Top exam season tips from a Warwick-educated barrister

It’s fair to say I’ve done a fair few exams in my lifetime. After starting at Warwick nearly 9 years ago, I completed 31 exams/tests/assessments in the space of around 5 years. I also wrote 15 formally assessed essays and 2 dissertations. It’s entirely my fault, of course — as if the Warwick LLB wasn’t demanding enough, I chose to do a master’s degree and I then completed the Bar Professional Training Course.

Thankfully, I haven’t had to take a single exam since June 2016. However, every time I go to court (and especially when a judge starts asking me questions about my submissions) it feels like I’m back in an exam again. I also still experience what we used to call “the fear” — namely, the frightening feeling you get when your exam (or, in my case, court hearing) is imminent and you realise you have so little time to finish (or, in some cases, start) preparing for it.

So, what can you do to (a) make the most of your revision time and (b) succeed in your exams? Well, I’m going to give you my top 10 tips for the exam season:

1. As tempting as it is, don’t use study guides like Law Express as the only source of your revision material. They provide a watered-down version of what you need to learn. To get the best marks, read and make notes on the subject’s core textbooks and supplement that with journal articles (if you can). The best marks will be gained not by just knowing the basics but by demonstrating that you understand:

(a) The law as it currently stands;

(b) How the law applies to a variety of different factual scenarios;

(c) The context behind the law, namely the reasons underpinning the implementation of the particular legislation or the series of cases that led to the particular principle;

(d) The arguments for and against the current law, and where the law is heading in the future.

2. Given that textbooks are rather long and it’s impossible to memorise every page, your notes need to be condensed. There are three stages to this:

(a) First, start out by having detailed revision notes for each topic. I tend to type these out on my laptop for ease. These will consist of (i) your notes from textbooks and articles, and (ii) your lecture and seminar notes.

(b) Secondly, condense these into more concise notes. If you can, you should handwrite these. Studies generally show that writing notes by hand allows you to remember the material better than typing it. In my experience, I would entirely agree with this.

(c) Thirdly, condense your condensed notes into a one-page summary of the topic. It can be a mind map or just a list of key headings — whatever works best for your brain.

When you are condensing your notes, use abbreviations and trigger words to help you remember things and make things more concise. Another technique is to use acrostics to create memorable words for key cases or legislative provisions. Use colours in your notes to make thing stand out — I used to use red text/pen for case law, green for statute, blue for academic commentary, and black for general notes. Keep these colours consistent so that they act as triggers for your mind. To this day, I use different colours when highlighting court papers and it still helps me.

3. Talk through topics with your friends or parents. If your friends also study law, have a discussion or debate on different topics and share ideas with each other. Alternatively, just give your non-legal friends or parents your condensed notes and get them to test you on the key headings. Talking through the law will definitely help you remember it.

4. If it’s been discussed at length in a lecture or seminar, it’ll probably be an important topic that you’ll need to know for the exam. This isn’t always the case but it often is.

5. However, don’t be (too) selective in your revision. It’s tempting to revise just a few topics for an exam, and you might get lucky — but it’s a really big risk and I wouldn’t advise it. Revise as many topics as you can. If you revise efficiently and in a structured manner, you will be able to learn more topics in a shorter time span.

6. Look through past papers. If you don’t have time to write out a full answer under exam conditions, just jot down a few bullet points for each question — as if you’re making a plan for your answer. Going through past questions is also a good thing to do with your fellow law students, if you can.

7. Knowledge of the law is very important — but your application of the law and the arguments you make are probably even more important. It’s all very well knowing hundreds of cases and legislative provisions (anyone at Warwick can do reasonably well on a memory test) but that won’t help you unless:

(a) you can apply the law to the facts of the case in a sensible and structured way (if it’s a problem question); or

(b) you can create a persuasive and well-reasoned argument (if it’s an essay question).

If you’ve done mooting, you’ll know the importance of persuasion — and it’ll also be critical to your career, whether you’ll be a solicitor, barrister, teacher or salesperson. Similarly, your answers to exam questions need to persuade your examiners. Don’t just describe the law: apply it, analyse it, criticise it.

8. Structure your answers logically in exams. Use subheadings to help you. Another way to help structure your answers well is to plan them ahead of writing them. After all, the three rules of advocacy (as the Inns of Court will teach you if you become a barrister) are: (1) preparation; (2) preparation; and (3) preparation.

9. Use signposting to be even more structured within your paragraphs — e.g. ‘There are three reasons why this argument can be refuted. First, … Secondly, … Thirdly, …’. Barristers love this, judges love it and examiners love it too. It’s a good way for them to clearly see what you are arguing. A big wall of unstructured, waffly text is not going to attract the top marks.

10. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, take care of yourself during the exam season. Exams can be incredibly stressful. We are all so determined to succeed that we sometimes don’t focus enough on our wellbeing and lose sight of the bigger picture. Of course, exams are important — but not as important as your mental and physical health. And, ultimately, if you aren’t in a good place mentally or physically, you’re unlikely to do well in your exams. So, make sure you sleep 7-8 hours per night. Revise well and revise hard but don’t burn yourself out. Take regular breaks from revision. If you do this, your mind is likely to be fresh when you come back to the topic. Equally, it will allow you to be more efficient during those periods when you are working hard.

Best of luck!

Anthony is a barrister at Serjeants’ Inn, a set of chambers whose members often act and advise in crucial cases involving serious ethical, social and political issues. He specialises in clinical negligence, Court of Protection, professional discipline/misconduct, police law, and inquests. Anthony was awarded First Class Honours on the LLB, a Distinction on his master’s, and an Outstanding on the BPTC. Whilst at Warwick, Anthony founded Warwick Bar Society.

Anthony Searle
Warwick LLB alumnus

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