Taking Exams the Right Way: Without Grades

February 3, 2014

D.C., 1L

During the first semester, the most important difference between Yale and other schools is grading: other schools have grades, Yale doesn’t. In later semesters, Yale students can receive a Pass, a Low Pass, or an Honors. But for the first semester 1L classes are only graded Pass/Fail…and nobody ever fails. This system relieves a lot of stress the first term, especially around exams.

When I started here in September, I didn’t know what to expect from law school exams. It turns out they’re very different from college exams: professors in first semester classes usually write a 1-2 page narrative called an “issue spotter,” asking the students to find the legal issues in the story and discuss how they might be resolved. Most people don’t identify every issue, and even if you did, there wouldn’t be enough time to discuss everything in detail, as most exams are under four hours.

Taking on this new kind of test would have been daunting, but knowing they would be graded Pass/Fail (really Pass/Pass) made them kind of fun. Most Yale 1Ls still study hard for these tests: nobody wants to do poorly, even if they are ungraded, and it’s a good opportunity to learn how to take law school exams before you take them for a grade in the spring. But instead of stressing about a grade, studying becomes a way to review the material, pull together the themes of each class, and (most importantly) spend time with your friends.

As I noted in an earlier blog post, a big part of most students’ 1L fall is their “small group,” a group of around 16 students with whom you have all of your first term classes. Prepping for exams is another chance for your group to hang out. I’m sometimes a little skeptical of group studying, but for an “issue spotter” exam, working with a group is incredibly helpful—and if that group is your small group, it’s really fun! Most of my small group got together once a day to review the material and practice exams. Our “studying” was really a mix of work, hanging out, snacking, and arguing about the law (which is why most of us came to law school in the first place). We also had lunch a few times as a group during exam period, and celebrated finishing our last exam at one of our favorite bars in town.

“Fun” isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind when you think of law school exams, but looking back at the last few months, studying for my exams turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the first semester. Since Yale is the only school without grades first semester, I would be surprised if 1Ls at other schools could say the same thing.