5 Preparing For and Taking Exams

As mentioned in the prior chapter, law school exams will likely be different from what you are used to, but that’s okay, and that’s why I’m going to tell you all about them. As mentioned, the exams won’t ask you about facts of cases or exact rules of law. Yes, part of exam preparation is that you need to know the rules of law you have learned, but the exam doesn’t stop there.

While different professors might test in slightly different ways, the most common way that first-year classes are tested is using one to three hypotheticals, or stories. Then, it is your job to apply the rules you’ve learned to that story, or “hypo.”

Finally, while many schools are embracing midterm exams, many class grades are still based on one final exam at the end of the semester. This can be daunting, and it is why I stress practicing before that exam.

I. Before the Exam

Below I’ll go through what a typical exam looks like and how to write one. But first, let’s look at ways you can prepare—and skills you can strengthen—in advance of exam day.

a. Law School Exam Format – Practice Hypotheticals

So by now, you might be thinking, what on EARTH is a hypo? Well, it’s short for “hypothetical,” meaning a hypothetical story, or hypothetical legal pattern. In class, your professor might use these to illustrate examples or differences between areas of the law.

In addition, your midterm, and your final exam, are likely to be one to two hypotheticals. They are, essentially, practice legal problems. Your exam will set out a story or scenario, and you will be expected to identify, analyze, and “solve” (come to a conclusion about) the legal issues that arise in the story. While occasionally a hypothetical will provide the applicable law, such as a sample statute, hypotheticals are primarily fact-driven; in other words, it will be your responsibility to not only determine where there might be a legal issue involved but also to conjure up the applicable rule or law and apply it to the facts at hand in order to reach a conclusion about which way the case should be decided. For example, in a criminal law course, you might get a story about a series of interactions between three people and your assignment will be to explain if any crimes have been committed among them. If you go back to the previous chapter to my examples on synthesizing, I asked you to think about if you had a client that wanted a firepit in their deck and told you the neighborhood had an applicable rule—that is a hypothetical. On your exams, the hypos will take on topics you are learning in class.

It should be noted that the BEST way to prepare for an exam is by doing practice hypos! This means practicing writing out the answers. You can get practice hypos from old exams (preferably from the same class and professor), class discussions, or your textbook—or you can create your own.

However, legal writing—and exam writing—is different from what you are used to. As discussed in the next section, legal writing and answers to exam hypotheticals should follow the IRAC structure, which is something you need to practice before the day of the exam.

b. Using IRAC

You just learned that law school exams are typically a series of hypotheticals, and that to best prepare for the exam you should spend time practicing writing out your answers to practice hypotheticals.

Writing an answer to a law school exam is different from exams you may have written in the past. In order to successfully write a law school exam, it is necessary to have a specific paragraph structure or template. Professors refer to the structure used in writing exams—or the organization of the material—as IRAC, which stands for Issue, Rule, Analysis, and Conclusion.

Sometimes a professor might suggest CRAC, or CRE(explanation) AC, (these are common in legal writing) where one starts with a conclusion instead of an issue. However, that is usually reserved for legal writing, such as a memo, versus an exam, unless your professor specifically requests CRAC. Also, all of these formulas are essentially the same, so if one professor says “I prefer CRAC to IRAC” don’t let that throw you. Finally, I’ve had colleagues say they “don’t care about IRAC,” but then they show me how they want an answer to look, and you guessed it, it’s IRAC! This is going to feel VERY formulaic and repetitive, which is typically very different from writing you may have done for liberal arts courses. Instead, think of IRAC as a way to solve an equation or a lab report. I also sometimes think of it as a math problem—sort of like showing your work in long division.

Let’s walk through each section of IRAC:

Sections of IRAC

Issue: Identity and explicitly state the precise legal issue you are about to discuss. Think of an issue like a topic sentence; you want to let the reader, usually a professor, know what area of law you are going to discuss. Think about what question (or questions) you need to answer in order to answer the hypothetical. Bear in mind there can be multiple questions, or issues, and if so, they each get their own IRAC. The issue will not be a broad topic such as “is there a crime?” Rather, the precise legal issue should be one narrow aspect of the broader legal rule you plan to analyze, such as “was Bob’s act voluntary?” Professors vary in the degree of specificity they want in students’ issue statements, so keep this in mind.

For example, if the exam question asks “What crimes have been committed?” your umbrella issue statement might be “Was Bob guilty of homicide?”, but there might be several sub-issues as well. See below for more information on this. (Also, note that any given exam hypothetical might have multiple issues; for example, you might spot three crimes—maybe homicide, theft, and something else—and they should EACH get their own IRAC.)

Rule: Next, accurately state the specific rule you plan to apply to the issue that you stated. Again, professors have a range of preferences, and you will be encouraged to ask them what those preferences are. Some professors want exact statements of rules, but most accept accurate paraphrases of rules. Sometimes, if applicable, you may need to explain the rule, which means expanding on the definition or further explaining an aspect of the rule.

Analysis: Immediately following your statement of the rule, apply the rule to the specific relevant facts presented in the legal problem you are analyzing. The analysis is often the most difficult (and most important!) part of essay writing; see below for a more detailed explanation of how to write an analysis.

Conclusion: After your analysis, state an explicit conclusion—your specific prediction as to how a court would decide the particular issue you discussed. Your conclusion should flow directly from your analysis. Thus, if your analysis identifies arguments for both parties, or a counterargument, your conclusion should explain why you believe one set of arguments is more persuasive. Remember that there is often not a “correct” conclusion.

Common IRAC Errors

  • Labeling each component of your IRAC. Some students literally write the IRAC components in their answers to lawyering problems. Like any mnemonic, IRAC should be used as a guide inside your head, not as a set of labels written in an answer to a lawyering problem.
  • Making your entire answer to a lawyering problem one gigantic IRAC. For example, stating all the issues in one paragraph, stating all applicable rules in the next paragraph, etc. Each IRAC should address one precise issue, and only one precise issue. You should be sure to use a separate IRAC for each issue, or question, which needs resolving. For example, if the question is whether the defendant should be charged with larceny or embezzlement—two different crimes—you would use one IRAC for each crime, and not combine them.
  • Making each IRAC or each component of your IRACs the same length. There is no rule about how long each IRAC should be. You will need to develop the legal judgment and discretion to determine how much to write to answer a specific lawyering problem. Some IRACs are short and some are much longer. Substance should trump form. In other words, the length of your IRACs should reflect the complexity of the legal issue you’re addressing in a given lawyering problem.
  • Giving equal weight, length, and time to each component of IRAC. For example, some students assume each piece of IRAC should be one sentence long. This assumption is incorrect. You should make each component as long as needed to address the specific problem. The I and C will always be relatively short, with the R and the A likely being the longest. In fact, when answering lawyering problems on law school exams, the A will usually count for the majority of your grade. Therefore, usually, the analysis portion should be the most extensive portion of your IRAC.

c. Mastering the Analysis

What does it mean to put forth an analysis? This is where you apply the unique facts of your hypothetical to the applicable rule. Please note that this is not a conclusion, nor is it merely restating facts. This is likely the most difficult part of writing a law school exam, and where you are likely to earn (or lose) the most points. Often when students come to me after a midterm or final exam and aren’t happy with their grade, it’s not that they misstated the rules, missed issues, or didn’t know what they were doing—they just didn’t analyze.

Your analysis is “showing your work,” or explaining how and why you reached a certain conclusion. I like to say your analysis answers the “why.” I tell my students to think of a small child, or me, asking them “but why, but why, but WHY?” You should answer that “why” with a “because” and think of the Wizard of Oz—“because, because, because…”

To this end, I like giving my students an analysis formula. If your background is in writing, or any kind of liberal arts degree, writing in a very formulaic way is going to feel odd and stiff. It might also feel repetitive. All of that is okay—embrace the formula and life will be so much easier.

IRAC: Analysis Formula

As I mentioned above, think of the analysis like a math formula:

If a Rule = X, Y plus Z

Then your Analysis = When (FACT), this was X. Because of (FACT), Y occurred. In addition, because of (FACT FACT), Z was satisfied.


When [                                         ], that was [                                         ].

Because of [                                         ], [                                         ] was met.

For example, the definition of battery is “An intentional harmful or offensive touching of another.” So, when applying this formula, you might say “When Bob punched Jim in the face, that was harmful” or “Because of the fact that Bob hit Jim on purpose, the element of intent was met.”

Essentially, you want to pair each rule element with a fact that supports or does not support that rule element. You are proving the equation, so to speak!

You might also need to “stack” your IRACs, or have sub-IRACs. Well, what does that mean? As mentioned above, your essay will have multiple issues or claims, and each issue or claim should have a separate IRAC paragraph. For example, a tort will have multiple elements, so you might want to use an IRAC for each element. See below.

Issue (In tort law, what is the tort?)

Rule (Elements 1, 2, 3)


Sub issue 1 (Element 1)

Sub rule 1 (Explanation of Element 1)

Sub analysis 1 (Analysis of Element 1)

Sub issue 2

Sub rule 2

Sub analysis 2

Sub issue 3

Sub rule 3

Sub analysis 3


Here is a helpful CALI Lesson, on IRAC.

Now, let’s do a practice hypothetical:

Your client stole a motorized scooter and traveled from Illinois to Indiana. They are charged under U. S. Code, Title 18, § 408 (18 USCA § 408). That Act provides: “Sec. 2. That when used in this Act: (a) The term ‘motor vehicle’ shall include an automobile, automobile truck, automobile wagon, motor cycle, or any other self-propelled vehicle not designed for running on rails. * * * Sec. 3. That whoever shall transport or cause to be transported in interstate or foreign commerce a motor vehicle, knowing the same to have been stolen, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $5,000, or by imprisonment of not more than five years, or both.”

You know from reading a case called McBoyle v. United States that a plane is not a motor vehicle. In fact, the court reasons “But in everyday speech ‘vehicle’ calls up the picture of a thing moving on land.” The court in McBoyle also states that if the legislature had wanted to include planes in the definition, they certainly would have. The statute McBoyle cites is from 1919.

Given this information, you need to decide whether your client’s motorized scooter is, in fact, a motor vehicle.

Now for the hard part: the analysis. Before you dive into trying to write it, think about how you are going to prove whether a motorized scooter is a motor vehicle, or isn’t. Let’s think about it this way:

Is a Motor Vehicle

Isn’t a Motor Vehicle





Motorized Scooter



Running on rails

No motor/takes human strength to power

First, I separated out what we know from the language of the statute, as well as the case. We know what is specifically designated as a motor vehicle, and what isn’t.

Next, the statute says a motor vehicle must be self-propelled, and not run on rails. So the second part of the table focuses on that. The question becomes, which side fits a motorized scooter better and why?

Try something like this:

Rule Element

Facts For

Facts Against



Not running on rails

Runs over land

Try to fill in the chart, originally created by MaryAnn Hermann1—what are you noticing, if anything? You might have seen something like the below:

Rule Element

Facts For

Facts Against



Motor scooters have an engine and can move without “manpower”

Can also move with only manpower, meaning the rider can use their feet to get it to move

Which is the predominant use?

Not running on rails

No rails on a motor scooter

Runs over land

Can’t fly

Now you can think about your analysis. You want to use words like “here” and “because” in your analysis. For example, “Because a motor scooter does not run on rails, and in fact, runs on land, we can argue in favor of it being a motor vehicle.” Or, “Even though a motor scooter has an engine, meaning it is self-propelled, it can also be operated using manpower alone, making it less of a motor vehicle.” Note that there isn’t a right answer, and that can be frustrating. A motor scooter can be self-propelled OR propelled by the operator, making it hard to come to a “correct” conclusion. This is a common occurrence in legal hypotheticals, and it can be difficult to get used to. We are not as worried about the conclusion—here, whether this is a motor vehicle or not—but rather, we are concerned with the process or the arguments that helped you reach that conclusion. For example, maybe you don’t know much about scooters, which is perfectly acceptable, and you argue that motor scooters are completely self-propelled with an engine. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as you are explaining your reasoning.

The frustrating part about writing out hypotheticals is there isn’t always a “right” answer. The important part of the writing is how you support your conclusion. Even if an explanation seems obvious, it’s worth putting it down. I’ll leave you with one last example of the importance of supporting your conclusion.

I have taught contracts in the past, and one of the first rules of contracts I teach is whether the Uniform Commercial Code, a series of statutes, or the common law applies. The Uniform Commercial Code, or UCC, applies to “goods” which are defined as “moveable, tangible, items.” The common law of contracts applies to everything else. I gave my class a hypo about a homeowner contracting with a company to install a pool. In my mind, as I was writing the hypothetical, I had a vision of an inground pool—so installation would require digging and other activities. This means the students should be using common law.

However, I had a handful of students state very confidentially, and without explanation, that the UCC applied to this fact pattern. My first thought was, “Oh, I need to go back and explain the UCC again!”

I asked the class why some of them answered with UCC. I was told by a couple of students that a pool installation involved the company moving the pool off the back of the truck and putting it in the yard. Turns out, they had a vision of an aboveground pool, which very well might be a good since it is tangible and moveable!

So, the students were not wrong in their understanding of the law, but they failed to explain their reasoning. To both myself and the students, the idea of “pool” seemed obvious and without the need for an explanation. But it turns out we both had a vision of a different pool, so the explanation was needed. In conclusion, even if something seems silly and obvious to you, err on the side of explaining!

IV. Exam Writing – The Day of the Exam

Now that you have hopefully prepared your notes, synthesized your rules, and done some practice hypos using the IRAC formula, it’s time to look at the steps involved while actually taking the exam. Like many other parts of this book, if you are reading this in August, the section below might feel premature. Read it, or skim it, so you get an idea of what exams will look like, then feel free to come back to it halfway through your semester!

a. Plan First

Before you dive into writing the actual exam answer, you need to plan! Given that on the day of the exam you will likely feel a little stressed and anxious, it’s helpful to plan ahead for how you will plan. I know, so much planning, but that is also a lawyering skill.

First, look at timing and how much each question or exam part is worth. How do you plan to divide your time so that you address all the questions? Are there other instructions specific to the exam, or a section on applicable law? READ CAREFULLY. Sometimes you can ask your professor for directions ahead of time; sometimes you can’t. Either way, start your exam by carefully reading the directions and creating a plan.

For more preparation, see the CALI Lesson Attacking Exams.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean by planning and reading carefully. See the directions below, and then try to answer the questions that follow.

Sample Instructions 1

Contracts Final Examination

Directions: This exam is for three hours and is closed book. Answer the multiple-choice questions on the Scantron answer sheet provided. Write or type your answers to the essay questions either in bluebooks or using the examination software. Remember to put your exam number on the answer sheet, this paper, and the essays. If something in a question seems missing or mistaken, please state a corrective assumption and proceed with your answer.

Applicable law: Unless otherwise indicated in a particular question, please assume that all events occur in a U.S. state following typical modern contract law and the UCC with no local amendments. The common law statute of frauds applies except to the sale of goods, which is governed by UCC Article 2. The majority (New York) version of the parol evidence rule applies. If there is an issue in an essay that raises two or more major conflicting views of the proper rule, you should indicate the different outcomes under each rule.

Interactive Questions: Reading Exam Instructions – Part 1

Let’s look at another one:

Sample Instructions 2

Civil Procedure Final Examination


These questions are “open book.” You may use any of the course materials (including materials posted on the course website), handouts, and notes you have taken in class in preparing your answers to the following questions. You also may use any hornbooks, treatises, or commercial outlines. The only limitation is that you work independently. Under no circumstances should you speak with, or look at the materials of, a fellow classmate.

Your student identification number, as well as the name of the course and the date of the exam, should be placed at the top of the first page of your submission. DO NOT PUT YOUR NAME, OR OTHERWISE SUGGEST TO ME WHO YOU ARE, ANYWHERE IN YOUR SUBMISSION. Any adjustment to your final grade for class participation will be made after I complete the grading of your examination answers.

If you wish to cite to a case, you may use any coherent short-citation form.


Let’s look at one final set of instructions, then answer the questions that follow.

Sample Instructions 3

Directions: You will have 90 minutes to complete this exam. I have given suggested times for each section. You are allowed one (1) page, front and back, of notes. Please complete the multiple choice on the provided scantron, and complete the written portion on Exam4.

Please provide your name on both the scantron and Exam4.

Suggested Times: Essay 1, 30 minutes. Essay 2, 60 minutes.

Interactive Questions: Reading Exam Instructions – Part 2

This might seem silly. I appreciate that you think I’m probably asking you obvious questions, that amount to basic reading comprehension. And they are! But the truth is that plenty of bright, literate, student exam takers skip right over key directions. In fact, Sample Instruction 3 comes from an exam a colleague of mine gave a few years ago. The colleague was frustrated that three students answered the multiple-choice questions on Exam4, not the scantron. This meant that their multiple-choice answers were not counted! I believe my colleague went in and hand graded, giving them partial credit, but not every professor will do that. So you want to be diligent in reading instructions and creating a plan.

b. Read and Outline

Now that you are fully aware of the instructions, time constraints, and how you will balance your time, start on the first question. Take time to first read it as a story and get a feel for the facts. Then outline. This is different from the other outlining I’ve discussed. When you outline to study, you are synthesizing the law you’ve learned so you know how it all comes together. When outlining an exam answer, you are organizing your answer so you don’t miss anything. I know, you don’t have time to outline, but you can’t NOT outline. Think about how you want to organize your essay. Are all issues created equally? What is your plan to address all issues?

A good way to outline is to organize your facts as we discussed above. For example, think back to that table:

Rule Element

Facts For

Facts Against



Motor scooters have an engine and can move without “manpower”

Can also move with only manpower, meaning the rider can use their feet to get it to move

Which is the predominant use?

Not running on rails

No rails on a motor scooter

Runs over land

Can’t fly

You might notice that there isn’t much to talk about with “runs over land.” I mean, a motorized scooter certainly doesn’t fly in the air, so this feels obvious. But “self-propelled” seems to have more to discuss! So that means you will likely want to spend more time on the issue of whether a motor scooter is self-propelled than whether it runs over land.

If there are multiple issues, you can also use this type of chart to determine which issue requires the most time.

Speaking of issues, outlining will help you issue spot. You will hear this as a buzzword all around: that you need to “spot the issues” or “issue spot.” But what does that mean? Remember that a hypothetical is essentially a story. So your job is to read the story and determine the “issues” or questions to solve. A professor may ask you a very directed question, such as “Did Defendant commit murder?”, in which case, your issue-spotting just got much easier! However, it is more than likely that the professor will end the hypothetical story with “What are the rights of the parties?” or “What crimes can Bob be charged with?”

This means that a large part of earning points on your exam is figuring out what issues, or legal problems, to solve. Everyone tackles this in a slightly different way. However, I suggest taking one of the two methods described below and making it your own.

Issue Spotting Method 1: The Checklist

In doing the outlining that I mentioned above, you can create a mini-outline or “attack outline,” which is what I just call a checklist. Essentially, it should be a one-page list of the types of law you covered. For example, in a torts class, you are going to cover various types of torts. Therefore, your checklist might look something like this:

1. Intentional Torts

a. Assault

b. Battery

c. False Imprisonment

d. Trespass

e. Trespass to Chattels

f. Conversion

2. Negligence

Note that this is an incomplete checklist, and the complete version will look different depending on your professor and class. The idea is that if I have this memorized, I can quickly go through the fact pattern to see if any of the torts show up. Part of your checklist might also be to add in “activating facts.” What I mean by that is, if you are looking for an assault, or a battery, what are you looking for?

For example, for battery, I might know that I need a person in the fact pattern to touch another person, so I’m indicating that in my checklist. I can go through the story and think, “Alright, is anyone touching someone else? If so, could that be a battery?” Similarly, trespass requires land or entering the land of another. Is that showing up in the facts? Adding these types of “activating facts” to our checklist might look like this:

1. Intentional Torts

a. Assault

b. Battery – touching of another

c. False Imprisonment

d. Trespass – someone entering land

e. Trespass to Chattels

f. Conversion

2. Negligence

Issue Spotting Method 2: The Factfinder

You can also do the reverse of the checklist: use every fact given to see if it triggers an issue. For example, pretend that this is part of an exam:

At the local bar, Bob saw Jim and thought, “Hey, Jim is looking at me funny.” So, Bob walks up to Jim, and punches him in the face.

You might not immediately know what tort is involved, but you can think “Hey, Bob punched Jim in the face, that’s gotta be something, right?” and you would indeed be correct! It IS something. Ideally, you would want to know that it is likely battery, but if that’s not coming to mind right away, it can be important to set aside the fact and mention that it’s likely a tort.

Similarly, why is the fact pattern telling you that Bob thought Jim was looking at him funny? Is that important? Could that be a factor in the analysis? It might be! Which brings us to our next step…

c. Analyze!

At this point, you’ve read the instructions as well as read through the hypotheticals presented and started organizing your answer by outlining. Now it is time for the analysis—the most important part of your essay. As a reminder, this is where you explain how and why you reached a certain conclusion. This is the part where you think like a lawyer, so to speak. This is also, as you plan your time, where you want to spend the bulk of your time. Some professors also call this “applying the facts” or “applying the rule.” It all means the same thing.

It’s also not uncommon for this to be what students struggle with the most. It’s easy for me to say “apply the facts” over and over again, but it’s trickier than it sounds.

Let’s start by organizing and making sure we use all of the facts in a hypothetical. Those of us who teach law—we aren’t creative. I mean, some of us are, and we probably like to think we’d all be fantastic novelists, but let’s face it—we aren’t. Since I’ve been teaching on Zoom, my husband will hear students laugh from time to time. I end up incredibly proud, telling him “See, they think I’m funny.” His response is always “You’re only funny for a law professor.” Ouch. I’m telling you this because when we write exams we aren’t building worlds or trying to create interesting characters or backstories. Most of us actually write exams backward; first, we think of the law we want to test, then create the facts that will support that. This means that every single fact in your hypothetical is important. When I meet with students that didn’t do well on their exams, one of the main issues I see is that they aren’t using enough facts.

To think about organizing facts, let’s use two charts from a good friend and colleague, MaryAnn Hermann. These charts are also referenced above.

So, now that you’ve spotted the issue and identified the appropriate rule, let’s break it down. Start with the rule’s elements and think of each element as something you need to prove or disprove. Every rule you are given in law school will have parts; just note that some are easier to find than others. After you’ve established the element, you want to “match” a fact with that element. Then, think about if there are multiple understandings, and if so, how you might resolve the multiple understandings.

Here is what I mean by multiple understandings. Let’s say the rule element is “unforeseeable event” and the fact that “matches” with that element is “snowstorm in late March.” Now, one understanding of that might be that it’s unforeseeable—no one expects snow in late March! However, I’m currently writing this from Michigan, where we absolutely expect snow in late March, and sometimes even April. So the multiple understandings of the fact might come from where you live or the weather you are used to. You can also look for other facts in the hypothetical to help you resolve the multiple understandings; does the hypothetical tell you anything about the climate or geography of the place?

Rule Element Fact Understanding A Understanding B Resolution


Another approach is thinking of “facts for” and “facts against” a rule element. I like to think of it as proving or disproving an element. If the element is “intent,” are there facts that prove intent, or are there facts that disprove it?

In some instances, you will only have facts for, or only have facts against. However, in some instances, you will have both, and again, you need to resolve this issue and come to a conclusion.

Rule Element Facts For Facts Against Resolution

Now, turn those charts into an analysis using the format I gave you above. Remember, it’s typically “Because FACT and FACT, rule element was met” or “When FACT, that satisfied RULE ELEMENT” or “RULE ELEMENT was met because of FACT and FACT.” The key is that you are pairing the facts with your rule in a very clear way.

Now, all of this was merely an overview, and certainly a lot to take in. There are more opportunities for practice! Here are some related CALI Lessons:

All of these will help you get on the right track. The key to all of this is to be active, not passive. No exam will ask you to recite memorized facts or merely explain a rule. Therefore, preparing for exams has to involve practice, not merely “review.”

1 Hermann, MaryAnn. “A Step-by-Step Method of Teaching Legal Reasoning.” Midwestern Academic Support and Bar Programs Conference. Chicago, 2018.