Friday, June 3, 2011

Now that grades are out

Most law students have received their spring semester grades at this point.  The cheers and groans are probably echoing somewhere near you.  Grades can be a euphoric high, a dismal depression, or somewhere in between.  Here are some ideas how to view your grades wherever you fall in the class:

For those who are at the top of the class (however you want to define that measure):

  • Congratulations!  Your hard work has paid off, and you can celebrate.
  • Evaluate your study habits.  Even though you are happy with your grades, you still want to take some time to consider your semester's studying to improve your study skills.  What were your strengths and weaknesses?  Do you need to become more effective in your reading, note-taking, outlining, writing/researching, or exam-taking skills?  Do you do better in certain types of course or exam requirements?
  • Consider your options.  Do your grades give you confidence to sign-up for more challenging courses for next year?  Do your grades suggest that you want to re-think your career goals?  Do your grades mean that you can now become involved in student organizations or community service where you were hesitant to do so before?  Do you now have the confidence to try out for a competition team, apply to be a research assistant, or participate in the write-on competition after all?
  • Evaluate your summer plans.  Does your evaluation of your study skills suggest that you need to spend time this summer on specific skills?  Are there areas of the law that have picqued your interest that you want to read about during the next weeks?  Do you have the confidence now to apply for summer law jobs that you doubted you could get before?
  • Enjoy your academic postion, but do not let it go to your head.  Some law students make the mistake of letting an inflated ego become an obstacle.  They may slack off because they think they are invincible and will actually see their grades drop at the end of the next semester as a result.  Or they may become a bit arrogant and think they are better than fellow students, staff, faculty, and deans.  Arrogance does not win friends or influence people.     

For those of you in the great middle of the class:

  • Work through any frustration or anger about your grades.  Occasionally I will talk with law students whose dissatisfaction with their grades leads them to vent emotionally rather than taking positive actions to improve.  If you find yourself saying any of the following things, you probably need to step back and regain some objectivity: "I was in the hard section and would have done fine in another section."  "If I had Professor A instead of my professor, I could have had a better grade."  "Course C is a dumb course any way, so it wasn't my fault."  "It is not fair that there is a curve."  "The prof should have given me the B because I was only 3 points away."
  • Do not make the mistake of considering yourself to be mediocre or just average.  You are holding your own. Remember that you entered your law school class with the best and the brightest of college and university graduates.  You are still who you were when you entered; the competition changed.  You are not necessarily destined to remain in the great middle.  You can break out of the great middle with appropriate changes.   
  • You can improve your grades by becoming a smarter studier.  Take some time to think through what worked well and what did not.  Be honest with yourself.  Did you put in your best efforts or slack off at some point?  Did you take shortcuts rather than become more efficient and effective?  Did you use all of the resources available to you at your law school - professors' office hours, supplemental study groups, academic support professionals, writing specialists, advisors?
  • Make a plan for improving your study skills.  Instead of just changing up things at random or latching on to every piece of advice you hear from upper-division students, make an appointment with the academic support professional at your law school.  That person is able to help you objectively evaluate you strengths and weaknesses and look at sound strategies for improvement.
  • Review exams with your professors for any courses in which you received a C+ or lower grade.  You should try to do this as soon as possible on your return for the next semester.  You want to determine what you are doing well and need to continue.  You want to get specific feedback on what you need to improve on for higher grades.  Take copious notes during your discussions with the professors and share them with the academic support professional at your school to get advice on strategies and techniques for improvement.

For those of you in the bottom portion of the class (however you want to define that measure):

  • Deal with your disappointment with your grades and move forward.  Do not let discouragement prevent you from improving your grades in the future.  All law students can learn more effective ways to study.  You definitely want to work with the academic support professional at your law school to evaluate what went wrong and what you are doing right.  Avoid being your own expert.  You obviously need someone else's expertise in study strategies to sort out what can be done.
  • Review each of your exams with your professors.  If this will not be possible until the fall semester, make yourself notes about each exam that you took.  Did you run out of time?  Did you have trouble with one section but not others?  Were you confused by a particular topic that was tested?  Did you panic or freeze up during the exam?  As soon as possible in the new semester, make an appointment to go over the exam to discover your strengths and weaknesses.  The more specific the feedback, the more information you will have to guide your improvement.
  • Look hard at your time management and tendency to procrastinate.  It is not unusual for law students to have problems with these two areas.  Many law students received good grades in undergraduate courses with little work and last-minute cramming.  There was less material to learn.  The material was rarely as dense as law cases.  Multiple tests or other assessments made it easier to fall into cram mode.  Again, your academic support professional can help you develop better skills in these problem areas.
  • Evaluate your goals, motivation, and commitments.  How do you want to use your law degree upon graduation?  Do you want to be in law school right now?  Do you like the study of law?  Are there other variables (family, financial, medical) that suggest you need a leave of absence to get things sorted out?  Is law school a priority in your life right now?
  • If you are being placed on probation, find out exactly what that means.  What is the standard that you must meet?  What time period do you have to meet that standard?  Are you required to take a certain number of credit hours during your probation semester (some schools have a higher requirement for probation students)?  What happens if you have to repeat a required course while on probation?  What resources are available to you (academic support professional, advisor, tutoring, counselor)?

For those of you who are facing academic dismissal:

  • Be honest with yourself.  After you get over the initial shock, you need to evaluate how you ended up in this place academically.  Is law school where you really want to be?  Is being a lawyer a priority for you?  Did you put in the effort that was needed on your academics?  Were there circumstances outside school that caused you problems?         
  • Find out your law school's procedures and policies.  Every law school is different.  You need to determine your law school's way of doing things.  You should be able to find this type of information in your law school's student handbook (look on-line if you were not handed a hard copy during your 1L orientation).  If you cannot find the information, contact the Associate Dean for Academics, Registrar, or other appropriate person at your law school for help.
  • Find out what options you have (if any).  Some law schools allow dismissed students to petition for readmission (continue on with your class) or re-entry (repeat your 1L year) on the basis of extraordinary or exceptional circumstances.  Some law schools make you sit out at least two years before you can reapply.  Some law schools have entirely different options. 
  • Get some advice from an authority on the school's policies and procedures if you need to consider options.  You preferably want to talk with administrators who work most closely with students on these issues.  If possible, schedule an appointment.  Consider a telephone discussion if you cannot make it back to campus.  Write down your questions ahead of time so that you do not forget to ask everything.
  • Have a Plan B.  There are always other options than law school if a petition is not successful or you cannot petition under your law school's policies.  You can apply to a graduate program in another field.  (Yes, people who leave law school for academic reasons do get accepted in other graduate programs.)  You can get a law-related job until you can re-apply.  (Think paralegal or legal assistant, for example.) You can get a non-law-related job until you decide what to do more long-term.  You can get a roommate to help with expenses on your apartment.
  • Remember that leaving law school does not mean that you are a failure.  The study of law is not a good match for everyone.  There is a niche out there that will use your talents and abilities.  You will be successful in life - law is not the only career path.  You are the same bright, talented, exceptional person you were before law school.  All that has changed is that law school did not work out.  That is actually okay even though it may not feel that way right now.  You will be fine. 

Whichever category matches your grades, don't get stuck in the place where you are.  Evaluate.  Strategize.  Move forward.  And, believe in yourself.  (Amy Jarmon)  

 

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