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General Advice for Legal Studies Exams


1. I’ve been Tested and Have been a Tester

Who am I and what do I know about testing? I am the Dean of the Sydney City School of Law. I was an HSC Legal Studies teacher in Tasmania for many years. Once I joined the faculty at University of Tasmania I became Chief Examiner for Legal Studies in Tasmania and also contributed to the major text used by schools for the course. In addition, through my 5 university degrees I have passed Bar Examinations, LSAT’s, GMAT’s, GRE, ACT and many other exams.
While there is insufficient time and space this year to comment on specific areas covered on the NSW Legal Studies Syllabus, I’d like to proffer some general advice that may be helpful.

2. Study Period Before the Exam.
Exam success begins, of course, long before the exam. As far as you can devote as much time as you can to working on past exams and taking advantage of the online and other resources available to you. Also be sure to go into the exam fit and rested. Mental and physical fitness and conditioning are important for examination success, too.
Go into the exam with sufficient sleep. I have in the past made the mistake of staying up most of the night. It did not go well because I did not give myself sufficient rem sleep to allow my brain to absorb and categorise what I was learning. Consequently I made mistakes that I would not ordinarily have made.

3. The Exam Itself: Essay Answers

3.1 Overall, it is important for students to remember what evidence the examiners are looking for:
• demonstrate knowledge and understanding of legal issues relevant to the question
• communicate using relevant legal terminology and concepts
• refer to relevant examples such as legislation, cases, media, international instruments and documents
• present a sustained, logical and cohesive response.

3.2 Reading. Read all the questions before answering any. This will give you a good overview of the paper and your subconscious will be searching for answers even while you are focused on another question.
Be sure to read the actual question being asked rather than what you were hoping to find there.

3.3 Do easiest questions first. That way you are sure to have the paper to contain your best. Again, your brain will be working behind the scenes on the others. Often by the time you return to the more difficult question, you will have worked out an answer and an approach.

3.4 Attempt all questions. The easiest marks are the first half. A reasonable attempt will often earn you quite a few points. Leaving the question blank gets you a zero and forces you into a position that you need some very high scores on other questions in order to make up for the deficit.

3.5 Do a brief outline before you take off. Don’t just head off without knowing where you are going. Make a brief outline of key points so that your essays have structure.

3.6 Focus on the detail of the question. As you write each sentence and after every paragraph ask yourself: ‘How does this answer and relate to the question?”

3.7 Provide evidence to support your points. Support your arguments or points with legislation, cases, examples, etc. If you can’t think of any right away, then leave some space and come back to it later. Do not waste time just writing out the question. That will get you no points and will not constitute an attempt.

3.8 If in total panic and mind gone blank. Leave that question and come back to it. If all else fails, at least write what you know so that you gain some points on that question.

3.9. Pay attention to instructions. For example, make sure you have indicated the correct question number, the number of booklets etc.

4. The Exam Itself: Multiple Choice Questions

4.1 Best strategy is knowledge of the subject matter. Study multiple choice questions from past exam papers

4.2 Try to narrow your choices quickly to two by eliminating obviously wrong answers and focus on those. Most questions contain one or two answers that are obviously incorrect. Eliminate them and focus on the remaining choices.

4.3 Choices that use absolutes (never, always) are most often incorrect. Favour those that have qualifiers (mostly, rarely, seldom).

4.4 Consider ‘look-alike’ answers very carefully. Chances are that one of those is the correct answer.

4.5 When desperate consider the science. Poundstone did a major study of multiple choice questions and found a number of common patterns from which he devised the following strategies.

• If the multiple choice contains ‘none of the above’ or ‘all of the above’ choices one of these was correct 52% of the time. In fact choosing one of these gives you an improvement of 90% over just guess
• Look at the surrounding answers. If the answer to the one before is A and the answer to the one following is A it is unlikely that either of these will be the answer to your question.
• Choose the longest answer for it is more likely to be the correct one.

5. When the Exam is Over

5.1 No Post Mortem.When the exam is over, it is over. Do not waste time or worry about how you did. Refuse to talk to others about their answers. Just be patient and wait till you get your official result.

5.2. If your score is lower than you had hoped. Again, there is no need to panic. If you want to do law or other courses, most often there are multiple pathways to reach your goal. For example, at Sydney School of Law you can accrue up to 20 bonus points for participation in extra-curricular activities, leadership roles, etc. We also interview each student and look for what researchers call the ‘grit factor’ which looks at a student’s background to see what challenges they have overcome.

Again, we wish you well and hope that these tips, while not guarantees, prove nonetheless to be helpful.

You can also check the video I made here:

Dr Eugene Clark is Dean and Professor of Law, Sydney City School of Law:


1st November 2016