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Let’s Talk Outlining

It is widely accepted that the most important component of exam preparation is the outline of the class. I am not going to disagree with that. An outline of the class is a summation of the black letter law for the subject matter that is covered in the class. You must have an outline of the class built before you begin studying for your exam, or you will not be able to study efficiently enough for the exam to be prepared. No question about it. But before we get too far with this, let me give a few opinions here about the conventional approach to outlining. It’s all wrong.

If you subscribe to the conventional wisdom about outlining, you will go wrong with your outlining in at least two important ways: (1) you will outline your classes throughout the year, bit by bit every day; (2) you will write long, dense outlines, crammed full of every piece of information you have gathered in the cases, in the class room, and from outside reading. Each of these approaches to outlining is better than not outlining at all, for sure, but they will not equip you to maximize the way that outlines can help you succeed on your exams.

Outlining Myth #1

Most books you read and most advice you will hear is that you should outline each of your classes everyday as you move along in the class. The theory is that waiting to outline until late in the semester is dangerous, because you might just end up with way too much work to do at the end of the semester and you may not be able to get it done. Instead, the theory goes, you should do a little every day so as to not fall behind.

I strongly disagree with this advice. It never works in real life this way, and in fact, there is a much better way to outline. Instead of outlining every day, I wrote my whole outline for each class in one sitting, toward the end of the semester.

Here is how I planned my semester. Remember, above all else I had an exam focused approach to each semester. Accordingly, at the beginning of each year, for each class I had, I looked ahead on a calendar at the exam date. If it was a 16 week semester, I would plan to have all my reading and other work done for each class about four to six weeks ahead of the first exam. At the four or six weeks from exam mark, I simply stopped reading the case book, and from thereon I relied completely on going to class for all of my course learning after that point.4

I would then schedule a full day on a weekend, or a couple evenings during the week to do nothing but outline each class one at a time. If I had five exams, I would plan five eight hour periods where I did nothing but outline a particular class, and then move onto the next, one class at a time.

The reason to do a single class’s outline all at once has to do with exam preparation. One of the things an exam typically does is mix up a variety of the course’s concepts into a single fact pattern that involves many, if not all of them. One of the critical exam taking skills is to sort it all out. A primary difference between excellent exams and average exams is how clearly you sort these various issues out and organize your answer intelligently.

What you will find is that having a time where you take a birds-eye view of the entire body of law that was covered in class provides you with a very valuable tool to sort it all out and organize your exam answer well.  Doing your outline all at once is the best way to obtain this birds-eye perspective.

As you build the outline piece by piece from the table of contents in your course book and your class notes, you will be able to obtain a “holistic” overall understanding of the system of that subject in the law, and how each piece fits together. Doing your outline throughout the year, bit by bit, may have advantages as well, but one thing it would not do is provide you with opportunity to obtain an over-arching view of the law of the class in one sitting.

One Comment

  1. greg
    Posted March 18, 2013 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    okay but what about saving all that legwork and using one already on

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