Three Steps for Essay and Short Answer Exam Prompts


Every law exam has an essay prompt and/or a short answer section. First year students sometimes struggle with what to write for their exam essay. Often, the written law school exam responses contain information and discussions that are not pertinent to what is asked in the prompt.

Here is a three-step exercise for answering essays on a written, law school examination.  Use this approach to think and answer strategically on your essays.


Many law school essays are disguised in lengthy fact patterns, case studies and scenarios. Those scenarios are often superfluous for the questions to be answered. Some questions can be answered independent of the scenario. Therefore, the first step for answering essays and short answer questions is to read all of the test essay prompts and sub-questions first (before reading the related scenarios or fact patterns).

Reading the question entails assessing what knowledge is needed to answer. If the facts of the scenario are not in play, then the question can be quickly evaluated and the answer outlined without consulting the scenario. On timed exams, reading long fact patterns only to find they are unnecessary for the answer wastes precious time. If later questions do relate to the fact pattern, you can target the portion of the fact pattern relevant to the question easily because you know what is being asked of you.


Classifying essay and exam prompts help you to know how to formulate your answer. Look at the question and see whether it can be categorized as a question that calls for one of the following:  comparison, lists, description/definition.

Comparisons are easily spotted. Key words such as similar, different, similarities, differences, alike or differ appear in the short answer or essay prompt. Additionally, you may be asked to state how one concept resembles a case or a principle in another context.

Lists are a favorite of law exams. Asking a test taker to identify the main sources of international law or prompting a response that outlines the ways in which a court can be seized or the matters over which it has jurisdiction all require lists.

Descriptions and definitions are tested when an essay asks for the meaning of pacta sunt servanda. They may also be required in conjunction with a list to more fully explain concepts or principles.

Once an essay is properly classified, it is easier to formulate the answer. Comparisons will require looking at two things and describing each and examining how they are different or alike.  Lists can be easily set forth using bullet points, while descriptions are better expressed in prose and paragraphs.


Law exam questions may also prompt the reader to give special emphasis to one aspect of the discussion. Although this seems obvious, it is often overlooked in an attempt to give broader theoretical or historical information. If an essay states that a certain perspective should be considered and discussed, then do so. Many exams presume you will discuss the case law, statutes or treaties that are relevant.


If you are teaching exam taking skills to your students, consider letting them answer an essay prompt while in class. Hang up posters around the class like the ones pictured. Ask students to go through the three steps. Let them write a short essay after they have considered the three steps.

You can also share the work and edit it as a group, pointing out the strengths of each contribution.


Success on law school exams requires attention to what is being asked. Read and dissect the question. Categorize it as requiring descriptions, definitions, lists or comparisons. Remember to include all information requested, including any special considerations mentioned in the essay prompt.


Legal Skills Lecturer in The Netherlands. (J.D. Columbia University; PhD Maastricht University International Human Rights Law.)

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