I am a big advocate for making your own outline. Building an outline is a great way to review the course materials and synthesize what you have learned. If your exam is open book, having an outline on hand can help you quickly recall information and ensure you grab all the points. Finally, an outline created from scratch has a special, personal significance. You know it inside and out: you know what the abbreviations and symbols mean, where everything is located, and how to read the charts you created.
Here are my tips for making an outline that you can use effectively and efficiently during the exam. I will be focusing on formatting tips, but you can check out this podcast episode and this blog post for tips on what to include in the outline.
1. Decide whether you want to use an electronic or paper outline
My preference is an electronic outline for a few reasons. First, I can control-F to quickly retrieve information. Second, I can use the highlighter tool to add colors to my outline. I highlight cases in yellow, restatement provisions in blue, and policy arguments in pink. Third, with an electronic outline, I do not have to worry about ruffling through a thick stack of papers. This also makes me more comfortable with having a longer outline—even one that clocks in at eighty pages. If I were only allowed to bring in a paper outline to the exam, I would create a shorter and more condensed one.
This is a very individual decision, though. I have seen my classmates print out their 50-page outlines, highlight it by hand (or print it in color), and tag pages with post-it flags (see tip #3). Some prefer paper because they find that splitting the computer screen between the exam software and the outline makes the font too small, or they do not like toggling between different desktops on their computer.
Consider these pros and cons, try it out during practice exams (tip #2) and make the decision best for you.
2. Test out your outline by doing practice exams
In addition to using past exams to test your knowledge of the course materials, take these exams to see if the formatting of the outline is helpful or not. Aside from cutting out or adding substance, you will also likely make tweaks to the formatting. Even little things, like spacing between lines and the font size of headings, can make a big difference when you are under stress and time constraints.
3. Tagging key topics
Tagging helps you locate information efficiently, so that you can maximize the time for writing your exam answers. For my electronic outlines, I added “t-” (representing “tag”) in front of all the key topics and subtopics. For example, in my Torts outline, I have “t-Battery,” “t-Trespass,” “t-Conversion,” etc. in my “t-Intentional Torts” section. This is helpful because my control-F yields only one result. For a paper outline, you can use post-it flags.
4. Consider including visual aids
Especially for visual learners, big blocks of words, or even bullet points, are not the best way to represent complex legal concepts and their relationships to each other. Flowcharts are great for multi-step and branch analyses. Charts are great for comparing and contrasting legal doctrines or case facts. Timelines show how doctrines have evolved and the chronology of an important line of cases.
Some of your professors might provide you with such aids. For example, my Contracts professor gave us a UCC 2-207 flowchart and my Criminal Law professor provided a table with all the potential charges for unintentional and intentional killings. You can refence these materials to create your own visual aids for the other topics.
5. Consult old outlines
Many, many law students before you have gone through creating and refining their outlines. There are many different ways to format great outlines. By looking at different examples, you can try out and ultimately decide on the formatting elements that work best for you.
6. Include a master list of topics
At the top of my outline (in addition to some motivational notes-to-self), I include a table of contents listing all the topics and subtopics in the course. I start by retyping the headings from my professors’ syllabi, then make minor changes to the order of the topics, rename some headings, or add certain subheadings.
This list comes in handy for me at two points during the exam. First, when I am outlining my answers, I glance at this list to alert myself to potential issues. Second, when I am done with the full exam, I again check the list to see if I can add anything else.
I also print out a hard copy of this list and check off topics that I have analyzed in my exam answer. If I had not discussed a significant topic that was explored in depth during class—personal jurisdiction immediately comes to mind—it is a good sign that I might have missed some points.
As a former yearbook editor and design nerd, I believe that great formatting can make a huge difference. I hope that my suggestions will help you create an outline that you can be proud of.
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