An outline is a tool that organizes and summarizes a semester’s worth of material from both what you’ve learned in class and from your reading. Research has shown that outlining is effective because it’s forcing you to review and master material that you need to know to be successful on your final exams. If you’re just starting out or want to make sure you’re on the right track, below are some questions you might ask:
When Should I Start?
Since outlining is an essential part of your coursework, many think they should begin after the first week. While outlining early is important, starting the first week won’t be a good use of your time because you haven’t learned enough yet. Instead, begin outlining after a topic is finished. For example, in Contracts, “acceptance” would be a whole topic to outline even though it’ll likely be covered over the course of a few chapters and more than one class period.
How Many Outlines Should I Have?
Generally, a law student should have three outlines per course:
Comprehensive Outline (50+ pages)
- This outline contains all the material covered in class and from your reading. However, it still shouldn’t be too long because the whole goal of an outline is to eventually memorize it.
Condensed Outline (10-20 pages)
- This outline is just a shortened version of your comprehensive outline. Shortening your outline means deciding what is most important for you to know on your exam.
- For example, in Contracts, your comprehensive outline might cover the facts of a case while a condensed outline will have a phrase to help you remember the case, along with the bright line rule. Below is an example of my outline going from comprehensive to more condensed.
Attack Outline (3-6 pages)
- This is the outline you memorize! It’s a checklist or an attack approach of what you need to know for your exam. You can start preparing this outline towards the end of the semester.
What Should I Use?
- Generally, you should use your case briefs, class notes, your course textbook and a commercial outline (for reference only).
Don’t use another student’s outline
(unless it’s as a skeleton)
- This won’t be as effective as creating your own because everyone learns differently. So even if you’re borrowing an outline from a student who got the highest grade in the class the year before, if they don’t have the exact same learning style as you, your grade will suffer.
- Further, the whole point of outlining is to struggle with the material to help you learn it. You can’t do this if all the information is already written down for you.
How Should I Start?
Disclaimer: I really hope you are reading this post in September instead of November because a key to outlining is starting early. (Scroll down if this isn’t the case.)
I. Get a Skeleton
- To begin, you need to know what your class will cover over the course of the semester. Your syllabus is usually a good skeleton; however, if that’s not detailed enough, use your casebook table of contents to get the main headings you need. Below is an example of one of my syllabi that was great to use.
II. Next, break down the rules and then add the cases that illustrate these rules. Don’t organize your sections by cases but by topics. Additionally, your cases should be summarized instead of including the whole fact pattern.
III. Finally, add class hypos in to show how your professor chooses to apply the law. Below is an example from my Contracts class:
How Do I Know I’m Done with my Outline?
A great outline resolves all ambiguities and identifies the grey areas of the law and will go beyond legal trivia. Additionally:
- Every rule of law and all terms should be clearly defined in a way you understand.
- You should know what your professor expects you to know about each topic.
- This could mean you reference his buzzwords or the phrasing he uses. For example, my Torts professor would always bring in props to use as examples for our topics – whether it was negligence or product liability. I had each prop written next to its topic so it jogged my memory of the class each time I read it.
- Additionally, some of my professor’s do a five-minute recap from the class before where they highlighted the main points they wanted us to remember. This should be in your outline.
- Hypotheticals from class
- This could also include questions from your classmates that the professor had made a point to answer.
Help – I started outlining later than recommended!
You should be finished outlining by the start of your exam period. If you feel like you’ve started too late recognize that you won’t be able to outline an entire class comprehensively in a few days. However, you’re not doomed for failure. Instead, gather a general concept of every topic and move forward in your studying method (i.e. taking practice tests). Your goal at this point isn’t to outline the whole class like you would have if you began in September, but to make sure you have generally covered all the information required.
Additionally, do not try to guess what your Professor is going to ask on the final and only tailor your studying towards that. It is much better to outline 100% of the information generally than outline 50% of the information specifically. As we all probably have learned at some point, what you think won’t be on the final likely will be exactly what’s on the final.
In conclusion, while this post is garnered towards outlining, it is just based on research and my experience as a 1L. How you review best varies so tailor your studying to exactly what works for you – even if this means solely relying on flashcards or flowcharts instead. Happy studying!
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.