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by Shelley Awe | January 14, 2020

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Now that the holidays are but a distant memory, we’ve reached the time of year that 1Ls have been anxiously awaiting: the release of first semester grades. Unfortunately for many 1Ls, the first set of law school grades proves to be disappointing. This is especially true for students who have otherwise never struggled to achieve perfect grades. But earning top grades in law school is an entirely different game, and for most law students, it doesn’t come easily.      

If you are currently one of these disappointed 1Ls, it may help to know that first-semester grade-shock is a common phenomenon—you’re not alone. So instead of panicking, here are some strategies to help you move forward.

Take a moment to celebrate your accomplishments.

You may feel disappointment, anger, fear, or any myriad of emotions after receiving your first set of law school grades. But before you spiral into thoughts of doom and gloom, take a step back to reflect on what you did accomplish. You just finished an incredibly difficult semester. Not only is law school entirely different from your prior education, but law school exams are uniquely challenging thanks to impossible fact patterns, a tough curve, and the pressure of a single test determining your grade. Now that you’ve gone through it once, you have the tools you need to tweak your plan for next semester. 

Don’t discuss grades with your classmates.

When it comes to grades, comparing yourself to your classmates is not constructive. Though law school certainly can feel competitive, the only competition you need to worry about is with yourself. You should not feel compelled to share your grades with anyone, even if your closest law school friends are asking. And if you do hear other students talking about how well they did, remember this: More students than not are in the same boat as you. So be polite to those who did well, but then drown out those voices, and focus on what you can control.  

Talk to your professors.

Meeting one-on-one with your professors might seem intimidating, especially when you aren’t proud of the grades they gave you. But don’t miss the opportunity to talk with the people who can provide you with the best possible feedback on your exams. Looking through your actual exam responses with a professor is an invaluable way to learn what you did well and what you need to improve. Be careful, however, that you don’t use this time to argue with your professor about why you deserved a better grade. With very few exceptions, you won’t be able to change your grade, and you don’t want to damage a professional relationship. Remember that the purpose of these conversations is to gain feedback for use for future exams.

Reflect on your study habits.

Effective study habits are key if you want to ace law school exams. Even if think you gave it your all during finals, your study strategy probably has room for improvement. Reflecting on what you did last semester is important for honing your plan going forward. Here are some points to consider:

  • Timing: Did you start studying early in the semester or put it off until reading period? With the immense amount of knowledge each law school exam requires, it’s important to start the study process early. This means outlining as you go instead of waiting until the week before the exam (when you should be practicing application of your knowledge). Starting early helps you capture nuances as they’re fresh in your mind and allows you to solidify concepts over time instead of cramming.
  • Study groups: Study groups can provide a false sense of security, as you may mistakenly believe you grasp a topic because another group member does. Further, study groups lead to unproductive social time that doesn’t happen when you study alone. Be wary of these traps, and consider whether group study is really helping you meet your goals. If study groups do work for you, at least be aware of these potential downfalls.
  • Supplements: Not every supplement is right for every law student. And there is such a thing as having too many supplements. With exams looming, it’s natural to want all of the information you can get. But in reality, too many resources may cause a “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation. Whether you used commercial outlines, flashcards, E&E’s, treatises—or all of the above—ask yourself which ones actually helped you learn and retain information. And at the end of the day, remember that the most important information comes from your professor. No supplement is a substitute for attendance and participation in class.
  • Past exams: Your professors’ exams from years past are some of the best resources to get your hands on, so use them if they’re available to you. Many law schools keep old exams on file, and some professors circulate a few during the semester. While past exams won’t cover all the information you’ll need to know, they will provide you with crucial information like format, timing, and professor expectations.
  • Upperclassmen: Another one of your best resources is students who did well in past years. Talk to 2L and 3L students about their study strategies and professor-specific guidance, and incorporate their tips into your study plan.

Start brainstorming other resume boosters.

Let’s not sugarcoat it: Your grades are important to your legal job search. But they’re not the only factor that matters. While grades should continue to be your priority for the remainder of your 1L year, it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about a plan that goes beyond your GPA. Take advantage of networking events at your school and in your community. Consider what extracurricular activities you’d like to participate in during your 2L year. Brainstorming a comprehensive game plan can help alleviate some grade-related stress.

Keep a positive attitude.

Bottom line: You can improve your grades. Yes, your 1L grades are important, but you only have half of them at this point! That leaves another whole semester within your control. With careful reflection, a revised plan, and a positive attitude, you will be ready to tackle second semester exams.

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