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by Shelley Awe | October 01, 2020

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Although it might feel like the semester just started, here we are in October—and suddenly final exams are right around the corner. If this is your first semester in law school, you might feel overwhelmed by the various study tips you’ve gathered from the internet, classmates, professors, and other well-meaning people in your network. Though everyone will have different advice, there is probably one common theme: that you’re supposed to create an outline for each class. But what is an outline? What should it include? Where do you start? Read on for answers to these questions and tips for getting the most of your law school outlines.   

Your outline is a road map.

An outline summarizes everything you’ve covered in class in a structured, easy-to-digest format. It should include rules of law and elements, case summaries, policy considerations, hypotheticals, and other notable points your professor discusses in class. The goal is that once you’ve finished your outline, you’ll have a framework that covers everything you need to know in one place—think of it as your “one-stop” study tool. Your outline is your home base as you review and memorize concepts, go through hypotheticals, and take practice exams. Plus, if your professors administer open-book exams, you’ll be able to use your outline as a quick reference tool during the exam.

Start outlining early.

Law school classes are dense and cover a lot of material, so you don’t want to wait until the last minute to start outlining. Not only will you feel the time crunch, but you’re more likely to forget the nuances of materials you covered—and knowing those nuances is the key to beating the curve. No doubt, outlining takes a lot of time in addition to the work you already have reading and preparing for class, but try to dedicate time each week to outlining. This is where concepts really start to come together, and you’ll start to see the forest for the trees—which is what matters for exams—so start prioritizing your outlines now.

Use your class syllabus as a guide.

You open a new Word document to start your outline… but where do you begin? One method is to organize your outline the way your professor teaches the material. After all, your professor is the one administering the exam, so tailor your materials accordingly by using the class syllabus as your guide. First, copy and paste the class topics listed in your syllabus as main headings to create a “skeleton” outline, and then build from there: Add your class notes, case summaries, hypos, and any key points from commercial supplements that aid in your understanding. Of course, this outline is yours, so ultimately, you should shape it in the way that makes most intuitive sense for you and your learning process. Once you get the hang of outlining, test out which structure and organization is most helpful to you as you study.

You don’t necessarily have to start from scratch.

For many students, creating an outline from scratch is the best way to ensure you truly grasp the material. But some prefer to use an outline created by a 2L or 3L who came before them and did well in the class. Bottom line: You know your study style best, and it might work just fine for you to work off an outline somebody else created. But if you do, be active in using it as a study tool. Don’t just read the outline—add your own notes, fill in gaps, and make necessary updates. Your professor probably changes the course each year to include different topics and cases, so don’t miss out on important points by leaning on an outdated outline.

Think of your outline as a working document.

You’ll find that as the semester progresses, topics begin to connect and concepts you initially found confusing make more sense as you gain more context. Don’t be married to the original structure and content of your outline—it’s okay to fill in earlier gaps and change content around throughout the semester. Even when classes end, your work on your outline isn’t done. During the study period, you should continue to refine and shorten your outline as you get a better handle on material and can recall more details by memory. By exam day, your outline should be as short as possible, with brief phrases and words to jog your memory rather than a treatise on the course.

Don’t plan to use your outline during exams.

Even if you’re allowed to use your outline during an open-book exam, tackle studying as if you won’t be able to. Law school exams take place on a time crunch, so you don’t want to waste precious minutes flipping through your outline. Your outline is there as a crutch in case you completely blank or need to double-check a concept here and there—it’s not an answer key. This means keeping your outline as concise as possible and dedicating as much time to reviewing and practicing as you would for a closed-book exam.

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