Writing examination answers
The essay plans on this website are skeleton answers without all of the detail you will provide in the exam. They outline several possible routes to answering the questions in the book and reflect some of the arguments we would put into our essay. Naturally, your answers should be fuller, reflect your own thoughts and further reading, and be stamped with your own personality and style; remember, writing an essay, even an exam essay, provides an opportunity to freely express yourself and your ideas. However, in the time pressured environment of an exam it is often useful to have a general plan of attack which can be adapted for each question.
A good starting point is to plan your answer paragraph by paragraph. If you are being asked to discuss a particular issue then your plan may be along the following lines:
- Paragraph 1: briefly state the current law on the issue in question.
- Paragraph 2: discuss why the law is the way it is. Think of both general themes running throughout the law (such as uncertainty, freedom of contract etc.) and reasons specific to that particular issue (e.g. one particular policy behind the development of consideration in the nineteenth century was to prevent ship captains' being held to ransom by their crews). This is one of the most important parts of a 'discuss' type essay - how can you evaluate an issue if you don't lay out the reasons why it is there in the first place?!
- Paragraph 3: outline the alternatives to the current law. What problems are there with such alternatives?
- Paragraph 4: draw together your analysis to answer the question. If you have kept the above analysis properly focussed on the issues emphasised in the question then you should be able to conclude briefly by referring to this without the need to repeat all your analysis. A waffly, unfocussed middle will generally lead to a confused conclusion where you try to develop important lines of reasoning which should have been explained earlier. Don't do this. Aside from the obvious loss of marks, it is also very stressful to try to write 10 words a second in the last minute of an exam whilst the student next to you crosses his final 't' and neatly re-arranges his assorted coloured highlighters and pens (there's always one!)
A word of warning
It should be obvious that the most important point is to answer the question. Having a general plan should not divert your attention from this paramount aim, but should instead provide organisation, structure and familiarity for you. When all sorts of theories and case names are spinning around your head it will help to go back to a basic structure which you are comfortable with so that you can build up your essay clearly and quickly. And finally, enjoy yourself! It may seem an odd thing to say, but exams can be ok if you are in control of your material, especially if you can sit back at the end of a week or two of exams and think you have produced a volume of organised and thoughtful work which reflects your efforts over the year.
Writing answers to problem questions
Problem questions can sometimes be easier to answer because there is little need to address complex theoretical issues underlying the law; the question is testing whether you can apply the current law to the hypothetical facts. However, one of the difficulties in answering problem questions is timing. Many students fail to weigh up the relative importance of the issues posed by the question and allocate too much time to minor issues or irrelevant issues and consequentially do not have enough time to address the main issues. Let the question be your guide; if there is a lot of detail on, say, the types and amount of loss suffered then the examiner expects you to focus on exactly what type of damages may be recovered; if the detail is focussed on one party's belief in the truth of a particular statement and not on the loss suffered by the other party then spend more time analysing whether there is an actionable misrepresentation, not whether the losses are too remote etc.
Sometimes a problem question can appear daunting and (especially if you have studied diligently throughout the year) there may appear to be far too many issues to address in the time available. This is a good sign. This demonstrates that you can recognise legal issues from a given set of facts and is probably one of the most important skills to develop (particularly if you think that you may one day practice in the law). The crucial step in an examination scenario is turning all of these recognised issues into a complete answer and the best way to do this is to draw a quick diagram or chart which sets out the problem and the issues. This will help you prioritise the most important issues; you may even find that some of the issues you identified do not even make it into your final answer (particularly if time is short). This is quite acceptable and the fact that you have planned your answer should ensure that you only miss out issues of minor importance or issues which appeared to be significant at the outset but which later revealed themselves as irrelevant.
Our guide to answering the problem questions in the book picks out the issues you should address in your answers but it does not provide fully complete answers. It may go further than the type of chart you should make when planning your answer but the skeleton is the same.
You should practise writing full answers in the time that you expect to have available to you in your exam and using the materials you have come across on your course. We have limited ourselves to using cases mentioned in the book but you should be aware that problem question often give you the opportunity to show your breadth of reading; for example, if the facts of a particular case (perhaps insignificant from a precedent point of view) stick in your mind and closely resemble the problem case then you could usefully compare the two.
You should therefore use the guide answers to plan your answer step by step but practice deciding how much weight to give a particular issue in the time available to you and experiment using the case and materials with which you are most familiar and most comfortable using. It is vital, however, that you do use cases throughout your answer to illustrate and explain the points you are making. It is not usually necessary (or feasible or relevant) to recite all the facts of each case you mention but you should normally extract and include in your answer a relevant part or aspect of the facts or of the judgement to support or exemplify how the case is relevant to the issue you are discussing. An answer without appropriately used supporting case law is a bit like a car without petrol - it won't get you very far.