Law School Outlining and Exam Study Tips

If you’ve survived at least a week of law school, you’ve likely heard of the dreaded law school outline. Law students across the country put an immense amount of time and effort into creating (or finding) the perfect one. But if you’re anything like I was as a 1L, you have no idea where to even begin creating an outline.

RELATED STUDYING: Crafting a Better Rule Explanation Section ]


What is an outline?

It’s hard to understand what an outline exactly is until you create and use one. That’s right, I said create your own outline. Essentially, it’s an organized document that contains only the relevant information from an entire course. It includes the black letter law, may include case information, and cuts out the classroom dialogue that won’t necessarily help you on a final exam.

Why is it important?

Law professors across the country facilitate class discussion using the Socratic method. If you haven’t been exposed to this yet, it is a method of getting to the heart of a matter [or rule of law] by asking questions. But as you’ve probably experienced by now, class discussions include more than just the rule of law. It can be difficult to discern from class notes what you need to know and what you don’t need to know for the final exam.
Creating an outline helps you consolidate and comprehend the relevant information from an entire semester. That way, you don’t have to sift through hundreds of pages of class notes as you prepare for your final exam.

Should I create my own outline?

There are varying views on whether it is best to create your own outline or use one created for you. From my experience, creating the outline is what makes them the most useful. Outlining is the process of going through your notes, organizing rules of law and other relevant information, and understanding how it all fits together. 
You can have the holy grail of all outlines passed down to you or spend $100+ on a commercial outline, but this doesn’t mean you’ll understand the information. The process itself allows you to work through the material and start analyzing like a lawyer. Ultimately, this is what you’ll be called upon to do on the final exam.
That being said, many students work in study groups throughout law school. It can be equally beneficial to share outlines with your study group. You may find the way a classmate phrases or organizes something easier to understand. Just don’t be “that guy” in law school who takes outlines but doesn’t share your own!

When to start on them

Don’t start too soon or too late. If you start too soon, you won’t have sufficient material to actually go through. If you start too late, you’ll end up with an outline but no time to prepare for the final exam. It is recommended to organize your class notes into an outline format as soon as you have a good chunk of material to work with – after the first main section is covered or first few weeks is a good starting off point.
And remember, while having a beautifully bound and tabbed, color coded outline may seem like the most important thing in the world, knowing how to apply the law on a final exam is what really matters!
Whether you are about to take your first or your last law school exam, it never hurts to keep these tips in mind as you enter exam study time.
  • Go to Office Hours

    If your professor holds office hours and you have never attended (or might already be in the habit of going), now is a great time to get some one-on- one teaching for the concepts you have yet to master or questions you may have about the course or exam. Some professors even let small groups attend together, so check with your prof first before bringing along your study group.

  • Go to the Professor’s Review

    Many professor’s will host their own review session in which they will cover the concepts covered during the semester. Some even go so far as giving hints or actual questions that will appear on the exam. Many times the way they structure the review can be a logical way for you to organize your notes or outline for studying yourself. If they provide an opportunity for you to submit question ahead of time, you should take an evening to skim your notes and submit a few. It will help for your review to be actually beneficial and a review for you.

  • Teach Someone Else

    No better way to master a subject than to be able to teach someone else. This could be a non-law student roommate, a fellow classmate, or even your little brother or dog. To be able to break down the concepts and explain them to another is to truly help you master the concept and be able to explain it on an exam.

  • Practice, Practice, Practice

    If you know your professor will be using multiple choice questions, then find some to practice with during your studies. Ask your professor for suggested resources, check our your law library to see what might be available at your school, and don’t forget that Kaplan has many questions available to you online and on the Kaplan Bar Review App for 1L and Upper Level courses. If your professor has a bank of past exams, take the time to look some over to get a feel for how they write their questions and the way they cover the material on their exams.

  • Organization Ahead of Time

    This will save you time when you need to consult something and you will already be familiar with where the information is located. Some do a table of contents, other utilize tabs, and, where permitted, the control+F feature on your computer can help you search notes quickly.

  • Have an Exam Strategy

    Typically, you will know the structure of the exam well before the exam. Think ahead of time how you would like to tackle the task before you. If you have a mixed exam of multiple choice, short answer, and essays, it can be to your benefit to read over the essay first (or skim) and let your brain marinade on it while you then attempt the multiple choice. Sometimes answer choices in the multiple choice will remind you of things to add in your essay. Same with short answer. Knock those out if you know they are easier to attack and it might help you on your essay later on. Where you have an essay only exam, it can be to your advantage to skim through the different questions to see which are low-hanging fruit that you can knock out quickly and not miss points on, and then attempt the harder ones so that you do not waste time that could be spent on easy points.

  • Have Confidence

    It’s amazing how far this can go. If you have put in the time to attend class, participate by doing the readings, and then studying for the exam, you should feel confident going into the exam. You know the subject. Now let your brain do the rest of the work for you and help you ace that exam!