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Cambridge Law Test Essay

Last month’s blog covered the LNAT. Those of you applying to Cambridge undoubtedly felt short-changed but fear not: this month, we’ll be looking at Cambridge’s bespoke entrance exam, the appropriately named Cambridge Law Test (CLT).

Farewell to LNAT

Cambridge stopped using the LNAT as its entrance exam in 2009 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7595909.stm). As we noted last week, the LNAT was designed to so that students could not be coached through it, an allegation often made against exams like GCSEs or A-Levels. Given its popularity as an entrance exam for law schools in the UK and abroad, many have invested much time and effort to crack its secrets. Because the CLT is only offered by one institution and has been only offered for a few years, there is much less guidance available.

Unlike the high-tech LNAT, which functions as a gateway to interview, the CLT is sat at the same time as candidates at interviewed and is an old-fashioned paper test. And unlike the LNAT, the CLT is ostensibly straight forward: one question in one hour. The question will be one of three types of questions:

  • an essay question;
  • a comprehension question; or
  • a problem question.

Let’s look at them in turn.

Sometimes I wonder if I am playing with my examiner, or my examiner is playing with me

Last month’s advice on the LNAT essay stands true for the CLT essay with three caveats: you have more time with the CLT, the questions are more “legal” in their content, and the questions tend to be longer and more involved. One common mistake students make is to substitute fact for argument. When asked about whether the death penalty is something the rule of law should condone, students often start recounting various examples of the death penalty being used. But remember: no prior knowledge is expected, only the ability to analyse critically. As noted last week, a better way is to consider the question in principle. What differentiates the death penalty from other forms of punishment? What is the rule of law? How do the two interact? Don’t be afraid to take your time guiding the examiners through all the steps of your thinking, even if those steps seem obvious. They may be obvious to you, but not to them.

All this beforehand counsel comprehends

The comprehension question will suit candidates who have done English or History, where you might be expected to read an unseen passage. Typically, the comprehension question has two parts. The first is pure comprehension, where you will be expected to summarise a part of the passage. Take your time to make sure you actually understand what the passage is saying. Often, exam nerves cloud our ability to read naturally. I would be inclined to tackle this question second to give your mind time to relax. The second part will be more analytical. Using the passage, you will be asked to write a mini essay. Again, what I have noted above and in last month’s blog stands. However, do use the passage for inspiration. Particularly impressive is if you can attack some of the points made in the passage. 

I have 99 problems but the Cambridge Law Test ain’t one

The problem question is the bane of the law undergraduate’s life. It is a scenario or series of scenarios which test the functioning of a point of law. Again, no prior knowledge of the law is needed: you are normally provided with a snippet of statute or judicial reasoning from which you derive your basic principles. There are two rules to keep in mind when answering problem questions: first, be consistent; secondly, be sensible. When answering the questions it is worth considering how you might expect the law to operate in real life. Again, guide the examiner through your reasoning step-by-step and do not be afraid to notify them when you are puzzled. For instance, you may be told that a lease is “agreement to grant exclusive possession for a term at a rent”. What does “exclusive” mean and what does it not mean? If you are unsure, explain both or all the possible interpretations to the examiner. Indeed, the point of judicial precedent is to clarify uncertainty over words or phrases in the law. When settling on the meaning you think is correct, the most sensible option (or, rather, the most sensibly reasoned one) is the best answer.

The Cambridge Faculty of Law offers guidance on the test
[ http://ba.law.cam.ac.uk/applying/cambridge_law_test/ ] and

Some specimen past papers
[ http://ba.law.cam.ac.uk/assets/misc/Cambridge_Law_Test_Specimen_Questions.pdf ].

The Cambridge Law Test is just one of a number of pieces of information we use to decide on a student’s application to Cambridge. It is meant to give us an idea of how a student can understand a piece of text, how they reason through an argument, and how they express themselves.

The test is divided into two parts: The first part is on comprehension of the passage; the second, requires applicants to give their own views on the topic being discussed.

For example, after reading an extract from a case, the test might ask the following questions:

(i) Explain in your own words the reasoning of the court in this case. In particular, what interpretations of the Act are considered in the course of the judgment, and why did the Court reach the conclusion that it did?


(ii) The Court says that H’s preparations did not amount to an attempted murder. What were those preparations? Do you think that the law of attempted crimes should be amended so that H would be guilty of attempted murder at an earlier stage in his plan? Give reasons for your answer.

When I am grading the first part of the paper, I am looking to see not only that the student has understood the passage that was set, but that he or she is able to explain it in their own words. What I want to see is that student is able to write in a very clear manner that is easily understandable, and follows a logical pattern. This means that I don’t necessarily want long, flowery prose, but instead I want to see things expressed precisely and succinctly. I am looking for the ability to pick out the most relevant ideas from the passage, and to present them for the reader in a coherent manner.

For the second part of the paper, I am also looking for clarity of expression, and whether the student has produced a well-structured and balanced argument. This means that I don’t want to just see a one-sided essay — part of the skill of being a lawyer is recognising that there are other opinions out there, and being able to produce counter-arguments to them. It’s important to remember that there is no “right” answer to this part — we are looking for students to express their own views and opinions, and produce clear, logical and well-reasoned arguments in support of them. We don’t expect any prior legal knowledge for the Cambridge Law Test — we want to see how you reason through ideas, not whether you know what the law is in a particular area.

One of the areas where a lot of students have difficulty is timing. They spend far too long on one part of the paper, and don’t have time to finish the rest. Students need to make sure that they allocate enough time for each section, so that they don’t leave an answer unfinished — which to me would indicate lack of organisational skills. This doesn’t necessarily mean that students have to spend equal time on part of the question — one part might demand more time and attention. But it does mean that you should produce a finished answer for each.

Ultimately, the Cambridge Law Test is meant to give us a more detailed picture of the ability of the student, and their potential as a law student. It’s important to remember that we’re don’t expect any prior legal knowledge for the Cambridge Law Test — we want to see how you reason through ideas, not whether you know what the law is in a particular area. The best way to prepare is by looking at the sample tests online, and practising answering them within the one hour time limit.

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