“If you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn't plan your mission properly.”
This is a quote I stumbled on in a book called Tools of Titans. It reflects a common theme that planning is half of a battle. If you plan well enough, execution doesn't become easier, but success is much more likely when you have all aspects of the event in contemplation. I believe this idea applies to the NCA examination process as well. Instead of going through the motions of completing the exams, creating a strategy, with a more active role in gaining the upper hand when writing these tests is a surefire way to success.
The standard convention was to do a few exams at a time. I have read stories about people who had written all of theirs at once, but it would sound more like a myth than a tangible goal since the internet didn't have stories to learn from. So I decided to be a guinea pig to see if I could write all of my (7) required NCA examinations in one shot. By no means would it be an easy task, but I also knew it would be just as much about strategy, as it would be about understanding the substantive law. With that said, I contemplated all the givens of the circumstances, to figure out how best to approach this:
The exams were all pass or fail (see here). In practice, this meant that the threshold to succeed was lower than in law school, where you were incentivized to get a higher grade.
All questions are not necessarily weighed equally. You can potentially have five questions, with two of them accounting for 60% of your final mark. If success only means a pass (50%), being economical about which answers I devoted my time to gave me a strategic advantage.
I would be able to prepare my notes and have them alongside me in the exam (see here). This felt like a distinct advantage from how I was trained in the UK, where it was all closed book exams. At the same time, I had to consider if this would be reconciled with a more difficult exam. Upon looking at the preparation questions, it seemed that was not necessarily the case.
I would be limited to 3 hours for each exam. Therefore, time would be one of the most pressing concerns, and so, I needed to mitigate the stress of time somehow. This means my notes would play a significant role in my strategy - what would I need to include to decreased the amount of time spent on questions, while also ensuring I covered all my bases.
What I gathered from this is that the NCA exams are not designed for you to fail, trip you up, or at the very least make it unreasonably difficult for you to succeed. After taking all seven exams, I affirmed this when I noticed how incredibly fair these exams were. There were no curve balls concerning questions asked (well, maybe foundations, to be discussed below); study materials were very reflective of what you could expect to be tested on.
So having had passed all of my exams in one sitting, I decided to share my thoughts and experiences on the whole process, as I found it particularly difficult to get a broad overview of what I was getting into while I was studying.
I am not going to pretend that my method of preparation is the best way, or even suggest that following in my steps will give you the same results. In fact, there are caveats to my being able to have written all exams at once. For those considering mirroring me, realize that I had the luxury and privilege of 3 months to prepare, without the distraction of a full-time job or other extensive obligations. Much of my time was dedicated to these exams. Time is one of the most important factors for preparation, as you want to give yourself enough time to digest all this information. In addition to this, I prefer to learn and study in isolation. Through law school I preferred being off reading on my own, opposed to learning in a lecture. So these exams didn't put me in the uncomfortable circumstance of self-directed learning that many may not be familiar with. Also, consider the cost of the exams -- if you are making the financial obligation to commit to upwards of seven exams, you will be investing thousands of dollars.
So here we go, these are some key points to preparing for these exams that are more likely than not, the reasons I was able to pass:
A Complete Set of Notes: Amazing friends of mine helped me out with this. My friend Kait, whom I volunteered with (check out my article about the benefits of volunteering) had completed her NCA exams and was kind enough to allow me to borrow her notes. Another friend, Emma, who is completing her final year in law school, was also super kind enough to help me with her set of notes. Their assistance was probably the most significant element to getting the ball rolling; with solid notes, I did not need to figure out WHERE or WHAT parts of the course needed to be written down. Reading all the required books would have zapped up a lot of time and energy. I would suggest getting access to all your notes before you begin your preparation. I chose not to rely heavily on books, but that may be a matter of preference. I would not recommend others doing the same, but gauge your level of understanding as you actively read through these notes. You can do this by looking at the NCA Syllabus and checking to see if you understand what the practice questions are asking you.
Reading to Understand: It is a general theme and strategy I take to learning new things. I knew that if I was going to be writing any of these exams, I needed first to understand what I was going to be studying before I could solve problems, speak intelligently on topics, or memorize anything. I set myself a schedule and timeline for reading these. I gave myself around 2-4 days to read notes in their entirety. There's no substitution for understanding, so if there was anything unclear, I would supplement that with books, or google. If you cannot read a question and know exactly what is being asked of you, you probably haven't read enough to understand the material before you, so I wanted to avoid this hurdle by getting a gist on each topic.
Past Exams: While it is important to comprehend the material, it is the practice that that will make you proficient, come test day. Unfortunately, the NCA only provides a limited amount of questions for you to further your understanding and abilities. For this reason, I searched for past exam questions. Anywhere I could find practice questions I went to collect. These were much harder to come across than I had imagined. Then I remembered that NCA exams were a reflection of the courses taught in Canadian law schools. I began to search law school websites for past exam papers - and unsurprisingly, there were dozens to choose from in many relevant topics (check out UBC's past law school exam collection). What was challenging about having questions, however, was not always having the answers provided to let you know you are on the right track. It is hard to assess how well I answered the questions. With that said, it was an invaluable tool that allowed me to spot reoccurring key issues in each area of law.
Focus my Efforts: I then began to focus intensively on each subject. Reading to understand was more of a leisurely endeavour; under less stressful circumstances I found I could enjoy the material, and evolve my knowledge with genuine curiosity. Practicing and memorizing for each exam was a bit more exhausting, as I begun to bridge my knowledge with the practicality of answering questions intelligently. Now that I had known what I would be tested on, I reviewed my material to ensure that I could identify each issue in every question. All fundamental issues are distinguishable; having viewed several exam papers for each area, I picked out the key issues that I believed were most likely to be tested. When I identified these issues, my efforts were now focused on understanding and being able to intelligently address these matters when tested.
Answer Frameworks: I think the game changer — and the secret sauce if you will, was when I discovered the concept of “canned answers.” These answers succinctly explained the law, while also making reference to key cases.
Prepare for the Battle: I now had response frameworks made, for each potential issue that could pop up. My final few days were made up of developing these templates to be used in possible answers for questions. It turns out this was incredibly helpful. I approach exams with the mentality that athletes have towards their sport: “Practice hard enough so that your performance will be instinctive.” I don't want to enter these exams with the added pressure of thinking about how to answer the questions. I want to instantly identify what the issues are, and go straight into answering the questions. Whether it was a fluke or not, I am not sure, but at least half of all my exams were me copying down word for word the pre-made templated answers I had prepared. Ideally, you should have prepared so well, that any question that pops up won't be a surprise, as you would have already answered something similar to the question being asked. For example, I found this to be the case especially for Administrative Law: it was such a systematic analysis, that many questions often followed the same templated answers. For that reason, I found it to be one of the most straightforward exams. All my exams that week had me bringing templates on to answer questions. Most of my focus ended up being on analysis — the bulk and crux of what examiners will be looking for.
Juggling Multiple Exams: Retaining knowledge for 7 exams might be the most impressive aspect of the whole endeavour. Initially, I found the idea to be overwhelming before I realized memorization was not a key feature for this exam. In fact, it was a game of familiarity. Reading to understand, and frequent revision of notes allowed me to become comfortable with so much content. It was also important for me to regularly rotate what classes I was reviewing, as to not lose touch. My schedule featured a new area of law every couple of days. Grouping courses like Foundations, Canadian Constitution and Administrative Law together were also beneficial to digesting information as there was a lot of overlap in content.
To be honest, after having prepared for three months, I found the most challenging aspect of actually writing these exams, was the toll it took on my body. Five consecutive days of exams, where I have up to 4 sessions in 48 hours physically and mentally depleted me. However, some key things to note during your exam week may be:
Materials Ready: I found myself playing catch up the night before each exam, preparing my binder of notes. In my arsenal of exam material were: answer frameworks; list of cases; full study notes; Wikipedia explanations of selected concepts that were difficult to put into my own words. By the final few exams, I became confident that these items were beneficial to saving time and mental energy during the exam time. I actually found my case list to be the least helpful during the course of the exams, however, that may be because it had helped me to become familiar with spotting the issues. In addition to that, the pre-made answer frameworks covered most of the instances where I needed to make references to cases. I still valued these case lists, however, as they were quick reference tools.
Zero Study Time: This far into it, I could not afford to study for the exams. I had to know the content and have materials ready, or I was out of luck. There simply would not have been time or energy available to study for the exams during this week. This may just be a matter of personal preference, but I didn't revisit my notes for any of the courses until 30 minutes before each exam. My time was filled with keeping cool, calm and collected. Reassuring myself that I had done all I could to prepare myself gave me a bit of added confidence.
Carry What You Need: I saw people taking several BOOKS into the exam. At one point, I brought my Civil Procedure book in, hoping that it would be useful for all the case law I may need to cite. I don't think books are particularly helpful in practice when it comes down to exam time. You simply do not have time to go searching for the information. To do so can be very costly (remember what I said about the 3-hour time constraint?). With that said, these books could be your hail Mary or last resort should you not have any other reference material. However, you probably haven't prepared well enough if you are relying on your textbooks.
Take Care of Your Body: I don't sleep well when under stress. That entire week I wasn't able to sleep longer than 2-4 hours at a time. I took frequent naps to try and mitigate the effects of this. I also made sure I ate before each exam and in between the two exams I had. However, realize that if you are writing a full week of exams, you are going to need some extra self-care. Heading into exams every day certainly took a toll, so if you do consider doing all of the exams, try to prioritize rest and good food!
Be Economic When Answering Questions: You do not have to solve problems in order! I think this was especially important where I found myself not initially understanding or knowing what knowledge to draw upon to answer specific questions. You are allowed to respond to the exam questions in any order you wish. This is particularly important when you consider the weight of specific questions and how much time you have remaining; In one exam, there were several short answer questions that I found challenging. After about a minute or so of realizing I probably didn't know the answer, I realized that the questions were cumulatively worth 15 marks out of the 100 available. I decided to skip these and pay attention to other issues worth more marks.
Keep Organized and IRAC Everything: You want to remember to use headings and subheadings. Where it is convenient, make bullet points to guide the reader to what you will be discussing. Follow IRAC or some equivalent method of legal analysis. Identify the issue, explain the rules and law surrounding the issue, provide analysis and then make a conclusion. This helps me for two reasons: Firstly, It allowed me to organize my thoughts much better. In a single question, there can be multiple issues and you may not necessarily know how to approach the question because of this overload. Secondly, it organizes the information, not only for the reader but for you when you are writing. Remember when I mentioned searching the key issues in each area of law? Do you also remember the answer frameworks that were sitting, pre-made and ready for when I needed it? I think this is where it all really comes together. Having these two things in contemplation made answering these questions just a matter of analysis and drawing conclusions. This didn't make the questions any easier. But it did make the entire process of answering, simpler and much more efficient. Time was still a pressing concern, but there was a lot of information I was able to cram into the three hours (most of the exams I needed an extra booklet).
Standard Pace is For Chumps
Don’t be fooled; these exams aren’t a walk in the park. However, common knowledge among my peer group before I had written these exams, was to take no more than 2-4 at a time. Upwards of that was risky and could even be detrimental. But doing anything that is conventional is an inherent problem because you are an individual who is very much aware of your limitations and capabilities. If you are in a position to only take one exam at a time, I RESPECT IT. Taking on anything more than you know you can, would be reckless of you, or your circumstances simply don't allow for it. Conversely, It may be remiss of those able to complete their exams all at once, not to consider this route.
I think most of us would be surprised with what we are capable of doing if we plan it out. SO I hope anyone reading this preparing for their own exams, leaves with at least a sense of empowerment in knowing you can strategically have the upper hand going into and completing the NCA process.
Brief Breakdown of Each Exam
So with all that said, I am going to give you a quick run down of each exam. Having hindsight does change the perspective I have on these exams, so I can completely empathize with you if you aren't comforted by any of the following. Nonetheless, take into consideration any new piece of information as you create your study plan -- it may save you some time and mental energy!
Foundations of Canadian Law
This was easily the most deceptive of all the exams I had to study for. I have a friend who had written foundations and gave me a heads up; he warned me that this exam contained elements of Canadian Constitutional and Administrative Law. You should consider studying these this exam in conjunction with these other areas as they all seem to overlap.
Conceptually the content in Foundations was not particularly difficult to understand. The material is wide reaching, however. Several tests you must keep in contemplation (aboriginal rights, administrative law tests, charter violations/Oakes test)throughout your preparation will have you stretched pretty thin when it comes to this exam aboriginal rights, administrative law tests, charter rights test will. I didn’t find the practice questions the NCA provided to be as reflective as the exam, and thus not particularly helpful to preparation for it. So practice the content you find in the sample tests for the other two exams.
Civil Procedures (Ontario)
This was a really dense course with many ideas and concepts! I found this exam was similar to practice questions, with some questions even being a slight variation from the sample the NCA provided. There's not much I can say about this exam as it was straightforward. Having read all of the material required, you should be in a good position to identify the issues in each question. Having templates prepared definitely assisted me in this exam as well.
I've never taken any business related courses, so I felt this course particularly difficult to grasp at first. You must be able to distinguish between different types of concepts, which, without a concrete understanding, makes it difficult to identify what issues need to be addressed.
VERY straight forward if you have practiced the questions. I find it to be very systemic when you realize how procedural the analysis is. If you create a template and stick to it when answering the questions, I am certain you will be in an excellent position to succeed.
Canadian Criminal Law
For students coming from the UK, I found Canadian Criminal Law to be conceptually very different in the analysis. Even they way in which questions were answered were not as mechanical as I found it to be abroad. Learning how to distinguish the different Mens Rea (Intent, knowledge, willful blindness etc.) was harder for me to grasp than expected. I had actually set aside less time to study for this class, which in hindsight may have been a mistake, as I found myself cramming to understand the method of analysis.
Also a really straightforward exam. The sample exam is good preparation, however practicing tests that you can find online from various law schools will put you in a good position to distinguish different professional responsibilities.
I found it useful to have cases that relate to each code of conduct rule as a reference throughout the exam. What I found particularly challenging, however, was realizing that questions could easily relate to different areas of law. It became a struggle to remember I only needed to identify the professional responsibilities and all other knowledge is irrelevant.
Canadian Constitutional Law
This exam gave me the most trouble. It was conceptually difficult for me to grasp many different elements. I would've spent more time trying to understand the key ideas if I had to study for it again. My downfall was also not full preparing by practicing a charter challenge question.