CPA exam essay grading, how is it different than law school?

From da internetz:

Does anyone know what he did wrong? The law school essay method is pretty straightforward and logical – (at least to the people doing it).

What do the CPA graders look for? Random topics in any order?

The characteristics of a good essay should be similar.

I don’t get it.

Perhaps it was his content, rather than his style. He may just have stuffed up the question.

I guess, really, the question is: “what was the question?”

I am guessing that an essay on contract law from a lawyer POV is different than an essay on contract law from a bean-counter PoV. What did they want the student to address?

While I know nothing about answering law questions as “essays” in the US culture, my first guess would be failing memory: taking a test two years back and then studying a different subject would mean that I’d forgotten most details.

If the student wants to know in order to get better results, the best source would be his professor, with the essay in hand, asking “what did I do wrong, and what do I need to do to get it right?”

I suspect also (though I don’t know how CPAs are trained in the US) that he slept through part of the class if only notices differences in essay writing during an exam- were there no practice tests, mid-terms or homework with any legal questions at all in the two years he studied for CPA? The prof never ever mentioned how a good essay answer should be structured? Or did the prof. try to teach, but the student said “I know that already” and turned listening off?

I don’t know anything about either the CPA exam or the law school exams, but I do know the actuarial exams. I would guess they’re different than one or both of these, but I point to them as an example of how exams can vary dramatically, and you need to understand the one you’re taking in order to succeed.

In order to ensure consistency in marking, the Society of Actuaries marks essay questions without any regard to style at all. Essentially, the graders are given a list of points that exam takers are expected to have made, and the answers are graded based on the percentage of these points that were made. There is also not much time in which to answer all the questions. The results of all this are that answers - of successful exam takers - tend to consist of stream-of-consciousness words and phrases jotted down with no regard for style and little for coherency.

Point of all of which is that if someone was unfamiliar with the nature of the exams, and attempted to write coherent, elegently phrased answers, he would fail badly. Knowing how to take a test is more important than knowing the material, sometimes.

As someone who has taken both sets of exams, though many, many years ago, I may have some insight. I have no knowlege however of how they are actually graded.

Business law, from an accounting perspective, is generally taught as something well-defined and static: these are the requirements to form a contract, these are what an endorsed negotiable instrument signifies, etc. The CPA exam tends to test how clear legal principles should be applied in relevant situations.

Law school, on the other hand, teaches that the law is dynamic and always subject to competing influences. The focus is not on the general rules, but on situations where the rules may be subject to exeptions or other conflicting principles. Often law exams present situations just on the edge of the applicability of different rules, and ask the test takers to identfy the principles that may be there. Issue spotting, the question of all of the possible issues that could come into play, is a very important part of law school testing, and proving that you can identify all of the arguable ambiguities is often more important than stating the applicable “rule” (to the extent that there is a “rule” out there).

I think the CPA exam graders probably are probably looking for whether the test taker knew what rule applied and how the answer came out. On the other hand, a law school essay covering the same subject matter would address the general rule, but amid a thicket of competing exceptions, countervailing equitable principles and other stuff that undobutedly is not on the grader’s grading sheet. Although the law school answer would cover grey areas that might apply in the real world (and certainly would in the law school testing world where questions are focused squarely in mid-grey), they those grey answers would suggest to the CPA graders that the test taker didn’t really know the black and white answer they were looking for.

Here’s a made-up example off the top of my head of what may be the two different approaches, taken from an area of law that has nothing to do with business law:

Question: Alice shoots at Bob, intending to kill him. However, Alice’s shot misses Bob and hits and kills Charlie, who she had no intention to harm. What crime, if any, has Alice committed?

Answer of the type the CPA exam might be looking for: Where one has the mental intention to cause someone’s death, known as malice aforethought, it does not matter that the person killed is not the person who was intended to be killed, so Alice has committed murder.

Answer of law school exam type: Although having formed the mens rea of malice aforethough, it is immaterial that the person whose death was caused by the defendant’s actions was not the intended victim, there are a number of reasons that Alice might not criminally liable for murder. If Alice were subject to sufficient provocation for a reasonable person to have acted as she did (and there were no suffient cooling off period), she might be only liable for voluntary manslaughter. Further, if she were subject to a mental disease or defect sufficient for her to be unable to understand the wrongful nature of her act, she might be absolved from criminal liability under the traditional M’Naughton test. In addition, the prosecution is responsible for proving all of the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, so if the prosecution fails to do so, or the jury engages in jury nullification, she may be acquitted. Moreover, depending on local law, she might also be liable for discharging a firearm within city limits. . . . . (for five more pages of what might possbily have happened).

You can see how a grader of a CPA exam type test, expecting the first answer, would look at the second and think the take had no idea what he or she was talking about, even though the second answser is entirely correct and contains in its first sentence what is essentially the response the grader was looking for.