A quick disclaimer: while the advice below is meant to be of general application, it may not apply to all streams. If in doubt, always ask your own teacher for their advice and preferences!
BEFORE THE EXAM
Issue-spotting is really important in the Constitutional Law exam. Why? Because put simply, you won’t get marks for an answer that applies the law to the wrong issue. And with an exam like Consti, where you spend more time on each question than you would during a shorter exam, a mistake at the start can result in hours of wasted time.
- Practice! If you’re feeling underprepared for issue spotting, there are plenty of ways to practice before the exam. Make sure you pre-read and spot issues in any past exams your teacher intends to go through before class. You can also utilise the digital repository of past exams. Find an exam from a few years ago and practice spotting the issues, then compare what you found with friends or with your teacher.
- Beware confusing similar issues. A common (and sometimes fatal) error in past exams has been for students to read the hypothetical scenario and spot a similar–but incorrect–issue to the one actually raised on the facts. This is why practising before the exam is so important: you can diagnose and fix your own issue-spotting mistakes before it’s too late. In revision classes, listen closely and take note if your teacher says something like, ‘And this is where many students made errors last year…’
- Make a list. Remember that, under pressure, it’s often easy to forget simple and obvious elements of an issue or answer. To safeguard against this, consider making a list of common issues and other questions to ask yourself as you read through each problem question (e.g. Is it a Commonwealth or State law? If it’s a Commonwealth law, what authorises Parliament to make it? If it’s a State law, is it inconsistent with Commonwealth law? etc).
- Done all that? Sometimes the best way to find out if you really understand something is to reverse-engineer the process. 2017 Constitutional Law subject coordinator Dr Will Partlett has another suggestion: ‘Another good way [to issue-spot] is to come up with your own hypotheticals and test them out on your classmates.
Preparing Your Exam Notes
- What to include? Dr Partlett points out that ‘everyone is different’. But, he says, ‘try to ensure that you understand the class conceptually and that your notes reflect that. This means thinking how different parts of the course fit together. This will help you spot issues and engage more effectively with the hypotheticals.’ You can use mind-maps, flow-charts, pictures, stories, and other tools to represent how the concepts fit together.
- Citations: A side-effect of sitting a longer, take-home exam is that a higher standard of in-exam citation may be expected of you. While some teachers will only require footnotes with the relevant case name for any quotes or propositions of law, other teachers may demand more specific citations (e.g. names of judges, or even page numbers from your casebook). The kind of citations your teacher expects should be reflected in your exam notes. If your teacher wants more than a throwaway mention to the relevant case, start adding page numbers and other relevant details to your exam notes as soon as possible. You don’t want to waste precious time during the exam flicking through your casebook trying to find which justice said what!
- Length: A common misconception with take-home exams is that you’ll have an abundance of time in which to leisurely peruse your notes, so there’s no need to condense your seminar notes into easy-to-navigate exam notes. What most students find, however, is that as soon as the exam is released and they’ve read through it, what they thought would be an eternity suddenly feels like barely any time at all.
To save time and frustration during the exam, you should make your notes as brief and useful as possible. Remember that while Control + F can be helpful when you’re trying to find something that only appears once or twice in your notes, simply searching for ‘s 92’ or ‘corporations power’ within notes that are 120,000 words long is likely to throw up dozens of results you’ll need to waste time sifting through.
Plagiarism is not just stealing a paragraph from something you found online, or using and not attributing a quote from a supposedly obscure textbook. Plagiarism also includes copying and pasting notes a later year JD friend gave you, or using typed up slides from this year’s Consti STS. Remember that you’ll be uploading your exam electronically via Turnitin, which automatically matches your submission against every single piece of writing that has ever been submitted to it. Changing a word here and there is not enough to avoid the detection software. Rather than trying to find a way around it, a better use of your time before the exam is to write up your own concise rule statements and explanations, which you can then insert into your own exam answer. After all, this is part of the learning process that ensures you can work with the subject material.
DURING THE EXAM
- Pace yourself. It’s a cliché, but it’s the truth: the Consti exam is a marathon, not a sprint. Your teacher neither expects, nor wants, you to type flat out for eight hours–or expire at your desk. As Dr Partlett puts it: ‘Each question is meant to take 2 hours maximum. Since there are three questions, that’s 6 hours total. That leaves you with 2 hours to take breaks, eat lunch, go for a walk. The whole point of an 8 hour exam is that it is meant to be less stressful/time-pressured and gives you time to think through your answers (as well as take breaks!).’
So take some time for a breather. You need to be as on your game for the last question as you were for the first. So if you think a few minutes of dancing or yoga or making something to eat will help clear your head between questions, go ahead and do it!
Planning Your Time
- Make a schedule! In the heat of the moment, the last thing on your mind will be time allocation. So get that over and done with before the exam by making a schedule for the day. Since you know each hypothetical is meant to take a maximum of two hours, it could look something like this: e.g.
9:00-9:30: take notes/plan out answers
Part A Hypothetical: 2 hours (stop writing 11.30AM)
Break! (30 mins, come back at 12PM)
Part B Hypothetical: re-read question and write (stop writing 2PM)
This way, when you’re completely absorbed in working through your checklist for an excise vs a tax, you’ll only need to glance at your schedule and the clock to know when it’s time to move on.
Some Notes on the Word Limit
- Don’t obsess over it. The word limit is in place for several reasons, not least of which is to prevent your teacher from having to mark several hundred 20,000-word treatises. You can be under the word limit on the Consti exam and still get an H1. You can meet the word limit exactly and still fail. So don’t begin the exam under the misapprehension that the most important thing to do is type 4,000 words in eight hours. It’s what you spend your word limit on that counts.
- But don’t ignore it either. Consider how you usually write essays. Do you usually overwrite (i.e. word vomit) your answer and have to cut it down by hundreds or thousands of words later? If so, make sure you leave enough time before the deadline for editing and proofreading. The same goes for people who chronically underwrite–by giving yourself enough time to reread your answers, you’ll have the chance to spot things you missed the first time and add them in.
More FSG posts relevant to take home exams (broadly):
And finally…good luck!
It’s completely understandable to feel anxious and unsure in the lead up to the Consti exam. Hopefully, though, by taking these practical steps to prepare for it, by exam day you’ll feel in control and ready to meet the challenge head on. Remember that thousands of law students like me have survived this exam and lived to tell the tale. Some even surprised themselves by enjoying it! So believe in yourself, believe in what you’ve learned, and go apply it! Good luck!