The second of our selection of exam tips provided by Professor Hudson, Property law Module Convenor, focusing on answering essay questions. Please also see Part One which covers answering problem questions.
1. Have a thesis/argument. When writing an answer to an essay question it is important to have a point: i.e. you must have a thesis (or argument) that you are seeking to prove or to disprove. Here are three examples of how you might construct a thesis.
• A thesis can be a particular line of argument that you are following (although a good answer will usually consider the strength of the counter-arguments as it progresses): an example would be – ‘This answer shall seek to demonstrate that the doctrine of proprietary estoppel generates too much uncertainty to be a useful part of land law’ or ‘The law on adverse possession is a scandalous interference with the rights of the registered proprietors of land’, or whatever. Your answer should then seek to prosecute this argument – i.e. to prove your argument. Merely mentioning it in passing in the first or last sentence of your essay is not enough. A thesis is an argument to which you should run through your answer; the points you make should be advancing that argument, albeit that you should consider any counter-arguments in the judgments, etc. as you go.
• Alternatively, your thesis might be to take an argument made by someone else and either support or criticise it. Ideally, you might find an issue on which two judges or academics take opposing viewpoints and then your essay would explore the differences between them. For example, suppose you choose to adopt the arguments made by Prof Martin Dixon about the nature of the law on common intention constructive trusts. Your essay might start with a statement such as: ‘This answer shall support/expose the defects in the argument of Prof Dixon about the nature of common intention constructive trusts and criticise/prefer the different arguments of Prof Hudson’. Your answer could then proceed by way of criticising the argument by means of setting out the various points made in that argument and considering their strengths and weaknesses one-at-a-time. (The less-successful candidates for this examination tended to make superficial, brief points about the arguments made by different jurists in the assigned reading and therefore not demonstrating any knowledge of the reading nor any understanding of the detailed issues. Exam success is in the detail. The module guide and the textbook direct you towards this detail.
• A third approach to a thesis in an answer would be to act like a dispassionate scientist who is simply observing that there are two or three competing arguments in the literature or the case law, describing those arguments in detail, and observing by way of conclusion what the principal differences between those arguments are (and whether or not any of them appears to be stronger than the others and why). This approach is ‘dispassionate’ in the sense that you are not required to advocate one approach or another.
In advancing that thesis, you must employ an analysis of the decided case law or statute (as appropriate) as well as any academic commentary to which you have been referred in the module guide or in the textbook. Simply setting out a superficial description of the law will not gain you a good mark in itself. Rather, the higher marks are earned by demonstrating how an analysis of that law impacts on your thesis.
2. Write simply. As was set out in Part 1, it is perfectly acceptable to write simply. You do not need to feel that you should write in complex sentences or use highfalutin language. It is perfectly acceptable to write simply.
3. Answer the question. An essay question should not be seen simply as an opportunity to write out all your notes or all you can remember about a given topic. Instead, you must answer the question that you have been asked. Very few students did more than mention the essay question in more than a single sentence at the start of their essay. They then seemed to write out the account of the law that they had pre-prepared without any further reference to the question. This means you can only score a weak mark at the very best. You are expected to answer the question that you have been asked and to use your knowledge of the law to demonstrate an answer to that question.