Law school final exams. All law students take them, no law students like them, and there is a lot of conflicting information out there about the best way to prepare for them. You may have heard about something called an “outline,” but you aren’t really sure exactly what it is, how to make one, or why you need one. Let’s clear that up right now.
An outline is a study tool that you create to tie together all the concepts you have learned over the course of the semester. Often, students think that an outline has to have roman numerals, be indented, and be created in Microsoft Word. But that is simply not true! There are many ways to outline. What is most important about an outline is that it helps you understand the material, not that it conforms to a particular structure.
If you don’t have the first clue where to begin with an outline, you can use the following system to get started:
First, whip out your calendar. If you are anything like the typical law student, you are probably short on time. You must carve out time specifically for outlining or you won’t ever get to it. Block off weekly outlining sessions starting in the third or fourth week of the semester so that you don’t have to cram all of your outlining into the week before exams. Generally, it is a good idea to set outlining sessions of 2-3 hours each to give yourself enough time to process through the information and make the connections between concepts and rules.
When you sit down for your outlining sessions, make sure you have all of the materials you need. This includes your syllabus, case briefs, class notes, handouts, textbook, and commercial study aids (if you are using them). This is a critical step, as the entire point of outlining is to bring all the information you have learned together into one smaller, more manageable document. If you don’t have all of the materials you need, your outline will be incomplete.
Finally, it is time to break information down. This is where the magic happens because it is the step where you actually create the outline. If you aren’t sure where to start, look to the syllabus or the table of contents in your textbook. Either one will give you a good idea of how to structure your outline. Generally, the best way to organize information in an outline is going from broad to narrow. Start with the big overarching concepts that you learned and fill in the details, such as exceptions, examples, and cases underneath. Remember, your outline can be in the traditional style like the one discussed above, or it can take the form of a series of charts, a stack of flashcards, or any other format that best suits your learning style.
It is likely that this process will be slow and painful in the beginning and that you may have to start over a few times until you get the hang of it. Don’t get too frustrated, as all of this is part of the learning process, and you’ll be happy you stuck it out when you get your grades back!
Kerriann Stout is the CEO of Vinco bar exam coaching company.