The types of law school exams you may encounter during finals

woman typing document on laptop

By Stephanie Baldwin, University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law

Law school exams are once again upon us. Because I am a glutton for punishment, I decided to take 18 credits this semester, which means I have six different final exams. Yay … To top it off, they are all different types of final law school exams, so I will need to prepare differently for each class.

I know that we’ve all had different experiences this semester. Some of us, like at UArizona, have never returned to campus, while others have gone in-person since day one. Regardless of how you attended classes, it seems like most law schools have opted not to have students return after Thanksgiving, which means having to take finals remotely. 

The different types of law school exams you may encounter

Keep in mind that these law school exams are usually administered in a classroom environment for a set amount of hours or given as a take-home exam with a window of time to complete. For example, this semester, a four-hour exam must be finished within 72 hours (three days). Keep in mind that the exams can also range from 100% closed book, which means you can’t use any outlines or other support materials, to a completely open universe. Find out what kind of test you’ll take and the rules that surround each one, so you know how to properly prepare. 

Issue spotter essay

This appears to be the traditional format for law school exams. Issue spotter essay exams will usually include 2-3 questions that are either worth the same amount of points or, based on their difficulty and number of issues, may vary in how many points each question is worth. The key to this test is time management. As a 1L, the best advice I received was to tackle the problem worth the most amount of points first. This usually meant going in reverse order of questions on the exam.

Issue spotter mixed format

This particular exam might be a mix of multiple-choice questions, short answer and long essay responses. But you will still be expected to spot the issues. And be mindful of word or character limits for the short answers. During 1L year, my Civil Procedure final was an issue spotter mixed-format exam and we only had 150 words allotted for our short answers (that’s not a lot).


For some classes, like Evidence, a multiple-choice test is written in the same format as the bar exam (specifically the MBE), which is a great way to get used to that structure and pace of answering questions. Many people truly dislike multiple-choice exams. All of them that I’ve experienced have been 100% closed book or closed book with a rule book. Here, you just need to memorize all of the rules and apply them in the strictest way possible. This exam type separates the people that “actually know the material and cam apply it” from those that rely on “writing their way to a grade” through rule dumping and hiding their weaknesses. 

Short answer with word count limits

I had one of these exams last semester and I loved it. It required precise answers and I felt like it leveled the playing field in a meaningful way. Some people can freak themselves out with multiple-choice questions. Others can type 100 words per minute to get every thought they have onto paper, which means they will typically write their way to a top answer. However, a short answer final with word count limits means writing concisely in demonstrating your knowledge. Another feature of this exam: you don’t encounter the same issues as you might on a multiple-choice test. 

Paper or project final

I’ll be taking two of these law school exams this semester. For one class, I will have a worksheet. Essentially an issue spotter final exam that I have two weeks to work on. This type of final is kind of wicked. Because it doesn’t have a word or time limit. I guarantee that there will be some students who spend 20-plus hours on it. Now, will some people follow the recommended guideline and stick to the hours’ suggestion and still do well? Sure. But many students will devote a lot of time on their final and if you have other classes, you may be at a disadvantage. The best thing you can do is be as concise as possible. Your professor will appreciate this, and it might even work in your favor. 

For my other final, I will write a paper on a topic of my choice in a memo format. This is my favorite type of exam. It’s similar to what I would do in the workplace. I still have to spot an issue and explain it, but I like being able to take the time to write an excellent paper, and (bonus) it will have a page limit. 

Once you know the different types of law school exams you will have, be sure to attend any review session that your professor is hosting.

Be sure to check out these excellent high-level final exam taking tips from BARBRI.

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