Exam scripts and skeleton answers

An exam script is essential for all law students who are chasing high distinctions in law. Final exams can account for between 70 – 100% of a subject mark, which means that an entire semester’s work of worth can be evaluated in 2 or 3 hours – you need to make the most of that time.

This post is about how you can create an exam script to to improve you exam taking technique.

exam script and exam notes
The notes you take to an exam are very, very important. Don’t sabotage your chances with conventional notes.

An exam script, also called a skeleton answer, is a pre-prepared answer to a question expected to be on an exam (you can figure out what questions will be asked by reviewing old exams, which I’ll talk more about below).

With this method, you prepare the answer, but leave a gap or space to fill in the specific fact details of the exam scenario. This requires much more effort compared to conventional notes, but the result is an integrated set of notes that can be directly applied to your exam questions.

What’s wrong with normal exam notes

I’ll start by identifying the deficiencies of conventional exam notes. I’ve made these before, and I’m sure you have too.

These sort of look like shopping lists; a series of dot points on a page, which you have probably copied from lecture notes and pasted into a new word document called ‘exam notes’.

This method will not help you learn the material to achieve good grades because:

  • there is no active learning – you are just copying information from one source to another;
  • the notes in this form cannot be applied directly in exams without further thought; and
  • it usually results in excessively long notes with lots of irrelevant information.

This is a popular way of preparing notes, and it is understandable why; it’s easy, and writing excessive notes also addresses the fear of entering an exam without having a safety net in your notes. However, the sooner this method is discarded and replaced with an exam script, the better you will be.

Improve your exam results – exam scripts and skeleton notes

It’s called a “script” because you prepare a script, or skeleton, answer that can be written down for any question that comes up on the exam. Obviously you won’t know the specific fact scenario for a question, and so the script needs to be versatile enough to cater for all possibilities.

This is a dinosaur skeleton, but here it represents a skeleton answer, which is another way to describe an exam script
I challenge you to prepare your next set of exam notes as an exam script (and if issuing a challenge isn’t enough to motivate you, just give it a shot anyway)!

 

Here is an example skeleton answer from contract law that you could replicate for each topic in your subject.

The comments in italics and brackets (like this here) are my comments for you, and wouldn’t be in the actual exam answer. The bullet points are also just for ease of reading, and wouldn’t be written down in the answer.

An example: termination of contract for breach

[Exam heading] Issue (I always flag the issue first – think of the IRAC method)

  • The issue here is whether [party] (use the name given in the exam question here) can terminate the contract based on a breach of contract.
  • Whether [party] can terminate depends on whether [the term] (use the actual term here) is classified as a condition, an intermediate term, or a warranty.
  • The term is not implied by statute or expressly agreed by parties, and so it will be classified as a matter of construction. (Based on past exam questions, I knew that the term would not be implied by statute or expressly agreed to, so I wrote it down assuming it would be the case here. In the unlikely event that it was incorrect, then it would have been easy to change on the fly)

(If you have plenty of time then you could simply go through each of the parts below. If time is low, then quickly flag that you will only consider one, eg: “In this situation, the term will be considered a [classification]”. If you have any spare time after this, write one sentence on why the term isn’t the alternative classification)

[Exam heading] Condition (I always wrote down when a heading in the script is meant to be in the exam answer, such as here)

  • A condition can be analysed by applying the essentiality test, created in Tramways, and approved of in the appeal to HCA and in Bancks.
  • The test considers the nature of the contract as a whole and asks: when the contract was formed, was the term was of ‘such importance’ that the aggrieved party would not have entered into the contract but for a ‘strict or a substantial performance of the promise’, and that this ought to have been apparent to the other party (Tramways)? (This is the “rule part of IRAC) 
  • In the current situation [discuss] (This is the “analysis” part of IRAC, so apply the law/rule above to the specific facts of the exam question)

(If you only have time to discuss this classification, put a “conclusion” title in the exam here, and state your conclusion. This could be as simple as: “In conclusion, [term] is likely to be considered a condition”. Then finish with the sentences below.

  • A condition allows the aggrieved party to terminate the contract ‘upon any breach of the promise, however slight’ and the right to seek damages (Tramways).
  • Accordingly, [party] [will/ will not] be able to terminate the contract.

[Exam heading] Intermediate term

  • An intermediate term is classified according to the test in Hongkong Fir, recognised in Ankar and approved in Koompahtoo. The test asks whether a breach will deprive a party of ‘substantially the whole benefit which it was the intention of the parties… that he should obtain’.
  • Bunge held that an intermediate term must be able to be breached in a number of ways.
  • In this situation [discuss]
  • A breach of an intermediate term will allow [party] to seek damages, but will only allow termination if the breach was serious.

[Exam heading] Warranty

  • A warranty is a term that is subsidiary to the main contract, and a breach will only allow damages to be claimed.

[Exam heading] Conclusion

  • In conclusion, [term] would be considered to be a [classification], and [party] would/would not be able to terminate. (Put your conclusion here if the question requires you to go through each classification)

(At the bottom of  each script section, I include a list of all cases covered in your reading. A sentence (or two at most) can be helpful to jog your memory in an exam, but only include a short note on what is relevant to the script section)

Tramways Advertising Pty Ltd v Luna Park

Arcos v Ronaasen

Schuler v Wickman Machine tools

Associated Newspapers Ltd v Bancks

Hongkong Fir Shipping Co Ltd v Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha

Ankar Pty Ltd v National Westminster Finance

Koomphahtoo Local Aboriginal Land Council v Sanpine

[End script]

So there you go, that’s a example exam script answer for a question in contract law, where you are asked to classify a term in a contract. Usually, you will be asked to classify a term to determine if it can be breached, or at least that is what I found when reviewing old exams, so that is why I have set my script out in that context.

You will repeat this process for every topic in the subject where this is possible. Reviewing old exams will help you identify what type of questions will be asked for each topic area, so don’t stress out just yet if you can’t think of how something you’re learning will be turned into a question.

As you can see, the exam script is neatly divided into the issue, rule, the analysis and the conclusion (though not all questions will allow for such easily defined headings). It’s very clear when you can write furiously on auto-pilot, and when you need to put your legal mind to work and analyse the factual situation.

How to prepare an exam script

You should start creating your exam script in the second half of the semester, or whenever you have a relatively good understanding of the scope of the subject (not necessarily the content, just the scope).

start preparing your exam script early
I guarantee you will fail if you accept this challenge.

This means that the process is generally not possible at the start of the semester, because you need to have a little bit of background knowledge on the subject.

Further, it means that you will not be taking your lecture notes into the exam (lecture notes have a completely different purpose to your exam notes – see my post on lecture notes here).

There are five main steps.

Step 1: Find out what questions will be on your next exam

Law students spend a lot of time worrying about what is on an exam, but it’s easier than you think to figure out what questions you’ll be asked. If you don’t believe me, consider whether you would be surprised if I told you the following:

  • In your criminal law subject, one question will be “did person X commit murder”, and another question will be “did person Y commit assault”.
  • In corporations law, the fact scenario will suggest that fraud may have been committed, and a question will be whether piercing the corporate veil is an option to pursue.
  • In contract law, a question will ask “is Z an essential term of the contract?”

Nothing shocking to see here.

The facts will be different, but the question will always be the same. That’s the trick, and now that you know it, you can focus on the preparing for the questions on your next exam.

find out exam questions by using past exams
OK, this is just a really difficult post to find images for. This is meant to represent that moment when you stop and think “I actually just saw that!” For exams, it’s like “I actually know what I’ll be asked!”

The best way to find questions is to get your hands on every available practice exam and write answers to each question. You will realise that the same questions are rehashed each year, with some small variations (which makes sense, because the same material is being taught every single year).

If you really want to be comprehensive, take your reading guide and figure out what questions could be asked for each topic covered. For an easy example, if you covered fittings and fixtures in property law during week 5, the obvious question that will be on an exam for this is: “The seller of the property believes they have the right to remove the large heirloom painting from the living room, and the pot-belly stove from the kitchen. The buyer disagrees and says they are now his. Discuss.”

Step 2: Write down an answer to the question

You need to have a general idea on what an answer will look like before you start fine tuning your script. The best way to do this is to draft a quick response to a particular question or two.

Don’t worry about getting it perfect, we just need a generic answer at the moment; it is going to get amended, rewritten and changed lots of times.

If there is a part in the answer that could change between fact scenarios,  put place holders to mark this (see the [square brackets] above in my example).

Step 3: Consider again how the answer could vary between questions

Make sure you include alternative endings to cater for different fact scenarios. There are two really good ways at doing this.

First, go through your reading list and lecture slides and think about how every piece of information could be used in an answer. As lecturers usually say, anything covered in class is fair game for the exam.

Second, go through old exams to see what questions previous lecturers have used. As I mentioned above, lecturers tend to recycle questions a lot between the years, and this is a good way at figuring out the common question variations.

Step 4: Practice

It is easy to spend too long on the previous two steps in an attempt to create the perfect script; don’t do this. Start using your script with practice questions sooner rather than later. It is only by doing this that your script will be able to address any fact scenario that comes up on the exam.

Creating an exam script will definitely improve your exam scores, but it takes a serious amount of practice to get to this point.
Creating an exam script will definitely improve your exam scores, but it takes a serious amount of practice to get to the point of a useful script.

As a guide, try to get through 8 – 10 practice exams to draft your script. I usually got through around 5, and always wished I had done a few more (probably because I got stuck on the earlier steps!).

If you don’t have many practice exams, you can simply re-use them. While finding new factual scenarios is ideal, you will still get some value from going through an exam for a second or third time.

Step 5: Time your answers and amend

The first draft of your script will be too long – this is OK and forms part of the learning process. However, there is no point having a perfect (ie long and detailed) answer if it means you don’t have time to finish other questions in the exam.

Calculate how long you have to write an answer, and make sure you can use your script within that timeframe. To shorten the script, consider what is necessary for an answer (ie the elements) and what is not necessary (surplus commentary).

Remember, time is used to separate students in law; do not underestimate how important this is. If you haven’t already, take a moment to read about how you can effectively use a timer in an exam to earn extra marks.

I should also note that some things covered in class simply cannot be made into a script. This is particularly true for earlier lectures, where you are just covering lots of background information. In these circumstances, it may be worth having some short lists in your script. Do your best to keep the content in these lists to a bare minimum.

The benefits of an exam script

If you read and consider the above steps, it should be obvious why you’ll improve with an exam script – not only have you have already considered what will be on the exam (and numerous variations), you’ll have already answered those questions.

It’s the process of creating the script that is most valuable. This means that it’s worthwhile even for closed-book exams.

To illustrate, if a question on the duty to act in good faith under the Corporations Act came up, it means that you’ve already considered:

  • the question;
  • possible answers, and different variations on answers;
  • the most important cases to apply (or not apply);
  • every single case and piece of information relevant to good faith that was covered in lectures; and
  • through amending and improving your script, the most effective way to communicate the answer to the exam markers.

And lastly, through your work at timing yourself using the script on past exams, you will know that the answer can be written down with 30 seconds or so to spare, so you will never be in the situation where you run out of time to finish the exam.

This is how you achieve high distinctions in law school.

Lots of work is required to improve your exam scores
I’ve used this image before, and think it’s absolutely spot on. If you want it bad enough, you’ll work to get it.

Using someone else’s notes

Exam scripts, skeleton notes, stump notes – whatever you call them, they have been around for a while. You might be thinking that you can cut down your workload by simply using a friend’s notes for an exam, or by finding some on the internet.

Potential plagiarism issues aside, don’t think for a moment that you can simply use someone else’s notes and walk out with great marks. As I mentioned earlier, the value of an exam script in in the process of creating it – it’s not the final product.

By all means, get someone else’s notes and cross check that you have included everything. You should absolutely do this if you’re aiming to be thorough. You might even find a more efficient way at describing something, or learn something that just didn’t click before.

But don’t simply print them out and carry them into exam – take what you have learnt and incorporate it into your own notes.

Conclusion

Preparing a script will take a lot of extra effort so start as early as possible. If you’ve left it to a week or two before the exams, don’t even bother with this method.

There’s nothing particularly difficult disclosed here. Anyone can make use of this method, and the only reason they don’t is that it takes that extra effort.  I know it’s hard finding the time sometimes, but if you can, having a script, and keeping to time in the exam, will put you significantly ahead of your peers.

I’d love to hear of your experience with exam scripts, especially if you have never used them before. Please let me know how you go, and good luck!

If you found this helpful, please share it around!

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