TO: Exam Workshop Participants
FROM: Professor Kevin Hopkins, Widener-Harrisburg
RE: Essay Examinations
DATE: January 13, 1996
I have prepared a brief discussion regarding the essay examination
question and how to "approach" it. I have also listed
some criteria that may be helpful in providing you with some idea
as to the factors professors consider when grading essay exams.
1. TAKING THE ESSAY EXAMINATION
The overall purpose behind the essay examination is to: (1) test
your knowledge and understanding of the case materials covered
during the semester (i.e. can you identify from the exam fact
pattern the relevant issues/areas of law to be discussed); and
(2) test your ability to apply the law to new and/or factually
similar situations (i.e. can you demonstrate how the law will/should
be applied to the parties in the exam fact pattern, and do you
understand the policies behind the law and its application).
To do this successfully, it is critical that you know the applicable
substantive law tested on the bar exam. You must also, however,
be able to convey this information as quickly as possible and
in some type of structured written format. I offer the following
approach to reading the essay exam question and organizing
your thoughts. Remember: you should spend at least 1/4 to 1/3
of the allotted time for each question outlining and organizing
1. Browse through the entire exam packet first to assess
the applicable time allotments for the questions, and to make
sure your examination packet is complete (i.e. no missing pages,
2. For each specific fact pattern/exam question, I suggest that
you go immediately to the end of the fact pattern and read the
specific question to be addressed. This will usually be the last
sentence of the fact pattern, or the last paragraph and may contain
words such as "evaluate all possible claims," "who
can sue who for what," etc..
3. Once you have determined what the question is asking, quickly
read the entire fact pattern first for a basic understanding of
the facts, high-lighting and noting the obvious issues and facts
that will be important in assessing the issues. You can do this
by using hi-liters/colored pens, and making minor notations in
the margins of the examination page.
4. Reread the question again, but this time, take it more slowly.
During this review of the question, continue to look for and to
note issues (i.e. causes of action or legal problems/situations
covered during your review of the substantive law materials) but
begin to really focus on those facts that will be critical for
"triggering" an application of the law. For example,
for the intentional tort of battery, it would be necessary to
locate facts that suggest a "harmful and offensive"
5. You are ready to outline the materials using either the IRAC
or CRAC paradigms. Effective organizational approaches might include
organizing by parties (i.e. Barry v. Sherry; Sherry
v. Barry, and Mike v. Sherry) or by causes of action
(i.e. (1) assault; (2)battery; (3) false imprisonment,
For example, in an intentional torts problem, if organizing by
parties, you could begin your analysis by discussing all of the
potential tort actions each plaintiff might have against each
defendant. On the other hand, if organizing by causes of action
(i.e. false imprisonment), you would only discuss those
plaintiffs having the specific cause of action (a false imprisonment
claim) against a defendant.
Also, remember that your discussion of the "internal aspects"
of a cause of action (i.e. elements) must be presented
in a logical fashion.
For example, in assessing whether plaintiff has a valid claim
for negligence against the defendant, you must consider whether
there is evidence in the facts to suggest: (1) duty; (2) breach;
(3) causation; and (4) damages. It is illogical to begin your
answer by discussing damages before you have determined/identified
an applicable duty. For intentional torts analysis, it's important
to discuss whether the defendant "acts" with the requisite
"intent" before examining the rest of the elements of
the specific intentional tort at issue.
6. You can now supplement your basic outline with some of the
applicable facts that will be "critical" in determining
the outcome of the potential causes of action. For example, in
a false imprisonment claim, it will be critical to demonstrate
that the plaintiff was "confined within an identified bounded
area," "unaware of his confinement," and there
was no "reasonable means of escape." Pull out those
facts that will demonstrate these elements and supplement your
basic outline with them.
7. Because most bar examinations require "objectivity,"
it is critical that you present "both sides of the picture."
This will require that you evaluate not only the elements of the
prima facie cause of action, but also, any arguments that the
defendant/ violator may make to suggest that the prima facie elements
cannot be satisfied (i.e. counter arguments), or
policy arguments. Briefly supplement your outline with facts that
support counter arguments and/or policy arguments. Also, don't
forget to determine whether the defendant/violator has any defenses
that will relieve him/her from liability. Briefly supplement
your outline with possible facts that suggest the prima facie
elements cannot be met, or defendant/violator has an applicable
8. You have now created a "road map" of your analysis
and are ready to write.
II. GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS
Here's a list of a few factors to consider when drafting your
1. Have you identified the issues involved in the problem? Have
you alerted the reader "up front" to the issues to be
2. Have you discussed the relevant law and policies behind the
law before applying the law to the facts of your problem? (IRAC/CRAC-
rules before arguments). This is critical to demonstrate your
knowledge of the relevant law and to lay the foundation for your
evaluation of the issues.
3. Have you logically discussed the prima facie elements for the
causes of action and the relevant facts that support or trigger
the application of the law to the facts?
4. Have you properly raised and evaluated appropriate counter
arguments and defenses when the facts of your problem permit or
alert you? (Remember: you must be "objective.")
5. Have you properly "wrapped up" your argument for
a specific issue before moving on to the next issue? Have you
provided a conclusion for the reader?
6. Have you answered the question posed? Is your answer responsive
to the question? This is critical.
7. Finally, does your answer reflect all of your knowledge of
the cause of action, the applicable counter arguments and defenses?
Have you told the reader all of the relevant law and facts needed
to properly assess the issues Does your answer indicate you saw
the "big picture"?