Fargo, but my favorite is Something Wild (1) (2 - Wild Thing by the Troggs) (The entire movie, with check-walking, malicious mischief, DUI, shoplifting, assault, car theft, kidnapping, abduction, sexual assault,robbery, duress, self-defense, defense of another, necessity, criminal homicide, etc., is on Hulu at the time I'm writing this.) If you can't find a good movie at the video rental store, try YouTube.

Bookmark a glossary of criminal law terms and learn them.  For a start, here's an example. A little Internet search will lead you to better ones.

Make yourself a comparison chart contrasting crimes and defenses under the common law, the TPC, and the MPC. If your criminal law teacher is competent, s/he will test you not only on the common law of crimes, but also on the MPC and, perhaps, on your state's penal code. You can expect that a typical criminal law essay question on my exam will ask you to compare and contrast the results you would get under the C/L, the MPC, and the TPC. Therefore, make yourself a comparison chart that highlights the instances where the MPC and TPC differ from the common law of crimes and defenses. You can probably find a student from a prior class who has such a chart. If so, borrow it and use it a starting point for your own chart. Also, check the Internet - students have posted files of common law - MPC comparison charts -  (1). Of course, to learn this stuff, you eventually need to make your own chart. The effort you expend in making your own chart will cause the information to be much more memorable to you than it will if you simply try to memorize or rely on someone else's comparison chart or outline.

Make yourself an outline. Start your outline at the beginning of the semester. You may want to look at outlines created by other criminal law students: (1), (2 - list of outlines for all subjects), (3 - with a grain of salt), (4a and  4b), (5), (6 - list of top web sites with law school outlines), (7), (8 - Findlaw's list of online criminal law outlines and exams), (9), (10), (11), (12 - list of outlines for all subjects; 3 crim law outlines from 1 UD professor and an outline from a 2004 West video lecture), (13 - UMich), (14 - Harvard), (15 - Harvard-2007),  (16 - Boalt Hall), (17 - American), (18 - OhioSt- Dressler student), (19 - UNC), (18 - old outline of my TX. course; it's  out-of-date and uses the word "capitol" for "capital" over and over), (20 - CatholicU), (19 - STCL), (20 - GoldenGate), (21- CA), (21 - USanFr), (2 & 2 - UC Davis), (22), (23 - ilrg), (24 -UTX). These links come and go. Be cautious about opening closed files and a bit wary about the quality of the information and advice you get from 2L and 3L colleagues, particularly if they are trying to sell you books (1).  Some know just enough to be dangerous. Every (as opposed to "ever") so often, you'll find an online outline prepared by a professor. (1- Cal Western; 25 pp.) For obvious reasons, you should trust a teacher prepared outline more than one prepared by a student.The LexisNexis Capsule Summary of Criminal Law (1 - 73 pages)  is a reliable resource. This criminal justice course (1) has as outline. Findlaw provides some brief summaries. And there are always the commercial outlines, hawked by folks like Gilbert's Legal Line, West, etc., that make the 1L think s/he is really putting one over on the professor. Take a look at this VIDEO criminal law review; most of the PowerPoint slides are readable; the elderly chap presenting the 1 hour review doesn't appear to have any criminal law training, but the outline he's reading presents a reasonably accurate condensed summary of crimes and defenses; 10 to 15 minutes is devoted to criminal procedure at the constitutional due process level. Take a peek at this Quizlet.

Of course, when you stand and try to recite on  a case by reading from a commerical outline, you paint a big sign on your chest that reads: "Professor, I know next to nothing about this case. Please, ask me to set aside my outline and tell you what I know about the case." [Note: I applaud the folks at Lexis for providing you with free outlines. The criminal law outline is a stripped-down version of Dressler's UCL.]

To help organize the topics of your outline, I suggest that you use the table of contents from your assigned resources, typically your casebook. Your outline will be much more useful than your class notes, unless your teacher is simply reading an outline to you in class. You learn a lot about the course by making an outline. The study and practice of law requires a lot of self-study. Your teacher is a guide and a facilitator; s/he cannot learn it for you. If you know someone who has taken the course, borrow his/her outline and use it as a starting point for your own outline. The doctrine that you need to know will make sense and stick to your mind if you expend the effort to make your own map of the material. You should begin to become familiar with your outline from the day you start writing it. There's always a danger or overdoing an outline to the extent that you wind up with an outline as thick as your casebook. To make study manageable, you should pare your study outline down to 25 or 30 pages. Irrespective of whether your exam is open or closed book,  I suggest that you start studying your outline seriously no later than five or six weeks before the exam, even though the outline is obviously not complete. If you get a jump on the exam, the information can become organic to you.

Review jury charges (instructions) if your teacher is emphasizing elements. Some criminal law courses emphasize theory. Others examine statutes, e.g., codes. If your crimes and defenses course is delving into your state's penal code, you may find it useful, in studying the elements of particular crimes and defenses, to peruse some of the standard jury instructions that are given in criminal trials in your state. The purpose of jury instructions is to inform and educate trial jurors, untrained in the law, what the applicable law is. Jury instructions describe discrete crimes and defenses and also provide an insight into the admonitions concerning procedural and substantive rights of the accused that trial judges typically provide jurors. You will have to search on the Internet to determine whether criminal pattern jury instructions for your state are available online. Here's an example of what can be viewed by Texas criminal law students. Even if you don't find instructions on the Internet, your law library will contain books of your state's pattern criminal jury instructions. It might be worth making copies of the standard instructions on the various forms of criminal homicide, self-defense, conspiracy, complicity, etc.

Take full advantage of the resources, suggestions, and hints that your teacher has made available. Experience has taught me that it's almost impossible for your professor resist giving you some hints about questions that will be on the exam. To avail yourself of this edge, you need to be there listening. That means go to class and actively listen. When you hear that hint write it down. In this day, many teachers have a class web site. If your teacher's web site hints that something might be on the exam, don't discount the suggestion. Your teacher may provide you with collateral  sources of information. Take advantage to them. [Example: In my criminal law course, I provide students with  the opportunity to attend several 3+ hour review sessions on the common law of crimes (Typically, only a third of the class attends.); then there's this web site with well over 200 pages of material directly on the subject matter of the course; the Assignments page tells students how to coordinate their UCL5th hornbook reading with  the casebook assignments; the present page provides links to downloadable Internet outlines (1) on the subject of criminal law; in the files section of the Powwow E-Discussion Group there's a color-coded topgun student outline that is available only to students in my class; the present web site provides numerous hyperlinks to useful sites, e.g., blawgs, law reviews, the MPC, outlining, crim law news, etc; students are provided with sample midterm and end of term essay exams with short-answer and long-answer essay questions, some from their instructor's previous essay exams; students are given third week, midterm and end of term practiceessay and objective quizzes with hundreds of questions and answers; the administration provides students with a paid academic tutor, a 2L or 3L student who did reasonably well in the criminal law course, to meet with interested students in five weekend tutoring sessions; students are provided with streaming video of preparation and exam-taking advice from top-scoring (topgun) students in previous sessions of this course. Of course, none of these opportunities are obligatory. It's the student's choice whether to take advantage of any of the resources that are made available.]

Here's some advice re use of study aids. (1) Many students find it helpful to use study aids such as flash cards, MBE bar exam sample questions from released MBE exams, charts, mnemonic devices, etc. With some effort, you can discover and develop these resources. You can even use your iPhone or iPod to study flash cards with the Law in a Flash application from Modality. You may find it useful to find a good bar review and sign up early; most of the bar review courses, e.g. BRI,  will give signees outline and video study material while they are still in school. Check with your bar review rep.

Anticipate the questions. After preparing and studying all of your materials, e.g., notes, outlines, study guides, TPC, MPC, Dressler, casebook, teacher's notes, sit down and try to write the sort of exam your teacher would craft. If your exam will contain objective questions, e.g., multiple-choice and/or true-false, write a few of your own. (You will find many such questions in the archives of our class e-discussion group.) Try going through the Dressler hornbook and constructing 20 or 30 T/F and M/C questions. Do the same with a sample essay. What crimes will you be most likely to face, e.g., homicide or issuance of a bad check? What defenses are you most likely to encounter, e.g., self-defense and retreat or use of force by a parent in disciplining a child? Do you anticipate that a long answer essay will involve multiple actors? If so, will that implicate issues of complicity theory, solicitation, and/or conspiracy.

If your professor is a true academic (lawyers call them propeller-heads), s/he  will have written something in  the past ten years. Run your professor in the library, and identify any articles that s/he has written. If they are about the  subject of your course, read the articles. Chances are that the issue will be on your final. If so, you know the way your grader feels about the issue. Criminal law students at top schools may find the name of their professor on the CCJA list of scholarly crim law articles. [Note: In my case, a student looking at Sample Essay Exam Questions from my previous exams, coupled with Bushrod's Notes and Silver Bullets, could reason inductively that I emphasize problem solving through organizational thinking based on black letter rules and principles derived from the common law, Model Penal Code, and Texas Penal Code.]

If the exam is comprehensive, as they usually are, the content of the exam should correspond roughly to the weight of the course materials. If you spend 10% of classroom and outside reading talking about a particular group of offenses, e.g., criminal homicides, and your professor is fair, you can probably anticipate a roughly proportionate amount of testing on that subject on the exam.

Get the jump on the exam. As I said previously, start your review and exam study six weeks before the exam. (See outlining above.) If you start studying your outline well before the exam, the information will sink into your memory banks. You will have time to see the forest as well as the trees. You've got to get out in front of the classroom schedule. When you study, break it up, e.g., if you devote eight hours a week to study, break it up into four two-hour sessions rather than one eight-hour session. Marathon cramming doesn't work. Study long and you study wrong. If you wait until the end of classes to start studying for your exam, you will not have enough time to understand and absorb the relevant information that your test will cover.

Use the Internet to find some sample questions and give yourself a mini-practice exam under timed conditions. (See Final Thoughts below) Practice will not make you perfect, but it will make you better. Gather some of your professor's previous essay questions, and practice answering them under battlefield conditions with a kitchen timer. If your professor does not make old exam questions available to you, look on the Internet. There are plenty of other law professors (1 - Cleveland-Marshall's Professor Geiers general advice), (2 - Professor Solove's 2007 general advice that is similar to some of what you'll find here) that are ready to tell you how the cow "eats" the cabbage and/or to provide you with examples of their former exams. You will find copies of criminal law exams given at other law schools, e.g., (1 - Harvard Law), (2A - Golden Gate's Professors Moskovitz and 2B Chang and 2C- Golden Gate's list of exams and sample answers from seven professors),  (3 - directory), (4 - with model answers from Professor DeWolf from Gonzaga ), (5A - 5B University of Kentucky), (6 - Hastings - a good one ), (7 - Professor Edmundson of Georgia State), (8 - Ole Miss), (9 - Mercer), (10 - Seton Hall), (11), ( 12A, 12B12C , 12D - Professors Davis, Kittrie,  Kruse, Tigar of Washington College of Law), (13 - Professor Green of L.S.U.), (14 - Professor Logan of William Mitchell), (15 -Professors Bluth and Kravitz of Capital), (16- Creighton archive by professor), ( 17A - UC Berkeley - Boalt Hall - choose "criminal" and  17B or 17C  - Finals, Sample Answers, Practice Exams), (18 - Professor Batey of Stetson), (19 - Professor O'Connor's college criminal justice multiple-choice exam with answers), (20, 21, 22, 23, 24 from West Virginia's Professor Elkins), (25 - Cal. Western's multiple professor exams with model and best student answers, (26 - American's Professor Davis), (27 - Widener's Professors Bookspan, Henderson, Moulton, Ritter), (28 - Fordham's Professor Denno provides questions and answers to essays). Read them before you test yourself to get a flavor for questions and answers. Google has a 1-hour VIDEO REVIEW of criminal law; the  video, posted in 2008, contains PowerPoint slides and the criminal law outline is read by a business school teacher with a law degree. I've never heard of the reader, but the text of the review is worth a listen. By and large, it is fairly accurate. If all else fails, as a last resort try the Law Nerds criminal law final with sample answers.

I think it was Aristotle who said, "In order to learn to play the flute, one must play the flute." In the same vein, "In order to learn to write an essay answer, one must write essay answers." This what we call practice exams. If you are in a study group, practice exam-taking can be a useful group contest. First, get one or more practice exam questions. If your professor does not make old questions available, see above. If s/he does, use those questions. [Note: Old questions from my exams are available to my students.] Time management is a big part of successful exam-taking. You will have to keep close track of time on the actual exam. That means having a good watch or small clock that you can monitor. You might even want to buy a Radio Shack timer (+- $10) that will allow you to time downward, e.g., from thirty minutes down to zero. If so, you can glance at you timer and see how much time you have remaining on the particular question. Turn the alarm off in the exam room! (There's more below about the importance of managing time during your exam. You may find a few worthwhile suggestions at this web site (1) devoted to the general subject of preparing for tests.)

[Note: Criminal law is tested on the Multistate exam, and typically won't be tested on state bar exams.] If you would like to see how bar examiners phrase questions regarding subjects that are tested on your jurisdiction's bar exam, check the Internet to see if your State Board of Law Examiners makes previous bar exam questions available. My state, Texas, (1) does. In recent years, the examiners, while not providing model answers, have even made comments about the questions indicating how the examinees did on each question. Here are starting points for other states: AL, AK, AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, DC, FL, GA, HI, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, NC, ND, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, UT, VT, VA, WA, WV, WI, WY.

Since this part is about resources on the Internet, I'm going to mention a 1L student's podcast blawg that purports to be a review of the law of crimes. I don't know if this chap is working off of a legitimate outline or just freewheeling from his class notes. His school is not in the top tier. I listened to a couple of the broadcasts, and, while I did not agree with the accuracy of some of his statements, I was surprised at the considerable effort entailed in organizing the podcasts. If you can't afford Dressler tapes, you might want to give it a listen and draw your own conclusions.

Private enterprises will be happy to teach you how to succeed on law school exams in exchange for lucre. We all know about the commercial operations that promise to teach you how to pass the bar. (1 - listing forty bar review courses; BARBRI, for example, will also provide ILs with outlines, lectures, and sample essay & multiple choice questions.) These bar review courses have lined their coffers with mucho dinero ($) from would be lawyers for years. [Note:  I took a bar review course forty-five years ago and have no compunction against saying that the high grade I made was due in substantial part to what I learned in that four-week course.] But there are other outfits that focus primarily on how to take law school exams. One of these is LEEWS (standing for Law Essay Exam Writing System).  I don't have an opinion on whether this program is worth the registration cost. One of my better students bought the material on E-Bay for $ and assures me that they were of help to him. There's a half-hearted review of LEEWS on Internet. Its home page seems to glory in attacking law professors and law schools as incompetent. Of course, that's a good sales pitch to convince law students that their teachers and chosen academic institutions aren't capable of teaching them law, a potentially disconcerting and stressful thought for a student who is investing $100,000 of borrowed money to get the training. I do find one thing on the LEEWS web site that definitely merits your attention. LEEWS calls it "Standard Advice - Free." It's free, and it's worth a read, despite its unjustified attack on the late Charles Whitebread who gave delightful talks for many years about how to succeed  on law school exams.

Open book exams are no easier than closed book exams. Find out if your exam is going to be open book (You are allowed to bring to the exam and use written material, e.g., notes, outlines, casebooks, codes, to assist in answering questions during the exam.) or closed book. (You are not allowed to use outside materials to assist in answering questions during the exam.) The cardinal rule is study just as hard or harder for an open book exam than you would study for a closed book exam. If the exam is closed book, you may want to memorize your checklist of crimes and defenses so that you can immediately write it out on a piece of scratch paper when the exam begins. You can use the sheet in working the essay. You won't have time to write a comparison chart; you will have to depend on your memory for comparisons (pointing out similarities) and contrasts (pointing out differences) between the common law, the Model Penal Code and any other codes your professor has utilized, e.g., the Texas Penal Code.

Importance of the Instructions Your Professor Has Placed on the Exam:

Where to begin? If your exam has an objective question component, it may be physically placed after the essay portion. This architecture does not mean that you have to begin with the essay portion and then move on to the objective portion. Personally, I would start my answers with the objective portion of the exam. If there are both multiple-choice and true-false questions, I would start with the true-false questions. They are typically the easiest. In answering the objective questions, your mind may be refreshed with something that will be useful on the essay portion. You may even be able to give yourself a little cushion of time for the essay portion.

Read the general exam instructions. Most exams contain general instructions at the very beginning of the exam proper and, perhaps, at the beginning of each section. Read them, and follow them.

Read the instructions within the essay question. i.e., the "call of the question", before you read the hypothetical facts of the question. The essay exam question will typically provide you with a hypothetical set of facts and then ask you to do something with those facts. That instruction as to what you are supposed to do with the facts constitutes the call of the question. It's typically at the end of the essay question, often in  its own little separate paragraph. You should read that portion of the essay question before you read the hypothetical facts. Having advance knowledge of what you are going to have to do with the hypothetical facts will color and inform your analysis when you read the facts. Here's an example of the call of the question from one of my own long essay questions:

In light of the relevant material that you have studied in this course,
discuss fully the offenses that actors A,B,C,E, and G may have committed,
and discuss any potentially applicable defenses, affirmative defenses, or pleas in bar
of trial that the actors may have to the offenses. To the extent that constraints of time allow,
compare and contrast all aspects of criminal liability using the common law, the Model Penal Code,
and the Texas Penal Code.

It's quite important to know what question you must answer based on the hypothetical facts presented in the essay question. You only want to answer the question asked! Sometimes the direction or scope of the question will not be what you would anticipate from simply reading the hypothetical facts. For example, the sample call of the question in the example above does not ask the student to evaluate the criminal responsibility of actors D and F. Assuming there are such actors and that they are alive at the end of the hypo, a student who had not carefully read the call of the question might waste time writing about the criminal responsibility of D and F.  On occasion your teacher might ask you to assume the role of an advocate, either  prosecutor or defender, and write a memo to your boss analyzing a factual scenario from the point of view of how the boss can successfully prosecute or defend the case. You might even be asked to write a model penal statute based on a factual scenario. See my sample essay exam questions. So, begin your reading of the essay with the call of the question, i.e., begin reading at the end of the question where the call is located rather than at the beginning where the hypothetical facts start. Never anticipate the call of the question.

Essay Questions & IRAC

Some essay questions are thought questions, e.g., "What are the pros and cons of so-called "rescue" or "bad samaritan" statutes imposing a legal duty on persons present at the scene of an emergeny to come to the aid of or render assistance to another who is exposed to serious bodily harm if those present can do so without peril or endangement to themselves or others and punishing them criminally for failing to attempt such easy rescues?"  Thought questions ask you to discuss, evaluate and argue policy. Alternatively, you might be asked to write a model statute on a particular subject, e.g., sexual assault. But most essay questions (see above for the hyperlinks to crim law exams posted on Internet) involve you in discussing the crimes and defenses presented in a complex fact scenario propounded by your professor. An over-simplified recitation of the analytical steps might be as follows:
  • First, do you have voluntary conduct? If not, there is no crime. Under the MPC and  TPC, "conduct" expressly includes an act, omission and/or possession plus accompanying mental state, if any. All three forms of conduct have to be voluntary. Consider conduct voluntary when it is the product of the effort or determination of the actor , either conscious or habitual. Keep an eye open for obvious involuntary acts, e.g., convulsive or reflexive conduct or bodily movement during unconsciousness or sleep. The common law treats the criminal act as "actus reus" and the mental state as "mens rea." Dressler's UCL views common law actus reus as including four elements, namely: (1) Act or Omission to Act + (2) Attendant Circumstances + (3) Causation + (4) Result. Under this approach, a common law crime is actus reus + mens rea. There can be no crime without conduct but remember that you may have crime even though the target is not hit. Crime may be incomplete, i.e., you have to look for inchoate offenses such as solicitation, conspiracy and/or attempt. When a crime or element of a crime requires proof of mental state, you will need to check the question for facts that might raise the issues of mistake, intoxication, and/or diminished capacity that might negate the existence of the required mental state. Of course, there can be crime without a mental state/mens rea. As we know, some offenses - we call them "strict" or "absolute" liability offenses - may dispense with the mental element. If the definition of a crime requires proof of one or more attendant circumstances, you'll have to be concerned with whether they are provable under the facts. In connection with conduct, some factual scenarios will require that you consider vicarious responsibility of certain actors for conduct of others (complicity). When a crime is defined to require a result, you'll need to consider not only the whether the facts reflect the required result,  but also whether there is adequate proof of causation.
  • Second, does the conduct in the question square with the conduct required by the definition of the crime. If not, there is no crime. If so, proceed to the third step.
  • Third, is the conduct justified? Here you'll need to go through the list of justifications, e.g., self-defense, defense of others, defense of property, use of force in law enforcement, consent of the victim, necessity, conduct justified as public duty, etc., to see if any are raised and shown by the facts of the question. If the conduct is justified, there is no crime. If not, proceed to the next step.
  • Fourth, is the conduct excused? Here again, you'll need to run through the list of excuses, e.g., insanity, involuntary intoxication, immaturity (infancy), duress, mistake of law, and entrapment, as well as provocation (extreme emotional disturbance) and diminished capacity that may reduce or mitigate responsibility.  If the conduct is excused, there is no crime. If not, there is a crime.

You'll hear a lot about the IRAC method of answering essay questions from all the gurus who travel the country giving bar review lectures and telling you how to take an essay exam. CALI has a lesson that explains the IRAC method.  I don't have much to add.  IRAC is an acronym for ISSUE, RULE OF LAW, APPLICATION OF LAW TO FACTS, and CONCLUSION. Some people add an H to the formula; if so, it's for HOLDING OF THE COURT. IRAC is probably the best way of mentally organizing your thinking, but for goodness sakes don't write your answer to an essay question expressly listing Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion. IRAC will help you organize your thinking, but don't literally write it on your answer. I shudder a bit when I open a paper and see I R A C running down the left margin. It's way too formalistic and primitive. I prefer a narrative analysis of the relevant issue coupled with an clear application of the law to the facts. In my opinion, your analytical recognition of the relevant and crucial aspects of crimes and defenses and your application of the relevant law to facts in issue is more important than your ultimate conclusion, though you must reach a conclusion if the question calls for it.

"Because" is a great word for exam takers. The worst answer on an essay question, other than a blank page, is a bald-faced conclusion with no analytical support or reasoning. One clue that you are reasoning to a conclusion is the use of the word "because" followed by an explanation. It's a great word, far better than "if." See "If" Is A Dangerous Word, below. Don't think that you can simply regurgitate valid law and expect a good grade when the law is not applied to the facts. Performing well is not just about memorizing a tub full of black letter law and spewing it out. The knack of writing a good essay comes from your organized analysis of the facts and application of only the arguably applicable law. In my first year criminal law course, it is a bit trickier than most courses involving codes because I ask you to study and then compare and contrast three bodies of law, i.e., the common law, the Model Penal Code, and the Texas Penal Code.

Read the question from bottom to top to bottom.  See "Call of the Question" above.  Don't assume that you know what the professor wants you to do or how the story ends. You need to know what you are being asked and what you are not being asked before you read the facts. You won't always be asked to write an essay discussing crimes and defenses raised by the question. Occasionally, your professor might ask you to draft a statute, e.g. draft a statute that defines the duress claim so that a coerced intent to kill homicide is reduced from murder to manslaughter instead of being totally excused or treated as murder. Always know which actors you are being asked to treat. For example, in a recent essay exam there were eight potential criminal actors in the hypotheical storyline. The question asked for analysis and conclusions relative to only six of the eight actors. Students who gave answers that included the two actors who were not the subject of the question wasted valuable time. They were answering a question that wasn't asked. What they said didn't count for them or against them, but the time spent in going down that trail was wasted.

Understand whose view you are to take. Notice whether the question asks you to take a neutral bird's-eye perspective, e.g., looking at all of the facts, what crimes and/or defenses may be present, or an adversarial position for one side or the other, e.g., writing a memo supporting the constitutionality of a statute or a letter of legal advice to a client. 

Some criminal law essay questions may ask you to discuss all crimes and defenses implicated from the facts. Other questions may be more limited in scope. Carefully read the question (problem). Most long essay questions involve multiple actors and somewhat complex transactions. Short essays, multiple choice, and T/F questions typically involve only one or two potential parties to a crime and usually involve only one transaction. You must determine which defendants (in the case of multiple defendants), which crimes, and which defenses you are being asked to write about in your answer-solution-resolution. As a general rule, your answer should deal separately with each potential defendant, discussing each crime and defense as it applies to that defendant. This is the PARTY METHOD of structuring your answer. The other alternative method of structuring your answer is the ISSUE METHOD, in which you discuss each applicable crime and/or defense indicating the person(s) to whom the crime or defense applies. [Note: The method you choose to employ is a a matter of person preference. If I were taking my examination, I would follow the party method, but that is strictly a matter of choice. If I do it that way, I will probably encounter a party, e.g., A or B,  who is there near the beginning of the essay scenario and who's still standing at the end. If I cover that party thoroughly in my answer, I may be able to refer back to him/her in dealing with parties who come afterwards, e.g., C, D , E, F, etc. and involve the same issues and resolution. Re referring back, if you are using a computer as a word processor to write your exam, be very discriminating in using the cut and paste feature. Don't overload your grader, via cut and paste, with the same sentences or paragraphs rottenly repeated over and over. You'll probably pay for that error.] 

The presence or absence of elements of crime or defenses - As you analyze a problem for the presence of crimes, remember to look for the elements of each potential crime, whether it be common law, MPC, or TPC, e.g., the act of "breaking" in common law burglary, a "trespass" against the possessor right of the owner in the case of common law larceny, a "transfer of title" by the defrauded owner in the case of false pretenses. In the various substantive crimes, there will often be a voluntary act or actionable omission, a state of mind, attendant circumstances, and, in the case of result oriented crimes like murder, causation in the sense of factual and legal (proximate) cause of a harmful result by the accused or one for whose action the accused is vicariously responsible. With regard to men's area offenses, look for facts that possibly negate men's area, e.g., voluntary intoxication and/or mistake of fact.

Inchoate crimes and the renunciation defense - Your knowledge of inchoate crimes may play a substantial part in your grade on a long answer essay. Always be prepared for inchoate (incomplete crimes), e.G., solicitation, conspiracy and attempt, at the beginning of the multi-party narrative essay question. Always start at the beginning, I.e., consider and discuss the crime of solicitation before you consider and discuss conspiracy. In some cases, there may be no solicitation, e.g., at common law when D1 asks D2 to join D1 in committing the crime rather than asking D2 to do the crime for him. After you have dealt with solicitation, treat conspiracy. For example, in the case of conspiracy, you will be looking for the illegal agreement and, in some cases (the TPC always, the MPC - except in cases where the object crime is a first or second degree felony, and the C/L never) the overt act in furtherance of the conspiratorial agreement. Similarly, when you deal with an inchoate crime involving an attempt, you will usually be concentrating both on the voluntary act, i.e., did the accused do enough to constitute an attempt, and the actor's state of mind. There you are going to be talking about things like conduct going beyond mere preparation, substantial step, etc. You should also be familiar with the applicable rules regarding the defense of renunciation of the inchoate offense. (The common law eschews it, but the MPC recognizes it in Sections 5.01(4), 5.02(3), 5.03(6), the TPC in Section 15.04.)

Complicity theory - Knowledge of complicity theory is essential if you are looking at multiple actors in the long essay story. (You will be on my exam.) If you have accomplices, aiders, and or conspirators in a problem, you will need to consider the application of various complicity theory principles of vicarious liability for the acts of others, e.g., use of an innocent or irresponsible instrumentality, laws or rules like common law felony murder making one person accountable for the conduct of another person, accomplice liability, coconspirator liability under the Pinkerton Rule, common law liability of an accomplice for foreseeable offenses of the principal that are the natural and probable consequences of the object offense. Vicarious responsibility for accomplices and coconspirators is an area in which those who make poor essay grades are particularly weak. These students are the ones who say something like "B and D are liable for A's burglary under complicity theory" and end it there without any further explanation of how complicity theory applies to the scenario. Even worse is the essay answer that simply says, "B and D are guilty of complicity," as though complicity was a crime rather than a theory of liability for the crimes of others. [An organizational thought for your consideration: Personally, rather than deal with the complicity issues, e.g., basic accomplice liability, the Pinkerton rule of co-conspirator complicity, and the common law natural and probable consequences rule of accomplice complicity for the collateral crimes of principals, within the discussion of each actor's liability, I would save at least 10% of my available time to write about the complicity of all the actors in a single section at the end of my essay answer. Under this approach, the student writer waits until s/he has fully discussed each actor's individual liability before tackling the task of deciding the vicarious liability of each. If you decide to deal with complicity at the end of your essay answer, be sure to advise your professor of this at the beginning of your answer. Otherwise, the professor may be wondering, as s/he slogs through the answer, why you haven't addressed complicity, assuming, erroneously, that you have omitted this very important criminal law issue either by choice or ignorance. Caution: If you do it this way, you must allocate the time and use it for discussion of complicity. An essay without discussion of complicity is an Xmas tree without ornaments.]

Defenses - In the case of defenses, you need to first determine whether there is a potential crime before you tackle the issue of what defenses may apply to the crime. With regard to defenses, talk about defenses that are relevant and plausible. You may want to talk about justification defenses, e.g., self-defense, before you talk about excuse defenses, e.g., duress, intoxication, diminished capacity, insanity. Make yourself a list of defenses. Some of them may have common threads, e.g., self-defense, defense of a third person, defense of property, defense of habitation, law enforcement defense., and duress and necessity. Remember, you may have numerous defenses in one scenario. Don't think that simply because one defense seems to apply that another won't also be plausibly applicable. Common sense tells to expect to encounter certain defenses. For example, self-defense is almost certain to appear; necessity is sometimes a fall-back justification defense that may apply when others won't. One defense that appears to be difficult to comprehend is the potential effect of withdrawal (abandonment) by an accomplice and/or coconspirator from a scheme, e.g., conspiracy, on the liability of that actor for subsequent crimes committed by other members of the scheme after the actor withdraws. Some students confuse this concept with the concept of renunciation as a defense to liability for the inchoate offenses such as conspiracy. The two concepts differ but are sometimes confounded by students who haven't studied sufficiently. Another area of difficulty, mixing duress and complicity, occurs when an actor forces another to commit crime under circumstances qualifying as coercion (duress). Some students fail to visualize this as a complicity situation where the actor doing the coercing is the primary actor, a common law principal in the first degree, and legally accountable for the offense he coerces the other person to commit; the actor coerced into the conduct typically has a personal duress defense and is viewed as an innocent human instrumentality under complicity theory of the common law, the MPC (see Section 2.06(2)(a), and the TPC (see Section 7.02(a)(1)).

Sophisticated elements - Sometimes there are different legal theories that can underpin responsibility for a guilt of a crime. Property crimes and criminal homicides are two examples. Consider, for example, criminal homicide, a crime that you can be almost certain will appear somewhere on your criminal law exam.  In scenarios involving criminal homicide that may be murder, don't forget to ask yourself which of the various forms of malice aforethought, e.g., intent to kill, knowledge that death was reasonably certain, intent to inflict grievous bodily injury, depraved heart (extreme indifference to the value of human life) and felony murder, may apply. It may be more than one. Also, if there is no murder, don't forget to consider whether there may be a lesser offense, e.g., manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide. In cases of criminal homicide, remember that the main variable is the state of mind (culpable mental state). In a similar vein, you should be ready to discern among the fine lines that historically separated some of the property crimes, e.g., common law larceny, statutory embezzlement, statutory false pretenses, extortion, receiving and concealing, etc. [We know that virtually every modern jurisdiction, following the lead of the Model Penal Code, has consolidated property crimes, making these historical differences, e.g., the importance of delivery of title in distinguishing larceny by trick from false pretenses, substantially irrelevant in charging practice. However, casebooks and criminal law professors still present the reconsolidation property crimes, in part, because the Multistate Bar Exam relies heavily in its numerous theft questions on the fine distinctions between them, but for the further good reason that most codes still conceptualize the traditional property offenses the way they were historically visualized, e.g., the differences between taking or appropriation by stealth, deception and coercion.]

Outline your essay answer before starting to write. Think it out before you begin. Don't try to be the first person to start typing or writing answers. Although you will be pressed for time, it is a good idea to plan your answer in brief outline form before you start to type or write in the space provided for your answer on the exam. As you analyze the question, break it down into factual and legal components so that you can relate law to facts to achieve a solution. In reading, analyzing, and outlining a question, it is often a good practice to underline phrases that appear to be significant, thus, breaking the question into its component legal and factual elements. It is unwise merely to read the question in a general way, to note that it involves general principles of law, and then begin to write an essay about those general principles. There should be an interfacing of the discussion of principles and the analysis of the particular facts presented in the question. Remember that the author of the question has tried to carefully draft the question to pose issues that require application of specific law to specific facts. Remember also that exam questions are often concerned with your approach to the solution of problems raised by the facts. Before writing, you should devote substantial time (perhaps 10 - 15% of the total; 6 - 9 minutes of a 1 hour essay question) to planning and outlining your answer on scratch paper. Don't be influenced by the fact that other students begin writing their answer immediately. Some of them are shooting from the hip and will be wide of the mark. (You've already seen examples of "fire, ready, aim" approach, when these same folks shoot from the "lip" in recitation.) Someone has to be in the bottom half of the grading curve. It may be some of them, not you. Plan your approach, and stick to your plan!

TIP:  If you're writing in longhand, you'll probably have to do it on scratch paper that is typically provided and sometimes destroyed before it ever reaches your professor. Don't expect your professor to read the stuff you've written on scratch paper even if it does reach him/her. It won't happen. But if you are typing and are dealing with a long essay question, consider trying to make your neatly typed outline a part of your answer. Do it this way: Type your outline at the beginning of your essay answer. Make sure it is neat, clean, and covers the entire essay question. At the top of the outline, write your professor a brief note saying something like, "Professor ____, if I'm not able to cover all of the issues in the question in my narrative answer, I pray that you will take a quick look at this outline and note that I recognized issues that time constraints kept me from addressing in depth in my narrative answer. Thank you for your understanding." If time does catch you, your outline has served three purposes, first, as a guide in writing your narrative answer, second, as a place where your professor may give you extra credit for things that you didn't get to in the narrative, and, third, as an inventive way of hedging your answer that the professor may admire. [If you try this, you may want to place your outline at the end of the narrative answer rather than the beginning. Personally, I would put it at the beginning where it is almost like a table of contents and reaches the fresh eyes of your grader. If you put it first and run out of time in answering, you can always add a final plea at the very end of your answer, e.g., "Out of time. Please look at my outline."    

Start at the beginning stay on a clear course to the end. How would you answer this hypo -"You're freezing in the North Woods. You finally come to a cabin. If you had only one match and the cabin had a kerosene lamp, an old heater, and a wood stove, which would you light first?"  The best answer is probably "the match." Look carefully at your essay question and determine if it starts with an inchoate offense, e.g., solicitation, conspiracy. Most of them do. If the essay starts there, so should your answer. And if it does start with these inchoate offenses, what comes first in point of time, conspiracy or solicitation? If you don't know the answer to that, as the late Professor Whitebread said, "You will never own your own your own home!" I couldn't count the times that I've started to read an essay answer that begins with a discussion of conspiracy, completely omitting any discussion of an obvious solicitation issue. These are folks who don't want to start with the match. They are going straight to the kerosene. I'll bet that the professor grading your exam is looking for clarity, coherence, and conciseness, in addition to knowledge of course materials. Less credit will be given for a sprawling, unorganized, out of chronological sync answer that merely lists disparate points and or uncritically regurgitates irrelevant casebook, hornbook, or lecture text - a derelict on the waters of the law.

Don't start your essay answer with a flowery memorized prefatory statement.  It will do you little good to greet your grader with a prepared opening discourse that is not geared toward answering the issues raised by the essay question. For example, don't open with a paragraph or two of memorized explanatory pap on the constituent elements of crime, e.g., mens rea, attendant circumstances, conduct, causation. The grader will recognize the effort as irrelevant window dressing. Restrict your answer to the question.

Don't restate all of the facts, only the relevant facts: It is fruitless to try to pad your answer by aimlessly regurgitating facts that are not relevant to the question. The examiner has written the facts and doesn't need to be retold the entire story. In most instances, it is best to go immediately to the legal issues that require resolution and mention the facts as they are relevant to these legal issues.

Don't add facts to a question, unless it is essential. Don't rewrite the question in order to avoid coming to grips with a difficult issue or to create a nonexistent issue that you really want to write about. For example, even though you want to dazzle your prof with your grasp of the law of renunciation as a defense to inchoate crimes, don't inject it into your answer if the issue is not raised by the essay question, Occasionally, it may be in order to state that additional facts, if present, would affect your answer. But that is the exception to the general rule that you shouldn't discuss non-issues.  See "If" is a dangerous word, below.

Don't fill up your narrative answer to the essay with a string of case cites. On the other hand, don't forget to mention a controlling statute or case. There is usually little advantage in citing cases, particularly if they are used simply to buttress general propositions. Unexplained citations to cases will garner little or no credit. Reference to a case or cases may, in some instances, be helpful in developing an analysis. In any event, do not lose time by feverishly trying to recall the name of a case if it can be characterized by a phrase, e.g., "the New York premeditated murder case involving the illiterate Italian immigrant who choked and stabbed the doctor," rather than People v. Caruso or "the Texas case about the man who claimed he was coerced into robbing the bank," instead of State v. Anguish.

"If" is a dangerous word. Answer the question asked. Don't talk too much about issues that are not there. It is sometimes appropriate to note that, on the facts given, a particular issue that might have arisen does not arise, having been foreclosed  by such-and-such fact. However, if you come to the exam expecting to write about issues A, B, and C and, to your disappointment, these issues are not raised by the facts, don't spend all your time writing about what would have happened "IF" issues A, B, and C had been present. [If kittens were born in an oven, would they be biscuits? If frogs had wings could they fly? If blue birds weren't blue, what color would they be? The speculative "if" has all sorts of possibilities, but most of them lead to blind alleys in your answer.]

Don't state legal conclusions without reasons. Essay questions will always ask you to explain fully. You will get little credit for concluding, "Hamsterlicher committed murder" without giving your reasons for such a legal conclusion. Explain why the conclusion follows by applying the law to the facts. The right answer in an essay isn't right, unless you explain doctrinally how you go there. To check yourself in practice exam situations, see how many times you use the word "because" in your essay answer  Every time your answer contains the word "because" ("b/c" if you are in outline mode),  you will usually be providing a reason for your conclusion, i.e., you are explaining "why" and "how" you arrived at your conclusion. Other words or phrases that often hallmark reasons or explanations for your conclusion are: "however," "even if,"  "similarly," "alternatively," "in contrast," "likewise," "additionally." 

You've got to dig quite a few issues out of a mountain of facts. You probably won't spot all of them. Spot the issues and resolve them. When an exam question is long and complex, e.g., multiple actors engaging in multiple acts, your instructor has room to insert more legal issues. It is important to identify as many of these issues as possible. Since your time for composing an answer is limited, issue recognition may diminish the time available for full and complete issue resolution. Long-winded resolution won't be possible. You should go directly to an issue and resolve it. Now is not the time to be a gasbag.  As a general rule, if there are fifteen legal issues in an essay question, the student who recognizes and identifies all fifteen and quickly resolves each by analysis and conclusion, will receive more credit than the student who identifies only four and more completely resolves each of the four, looking at each of the four issues upside down, backwards, and forwards. A quick cursory look at a long essay question sometimes isn't enough to reveal all of the issues. Even though issue spotting is particularly important in long complex essay questions where a number of issues may be salted away, don't stop there. Issue spotting is not enough. Explain why the relevant legal issue is raised by specific facts.

What about short answer essay questions?  Resolution of issues on short answer essays becomes more important by virtue of the fact that issue spotting is easier that it is with long essays. It is very difficult to insert and hide a large number of substantive legal issues in a short essay.  Thus, in answering a short essay question, your instructor is often testing your ability to resolve one or two readily identifiable issues.

Handle the issues one at a time.

Keep your mind open to both sides of the issue and think before you write. Think through your answer to the issue before you take a firm position. You don't want to have to do a U-turn as to you conclusion because you suddenly realized there was an element missing. e.g., penetration in common law rape.

Apply the principles you have learned in an organized manner. Emphasize clarity, cohesiveness, and conciseness. The organization of your answer should reflect a reasoned analysis. Try to keep your sentences short and simple (not simplistic - simple, as in free from complexity and unadorned with subordinate clauses). [What is the opposite of short and simple? Suppose, instead of suggesting that you keep it short and simple, that I had written, "It is incumbent on all scriveners and all who are engaged in forensics of any nature whatever to effectually make their communications compendious, pithy, succinct, and totally lacking in prolixity, circumlocution, and sesquipedalian words, as they are noted for their lucidity, perspicuity, trenchancy, and terse sentences." How about that paraphrasis!] Much of what you learn from your Legal Research & Writing instructor about writing clearly and succintly can be applied to writing essay exam questions.

Sort out who the actors are, and, in your answer, use the same label your professor used in the question. When writing you answer to essay questions, I urge you to stick with whatever label your professor uses in the problem.  When there are multiple actors, its easy for the grader to lose track of who "he" or "she" is. You always want the grader to know which actor you are referencing. Labeling gets ridiculous in essays when a professors tries to be funny in making up names for the actors, e.g. Amaryllis Blister, Rocco Salmonella, Kwami Shaftsbarry, Chip Savant. None of those are funny, are they? Realizing that the ha-ha names of actors only slow your progress, many professors will put letter labels on actors, e.g., A,B,C,D, etc. Rather than using pronouns like "he" and "she" or nouns like "the policeman" or descriptive phrases like "the bystander in the parking lot," use the letter identifier every time your refer to that character in your answer.  If your prof gives you the goofy names, feel free to shorten them but stick with them as your actor label, e.g., Rocco Salmonella becomes "RS" in your answer. [There's a reason why flamboyant Wyoming lawyer Gerry Spence calls law professors "the morticians of the legal profession." We are usually not any better at humor in our questions than you will be if you try it in your answer.]  

Use bold headlines. If you are answering by parties, e.g, A, B, C, etc., indicate who you are going to talk about by a bold headline, e.g., "Crimes and Defenses of A." If you are talking about a particular subject, headline that, e.g., "Vicarious Liability of Parties." I find it helpful, particularly with students who type their answers, when students bold face each crime and defense when they first begin to discuss, compare and contrast it, e.g. solicitation, conspiracy, murder, robbery, self-defense, etc. Good organization of your answer to make it easily  readable reflects good advance preparation. This will impress the grader favorably.

Use plenty of paragraphs and leave the grader some white space for comments, maybe by double spacing your typewritten answer and writing on every second line on a write-on or blue book hand-written answer.  Give your words some breathing space. If you type and are allowed unlimited pages, organize your answer using plenty of paragraphs and double space between them. If your professor is doing what s/he is paid to do, s/he is reading every word of your answer. In many cases, the professor is making notes on your exam. Whether you type or write, leave the grader some white space. It's also easier for the grader to read your exam if you have multiple paragraphs and space between them. When you jam it all together, not only is it hard to read, it looks like less than it is. If you are writing your answer in a bluebook or on a write-on exam and have plenty of space, don't crowd your words. When space is not restricted, write on every other line. The idea is to make it easy for your grader to read your product. 

Use complete but simple sentences with short, correctly spelled words .  [This advice is violated by many testees.] Use simple sentences with short plain words. On the issue of words, don't display your lack of knowledge by misspelling (Some folks misspell "misspell.") basic words of legal art; for example,  don't use "homocide" for "homicide," " principle" (truth, ideal, law)  for "principal" (chief, most important as in principal-in-the-first-degree), "capitol" (government building) for "capital" (punishable by execution, involving the death penalty) or "aggrevated" or "aggravated" or "burgulary" for "burglary." Other mangled words that show up include: "irregardless" for regardless, "mischievious" for mischievous, "orientate" for orient, "preemptory" for peremptory, "(ir)revalent" for (ir)relevant, "reoccur" for recur, "offerred" for offered, "occured" for occurred, "prefered" for preferred, etc. There is a preference in the U.S. for "judgment" over "judgement," though both are correct. "Pled" and "pleaded" are both acceptable past tenses of the verb "plead."

Write cleanly, legibly and big. Try to avoid scratching through or erasing whole sentences and/or paragraphs and starting over. When the grader encounters scratched out or erased paragraphs, especially at the beginning of an answer, it may convey the subtle message that the writer is not prepared, i.e., the answer jumped the tracks. See below. If you cannot write legibly, PRINT. Avoid what I call "cramped script." If you are one of those who cannot resist writing Lilliputian letters that can only be discerned with a microscope or magnifying glass, (Cher amis, I'm not kidding.) the best advice for you is: type. Some of your spavined, superannuated profs may already be myopic, but teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy letters on essay exams still precipitate formerly hawk-eyed professors to be fitted with trifocals, like the ones I wear.

There's not much time or cause for humor or levity even if you have a talent for it. The Brits say, "Don't overegg the pudding."  Folks from my part of the country say, "Don't overcook your grits." The point  here is - don't try to be funny on your exam, unless you have time and are absolutely sure it will put the grader in a better grading mood. It's hard to be funny in print, e.g., "Forgive this answer professor, but I suffer from CRS, you know, can't remember s__t." And, face it, the professor who is grading your exam and ninety-seven others is serious about getting the job done as efficiently and expeditiously as possible. S/he's unlikely to be geared for humor and levity or tired riddles, e.g., "The beginning of eternity, the end of time and space, the beginning of every end, and the end of every place - who am I?"  Remember, doctrinal analysis in law school is supposed to rob you of your humanity, passion, emotion, and sense of humor. Your law school professor choose that environment as a vocation. I'm not saying your particular prof doesn't have a sense of humor. If you attended a law school faculty meeting, you might see some of your professors giggling like school girls at stuff you would consider downright silly. But there is probably a good reason why real trial lawyers like Spence refer to my crowd as "morticians." In short, it's too risky to try to amuse your prof on the exam. [Note: It'll take about five years after the law school experience to get the snoot out of your nose and your humanity back. Then you start collaborating with others, talking regular English, and winning your cases down at the courthouse where ordinary people serve on juries.] (A: I'm "e.")

If you have time, go back through and review your answers, lightly highlighting headlines and key phrases and words. If circumstances allow, you may find it helpful to take a light yellow (not a dark orange, green, or other opaque color) highlighter and go back through your essay, highlighting headlines and key phrases and words.

Objective Questions

Multiple-Choice Questions: Professor Lasso's "How to Answer Multiple-Choice Questions (18 pages pdf)" is worth a hard look; it's geared to law school exams. Here's a one-page bit of advice on MCQ (1 - Chicago Kent). Professor Kruse of Washington has posted several sample multiple-choice questions based on the common law and MPC. Here are three multiple-choice questions with answers. This law student has posted more than 25 multiple-choice criminal law questions with answers. I have posted some sample practice multiple-choice questions on quizzes and mid-term portion of the Objective Exam page of this web site. A simple but useful with multiple-choice questions is to identify the issue being tested. You do this by carefully reading the body of the question. (1) The choices you are given will often contain one or more "distractors," i.e., answers that are not relevant to the issue being tested. In arriving at an answer to the multiple-choice questions, your first job is to eliminate the distractor(s), i.e., the obviously incorrect choice(s). Occasionally, the process of elimination leaves you with only one answer. In such case, you get the right answer, even though you might not know why it was the correct choice. The blind hog occasionally finds an acorn.  C'est la vie, oui?

CALI provides law students with good free multiple choice practice for every core course in your law school's curriculum. If you don't know what CALI is, here's a brief description: CALI (The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction) is a membership organization; +-180 law schools belong to CALI. It features some 720 computer-assisted web based tutorials in 29 legal topic areas, including all of your first year courses, e.g., criminal law. You may choose to view the criminal law tutorials in the same subject order that your casebook covers them by consulting the CALI web site. [I have placed CALI hyperlinks in the right-hand margin of each Bushrod's Notes page that will take you directly to discrete tutorials that treat the subject of that particular section of the Notes.]

To register for access to the tutorials, go to CALI's homepage, and click on the "Not Registered User Yet" link. During the registration process you will also create your own password. In subsequent visits to use lessons, you will only need to enter your email address and your password. To access CALI online initially you will need to obtain your law school's "Institutions Authorization Code," typically available from either your school's web site or from a reference librarian or an employee of the patron services department of your school's law library.

I suggest that you try CALI as a way of checking your progress by applying the concepts that you are learning to solve multiple-choice problems. Although I don't necessarily agree with every suggested answers, the criminal law exercises are quite useful in getting a lasso over this course. Some are quite good. Completion time for most lessons ranges from 30-60 minutes. [Note: I applaud the CALI folks for putting these useful tutorials together. That said, sometimes interactive technology can be too cute to hold the interest of today's students. You may find some of the exercises tedious, but keep plowing. I think they might be more fun if you do them in a group of 2 or 3. This will

There will probably be objective questions my criminal law exam. If there is no "double-off for wrong answer" penalty and you are unsure of the correct answer - guess. There is typically no double-off for wrong answer penalty on my criminal law exam. See the description of your exam on the Announcements page. If such is the case on your exam, answer all of the objective questions, whether you know the answer or not.

Tip for any series of objective questions that are answered on a Scanatron answer sheet: Any time you have a series of objective questions that must be reduced to a Scanatron  answer sheet that you mark with a No. 2 pencil, be sure to first mark the correct final answer on the exam itself. I almost guarantee that your professor will have no objection to you marking up the objective questions on the exam proper and erasing your answers until you are satisfied that you have a "final answer." Only then should you copy those answers from your exam to the Scanatron answer sheet. You'll have to give yourself a few minutes to do the transfer, but the gain outweighs the pain because all of your erasures and second thoughts will be on the exam rather than on the Scanatron answer sheet. If you follow this suggestion rather than starting your answers on the Scanatron sheet, you'll never have second thoughts about erasures on the Scanatron. I can tell you from personal experience that faulty erasures on the Scanatron answer sheet can create a dicey situation for your grader. When the multiple choice question calls for marking one correct answer, you may not get the benefit of the doubt when it appears that you have marked two answers.

A Suggestion - E-Discussion

Ask your professor to set up an e-discussion group for the entire class. It has the potential for being a useful vehicle for sharing information among yourselves and your professor. For example, you could use the e-discussion group as a forum for developing and sharing M/C and T/F objective questions. If each person in your class would develop and post to the e-discussion group one objective question and correct answer from cases and problems in your casebook discussion group, together with the supporting material in the hornbook you are using, e.g., Dressler, the entire class would, at the end of the semester, have a collection of roughly 100 -120 good objective questions with well researched and clearly explained answers.  I can almost guarantee you that some of those questions would be on the objective portion of your exam. This effort would require cooperative action of the entire class. One or two duds, who would take the benefit but not the responsibility, could mess it up for everyone. Alternative: If this collaborative approach doesn't work in your class, try the same idea with your small hand-picked study group. An e-discussion group is also a place where any class member can post links to relevant criminal law news. I have used this powwow e-discussion group for many years. Although I have had limited success in developing much enthusiasm for the concept among the students in my course, I maintain hope that it will eventually gain greater acceptance.

Usefulness of a Watch and a Time Chart.

Time flies, even when you're not having fun! KEEP TRACK OF TIME!  BUDGET YOUR TIME! TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE! Try to figure the available proportionate amount of time you have for each question. It's easy if you know how much time you have, the number of questions, and the relative value of each question. [Note: My exams last for 3 hours (180 minutes). Total point value is 180 points. Each question will have an indicated point value. The point value will be equivalent to minutes, e.g., you should budget 60 minutes to a 60 point question.] Don't overbudget a disproportionate amount of time to any of the questions at the expense of the others. You never get the lost time back! Answer the question within the time limits prescribed, and then move on, regardless that you have much more to say in answer to the question and irrespective of whether you need more time to ponder it. Each semester, some students will run into difficulty by devoting disproportionate time to certain questions, shooting themselves in the foot by shortening the available time on others. [In my experience, open book exams with objective questions are a potential recipe for disaster; some students find it hard to resist using too much of their total time trying to look up answers in their outline, notes or hornbook, leaving themselves inadequate time to adequately address the essay question(s).]

Never Leave a Question Blank (Unless it exacts an extra penalty for a wrong answer, e.g., double off)

DO NOT LEAVE ANY QUESTION BLANK unless you don't have any idea of what the answer is and your professor exacts and extra penalty for a wrong answer. You will receive zero credit for blank answers. ANSWER ALL THE ESSAY QUESIONS, EVEN IF YOU ARE UNSURE OF YOUR ANSWER. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER SKIP AN ESSAY OR OBJECTIVE QUESTION except an objective question where your professor exacts an extra penalty for a wrong answer, e.g., double off for a wrong answer to a multiple-choice or true-false question. When you have been told in advance the number of questions on the exam and the point value of each question, there is no excuse for leaving any question blank. Bring a watch and exercise strict discipline in adhering to your time limits. 

What to do when you are running out of time? If you find yourself running out of time, outline the remainder of your answer, and guess on any remaining objective questions. Regarding guessing on objective questions, if there are are several you haven't answered when you're down to the last minute, quickly count the number of answers you have, e.g., count the number of A,B,C,D answers to your multiple-choice or the number of true and false answers on a true-false test, and if one choice, e.g, A on multiple-choice or T on true-false, has not come up as often as others in your previous answers, bet on that one and choose it as your choice for the final few last second guesses. [The reason for this suggestion is that a careful professor will typically allocate an equal number of correct answers to each of the choices, e.g., on a 40 question test, there will probably be 10 correct answers for A,B,C and D, respectively, or 20 each for T and F. If your previous answers have been correct, you are betting on those last few questions that the professor has allocated equivalent value to the choices.]


If you use a lap top computer to type your exam, try to avoid numerous misspelled words. (See examples above.)  If you are a poor typist under stressful conditions (as many appear to be) and if time allows, edit and clean up your answer

If you are going to hand write your exam, bring plenty of loaded writing utensils. Don't write with Crayolas. (Just checkin' to see if you are still with me on this.) Don't run out of black ink in the first paragraph and switch to blue. Include a light yellow highlighter and a small ruler for underlining. Don't switch from pen to pencil or vice versa. Use erasable ink if you are prone to second guessing your answers or if you are a "fire, ready, aim" personality. You want your exam to appear as though you knew what you wanted to say, rather than revealing a "cornered lab rat" mentality, e.g., graphic changes in size, direction, and style of handwriting, numerous erasures and/or scratch-throughs, adding numerous interlineations, arrows pointing this way and that, and changing positive to negative by penning in afterthought "not's" or scratching through negatives to make sentences positive.

Obey the Exam Proctor - "Time is up. Please stop writing."

Although a few schools (generally Tier I) have take-home exams, most follow the traditional practice of a two, three or four-hour sit-down exam. Your school will have rules regarding time limits on the exam. Read them. The person who proctors the exam presumably knows your school's time limit rules and is there to enforce those rules. Do exactly what the proctor says, e.g., stop writing when the proctor calls time. Don't argue with the proctor. It's about as useful as arguing  with a cop. Offending your school's rule by continuing to write after "time" has been called is typically an Honor Code violation; it might result in expulsion, suspension, or having to retake the course. At the least, it will probably go down as a disciplinary infraction on your permanent record. (And there's always the possibility that some of the big kids in class may corner you in the loo and impose retributive justice.)

Final Thoughts for Marination

Clear the decks. Get plenty of rest the night before your exam. Make sure your diet is conducive to good digestive health. Remove  collateral worries and distractions from your mind.

Steel yourself against choking and/or panicking.  Choking is about thinking too much. Panicking is about thinking too little. The first year of law school is designed to scare you to death. You can avoid first year jitters by preparing. Take old Henry Ford's advice -"The secret to success is getting ready!"  If you have prepared for your criminal law exam, there is no reason to panic.  You are full of the material and should have a lot to say. No matter how important the exam, internal panic will not help. The first rule of warfare is Don't Shoot Yourself. The same rule applies to preparing for and taking finals. You don't want yourself to be a victim of inner fear cooked up by your mind. Another good rule of law school and law practice is summed up in the infamous Latin maxim: Illegitimi Non Carborundum Est (Never Let the Bastards Grind You Down!) The best tonic against panic is advance preparation. Know what to expect, and get ready for it. If that advice doesn't motivate you to get ready think "night manager of a Whataburger." [By the way, the second and third years of school are said to, respectively, work you to death and bore you to death.]

Look at your professor's  previous exam questions, and practice answering them. If you can legitimately get copies of questions from your teacher's previous exams, do it. (See above for examples of law schools that make such information available on the Internet.) Practice answering those questions under the clock. Kick the questions around in your study group. Leopards don't change their spots and typical professors don't change the structure of their questions. Chances are that you will be facing questions drafted in a similar style and covering many of the same issues. There is a huge difference between briefing cases and answering long essay questions. Your skill in reading a case and summarizing the salient parts of it in a brief won't make you a good writer of answers to long essay questions. "To learn to play the flute," Aristotle said, "one must play the flute (not the kazoo)." To learn how to construct an answer to a long essay question, practice answering long essay questions. I have made available (to students in my crim law course) a couple of the long essay questions used on previous exams and another fifty short-answer essays of a type that some professors favor. You can easily find additional sites with previous criminal law exam questions given by professors at other law schools. (Again, see above.)

Don't overlook the codes, e.g., your state's penal code and the Model Penal Code, when studying for the exam. - The fact that you have a casebook containing a gazillion appellate court criminal case decisions that bind lower courts may incline you to think that the appellate cases are the most important part of legal study of crimes and defenses. Add to that the fact that a considerable portion of our out of classroom time is devoted to briefing these cases which we then discuss in class. Then add the fact that a considerable number of the early English crimes were defined, developed, and decided by common law judges in opinions rather than by the legislative branch in statutes. From all of this, inductive logic would appear to support the belief that the appellate case decisions are the most important aspect of your criminal law study. I disagree with that inference. To me, the criminal codes are the fountainhead for modern day understanding of the definition of crimes and defenses. As you study the law of crimes and defenses, begin with the Model Penal Code and segue into your state's Penal Code. It's there that you will find the elements.

Look at videotaped advice from the person who made the top grade in a recent class taught by your professor. Consult with the person who made the top grade in your teacher's course during a previous semester. Don't credit the "how to ace the course" advice you get from some lounge lizard who probably made a C- in the course. Get your course advice, and maybe an outline, from people who made top grades in that professor's course. [I use the files section of the Powwow E-Discussion Group to  post an extraordinary crim law outline donated by a top student into a previous class; its easily available for download from the files section of the group along with a separate file from the same student containing some tips for getting ready for class and taking the exam.] If your teacher goes to the trouble of having a top student make a how-to-study-for-the-exam video and if the top student goes to the trouble of making the video, watch it, and seriously consider taking the advice. The professor might put the video on restricted reserve in your school's streaming video. If you think it would be useful, you might ask your professor to arrange it with last semester's top student(s). [Note: I had these tapes made for students in the Criminal Law course for well over a decade. The idea turned out not to be as useful as I hoped, as the overwhelming majority of students didn't find time to watch the videos on campus. The streaming video is probably a better solution since, with a password, it makes the video easily accessible from a computer.]

Consider asking the academic support department of your law school to prepare a streaming video that contains general study, prep, and exam tips from the top five students in the preceding class.

Bottom line: You have to come to your exam with a prepared game plan and stick to the plan. That way, you'll know how to get where you want to go. Get help with your game plan from those with proven ability.

Make healthy choices. Eat well, get plenty of sleep, don't do hard drugs, and stay out of all-nude whiskey go-go joints, at least, until after finals have come and gone. They say that Prince Bismark once remarked that one-third of the law students in German universities broke down from overwork, another third broke down from dissipation, and the other third ruled Germany. (One might ask, faced with those three alternatives, why not choose dissipation?) The choice, of course, is yours. Choose wisely.

Last Things Last - THE BIG KAHUNA - Various Exams You Must Pass After the Law School Experience to Be Licensed to Practice Law (Emphasis on Texas)

Tip: Many of the published tips on how to get yourself ready for the bar exam are applicable to law school exams. See (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6 - This guy even suggests the best diet on test day. Good on Murgatroid!)

[Caveat: This material is based on my understanding of the process and rules. It is not authoritative. Check your own jurisdiction for specifics re the bar exam in your locale.] When, in a few years, you join the +40,000 law school graduates taking the annual bar exam, you will find that criminal law is tested on the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). The six-hour test is given twice a year, in the latter part of part of of February and July. The exam is given in two three-hour increments. There are two hundred (200) multiple-choice (objective) questions covering Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law, Evidence, Property, & Torts. Although the number varies, approximately thirty (30) of these objective multiple-choice questions are about criminal law, i.e., the law of crimes and defenses to crimes. All objective criminal law questions are based on the common law. You are asked to choose the best answer from four choices. Released questions can be purchased from the National Conference of Bar Examiners. [Note: For states that use the Multistate Essay Exam (MEE), effective with the July 2007 administration, the MEE includes nine questions instead of seven, with three questions drawn from the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE). Coverage of the MEE includes criminal law and procedure.]

Texas Lawyers: Prior to issuance of a Texas law license, you are required to take and pass the Texas Bar Examination (TBE). The highest possible combined total score on the TBE is 1000. A combined score of 675 points is the minimum passing score.The TBE is comprised of the following four parts:

  • Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) -  The MBE is described above and is the part of the TBE that tests your knowledge of crimes and defenses. The MBE  accounts for  40% of the total points. See NCBE.
  • Multistate Performance Test (MPT) (1) - The MPT involves a legal analysis or writing assignment that taps into your legal research and writing skills in a realistic situation in which you are required to complete a task that a beginning lawyer should be able to accomplish. The MPT consists of one ninety (90) minute task, in which the examinee is furnished with a file of source documents and a library of research materials to be used in accomplishing the designated task. The MPT requires examinees to: (1) sort detailed factual materials and separate relevant from irrelevant facts; (2) analyze statutes, cases, and administrative materials for principles of law; (3) apply the law to the relevant facts in a manner likely to resolve a client's problem; (4) identify and resolve ethical dilemmas, when present; (5) communicate effectively in writing; and (6) complete a lawyering task within time constraints. The MPT accounts for 10% of the total.
  • Texas Essay Test (Essays) - The Essay Test is a six-hour examination consisting of twelve (12) questions about Texas law, each of which must be completed in thirty minutes; five subjects are assigned two essays each,  and two subjects are assigned one essay each; the subjects are as follows: Uniform Commercial Code (two essays), Business Associations, including agency and partnerships (two essays),
  • Family Law (two essays), Wills & Administration of Estates (two essays), Real Property (two essays), Trusts & Guardianship (one essay), and Consumer Law (one essay).  The Essays account for 40% of the total points.
  • Texas Procedure and Evidence Test (P&E) - The P&E is a ninety-minute test consisting of twenty (20) short-answer civil law procedure and evidence questions and twenty (20) short-answer criminal procedure and evidence questions. The P&E accounts for 10% of the total points.

Information about the bar exam in any state is also available, as well as the national ranking (1), (2) of the law school you attend. This link will allow you to see essay questions asked on previous Texas examinations.  Try this site for information (some of it gossipy) about law schools around the country. Here's another site that gives you some information about law school finals. This professor's web page provides information re the Texas bar.

Applicants for the bar will also be required to take and pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) - The MPRE is administered three times yearly; a passing score is valid for five years from the date the MPRE is taken. [Note however: A passing Texas Bar Examination score is void if an applicant has not satisfied all admission requirements within two years of notification.]

Final Thoughts

Knowledge is a bit like food. If you aren't hungry for the subject, if you have no appetite for the material, study is a chore. You may get that feeling of being instructed by someone you don't know about something you don't want to know. If you allow yourself to feel that way, you'll want to squeak by with the least amount of effort required. Because law schools (for financial reasons) often pack the 1L classes to overflow level, it's sometimes easy to hide in the weeds, avoiding any active participation in the course. In 1L courses that don't require your regular participation, e.g., those that preassign cases for recitation rather than utilizing random recitation and those don't rely on problems, fieldwork and/or periodic quizzes during the semester, many students who don't have interest in the subject will wait until shortly before the final exam to commence serious study. Big mistake. It's a proven fact that if you have ten hours to study, you learn much more in ten one-hour sessions spaced over ten weeks than one continuous ten-hour session. At most, cramming for an exam provides only short-term benefit. Your memory won't retain what you take in.

You don't receive knowledge of the law of crimes and defenses by osmosis. You discover it for yourself in a 14-week journey that no one can take for you. In the study of law, a certain delicacy of thought and subtlety of perception comes only by reading. Your teacher will provide the reading material and a forum for lecture and discussion. But for the course to really work, you need to be motivated. The opportunity you are seeking in law school is for the most part in yourself. Circumstances, luck, and the help of others can make a difference, but your capacity to pass from one step of success to the next is mostly in yourself. The plain fact is that 99% of us (I include myself.) live far within our capabilities. Compared to what we can and ought to be, most of us are only half-awake. So, give it your best shot, let the coursework absorb you.

Plato said, "Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind." What you get out of the course is pretty much up to you. I do challenge you to become resourceful and resilient. My pledge to you is that I'll do everything within my power to help you make this experience a stepping stone, rather than a stumbling block, to your understanding of the law of crimes and defenses.

Final Tip: Lawyers should never marry lawyers. This is called in-breeding. From this comes idiot children and other lawyers. (Adam's Rib 1949)

Bonne chance et bon succes.


PS: Will the last person out of the tunnel turn off the light?

* The plight of the the 1L was the subject of Scott Turow's, One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School, (Warner 1997). A used copy can be had for several dollars. Although Turow wrote the book about the life of a 1L in 1977, many of the same pressures remain. Its worth a read. The internal stress that decks us is often the stress that we put upon ourselves when we start imagining how other people think we should act. Because law school is so stressful, today most schools have free, confidential counseling services available. Don't be hesitant in utilizing your school's counseling and psychological services if you encounter personal or stress-related potholes in the highway of scholastic life.

Note: Finding time to study is always difficult. A law student who didn't much enjoy studying did some work figuring out when there is time to study. Here's what she came up with: Every year had 365 days, except for leap years, which have 366. If you sleep 8 hours a day, it equals 122 days. This leaves 243 days. If you rest 8 hours a day, it equals 122 days. This leaves 121 days. There are 52 Sundays (or whatever your weekly holy day is) leaving 69 days. If you have half-a-day of fun on Saturdays, this equals 26 days, leaving 43 days. If you have 1 and 1/2 hours for lunch every work day, this equals 28 days, leaving 15 days. Two weeks of vacation equals 14 days. This leaves 1 day, and on Labor Day nobody studies.

LYRICS (Warning: They contain several expletives.)

Used to think I was smart,
'til I came to law school.

Used to sleep at night,
'til I came to law school.

I used to have a life,
'til I came to law school.

I thought I was a ____.
Now I know I'm not ____,
Thanks to law school.

I can't stand what I see,
friends and family,
and they ask me,
"How's law school?"

And I have to say something besides,
"It's driving me crazy,"
and "The work is endless,"
and "The stress relentless,"
and "My arguments defenseless,"
and "My choice of profession was senseless."

You know, I used to have a sense of humor,
'til I came to law school.

Never used to hear voices,
'til I came to law school.

Never had gray hairs,
'til I came to law school.

I thought I was a ____.
Now I know, I'm not ____.
Thanks to law school.

And, it's 1 L,*
Life is hell.
Getting by on the cheapest ____,
the liquor store sells.

And, it's 1 L,
life is hell.
All I own are mashed potatoes,
and a broke-ass Dell.

And, it's 1 L,
life is hell.
For everything I learn,
I forget something else.

And, there's 1 L,
life is hell.
Made me a shadow,
of my former self.

And they say it gets better,
but the damage is done.
I believe reasonable-ness,
and juris-dic-tion.

The cases are scripture,
outlines are bibles,
professors are preachers,
and friends are my rivals.

And for now no one will hire me,
and if they did they'd soon fire me.
But I guess I'll be happy,
when I'm a retiree.

Cause right now I'm broke,
And my checkbook's my diary.
If you've got cash to spare,
could you please wire me?

(This line spoken) I'll pay you back when I pass the bar
and leave law school.


Bar review course material can be helpful in helping you get a lasso around law school courses. If you sign up for a fee-based bar review course early on in law school, you may get copies of the materials for use in your first year classes.

Some law schools - often those ranked as bottom feeders - supply a free bar review course to their students. Most of these courses are reserved for 3Ls who will be soon be graduating and taking an upcoming bar exam.


The Song - YouTube

It may help to know that there are another 115,000 people seeking a J.D. from the 204 ABA-accredited law schools around the country. Around 35,000 are currently experiencing the 1L blues. Most of our nation's 1.3 million lawyers have been there.

If you choose, you may listen to this lament and watch the video below.
Lyrics are provided for those who like karaoke
(1) (2) (3) (4).
Laughing at one's plight and recognizing that tens of thousands are in the same boat may be reassuring.

[Sorry for the scatological reference, but the excellent composer/singer of this diddy must have his artistic freedom.]

Media Abounds with
Multiple Opportunities to Practice for Your Essay Exams 

Stories of crime are everywhere in the media. As a student of criminal law, look at these stories through the fresh eye of a would be
criminal lawyer.

When you rob a thief of his loot,
is the taking still larceny/theft?


Here's an easy one for practice.
"We're with the Vipers."
starring Chris Moltosante
and Tony Soprano.

Assume that the bikers are stealing the wine. Assume that Chris killed the biker. Sort out in
a written essay all potential
crimes and defenses in this scenario for Tony and Chris.
Explain fully under the common law, MPC, and your state's penal code.

Time Limit: 20 minutes.
CAUTION: If you are a person of delicate sensibility and abhor
execrations, maledicta, or invective, watch this
without sound.

RIP James Gandolfini

Key Words
in Your Answer
to an Essay Problem

A good tip on exam-taking strategy is to use three words in your written answers: First, use the word "under," as in "under such and such doctrinal rule of law";  Second, use the word "here" when specifying the application of doctrinal law to relevant facts in the question; and Third, use "therefore" in drawing your conclusion after applying the law to the facts.

Another tip. Someone said that a conclusion is where you get tired of thinking. If you are asked to solve a legal problem, you'll typically arrive at a conclusion. Just be sure that that your conclusion is prefaced by sound reasoning that supports the conclusion.
The use of the word  "because" will help you establish the link between the conclusion and the reasoning that supports it.


This tape provides some general advice on what is needed to excel on law school exams. The speaker is a retired law school professor who plugs his book. He also has a Part II tape on issue spotting. I like the background - quilt?


UVA Law Students
Explain How They Got
Ready and Handled the First Year of Law School
(Part II)(Part III)


Another law professor weighs in for 10 useful minutes on exam- taking. Shorter version.



So You Want to Go to Law School and Be a Criminal Defense Attorney


Dean's Advice to Former Student Unable to Find a Job as a Lawyer


Finding a Job as a Lawyer


The Versatility of a Law School Degree


Advice from
Your 2L Mentor


Briefing Your 1L Cases and Being  Questioned
By Your Professor (Satire)


In one of  the few tapes of its kind on YouTube, this pleasant chap from a San Diego based law school says, (1) don't "brain dump" everything in your notes into your essay answer, (2) don't answer issues that aren't raised, and (3) keep your answer short.



Accommodating Your Significant Other to the Law School Experience (Satire)

Podcast from Georgetown Law School on exam taking in general
taking first-year exams

These video presentations
suggest basic approaches such "show your work," i.e., indicate how you applied the law to the facts, take as many practice exams as possible, practice issue spotting, etc. [Caution: If you attend the University of Toledo College of Law, don't listen to the first speaker on taking 1L exams.]


Career Services Director's Advice to Former Student Unable to Find a Job as a Lawyer


1. If you haven't had much exposure to practicing lawyers, don't think that real lawyers are like your full-time law professors.

Some of your professors have never practiced law. It is entirely possible that your professor is not licensed to practice law in the state where he/she is teaching. Your professor may never have had a client or had to meet a payroll or turn a profit. Etc.

Full-time law school teachers live a much less stressful life than most practicing lawyers. If they are tenured, they answer to virtually nobody. They grade other people's papers. Theirs are rarely graded. Some may be arrogant, pointy-headed
intellectuals. Some are down to earth.Some are kind, others stuff-shirts or crusty, crotchety, cantakerous, curmudgeons. Whatever their character, they are not practitioners of the law.

The point is: Don't model your behavior after your full-time professors, thinking that you are learning how to be a lawyer. If you model after them, you are learning how to be a professor (BTW - a great job).

2. Don't waste much time gossiping about your professors' personalities. Very few are heroic. Forswear  the elevator and student lounge jabber about professors. Unless it helps you figure out what's gonna be on the exam, it's a waste of breath.

"It's the Law of Crime"


Musica from the boys of the Columbia Law Review. Nice lyrics summarizing the law of crimes. Student stage presence - more apropos for Wall Street than Broadway


This is a slide lecture re criminal law in an undergraduate business law course in Texas.
Somewhat superficial but worth a listen.


Here are a few chaps trying to get you to shell out $ for their law school training courses. There are a few tips thrown in.
(1) (2) (3) (4)

(This is not an endorsement of the program these folks are vending. I know nothing of their merits,)


Here is Part One - Initial Stage of a four-part training film for government employees who work on criminal cases in the federal judicial system. It's more than a law students with no interest in practicing criminal law would want to spend time watching. Those who are interested in federal criminal practice will find it enlightening. The other three recordings are as follows:

Part Two - Pretrial Proceedings

Part Three - Trials
and Guilty Pleas

Part Four - Sentencing
and Post-Judgment Proceedings

CAUTION: If you are a person of delicate sensibility and abhor
execrations, maledicta, or invective, watch the
cartoons in this sidebar  without sound.


Recitation - Old School
Pedagogy in
The Paper Chase

Actors John Houseman (Professor Kingsfield) and Timothy Bottoms (James Hart) play out a teacher-student classroom confrontation at Harvard Law. In bygone days, teachers were more interested in teaching students what they should know rather than what would please them.

Caution: Hart displays backbone, but don't try this retort with your professor.

A panicked mind is a useless mind. The first lesson is to remain calm and alert.