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Outlining Guide: Introduction

This guide provides an overview of what outlining is, how to do it, and how to study from it.

What is Outlining?

Outlining for law school exams is the process of distilling complex ideas, learned during the semester, into an organized and reasonably lengthy study aid. When creating your outline, you are putting all of the bits and pieces of what you learned throughout the semester into an interconnected and coherent framework. It is through this process that you are teaching yourself how the separate legal concepts learned in class operate together with the larger body of laws. One of the key things to understand about outlining is that it's about the process as well as the final product.

When Should I Start?

The short is answer is that starting early is better.

Law school is time consuming. If you wait until a couple of weeks before finals to start outlining, you are not giving yourself adequate time. Generally, you should start outlining after the first few weeks of class; and at the latest, by October. If you are reading this guide during the last week of November and have not started outlining, don't panic! Though starting early is definitely better, you can still benefit from outlining. Remember, it is always better to outline, no matter the start date, then to not outline at all.

Should I Use a Commercial Outline?

Probably not!

Commercial outlines, as well as other classmate's outlines, are not effective study tools. More importantly, they can hurt your exam score if you rely on them. Here are four reasons why you should avoid commercial and classmates' outlines.

  1. Most importantly, outlining is about the process as much as it is about the final product. If you skip the creation of an outline, you never grapple with the material in a way that helps you learn the subject. 
  2. Many commercial outlines are simply too long. An outline should be a manageable length that you can use to review the material multiple times before exam day. Law students do not have the time review a 400-page commercial outline and use it effectively as an active study tool.
  3. Commercial outlines also contain a ton of superfluous information. Each professor focuses on certain aspects of their topics and breeze through, or entirely skip, other topics. Some professors might talk about intentional torts, while others might not discuss them at all. Commercial outlines are full of information that you do not need to know for your exam. Your outline has to be unique to yourself and the class you are taking.
  4. In regards to classmate's outlines, keep in mind the first point in this list. Also, law students are not experts on the topics covered in a particular course, and their outlines might contain errors. And if you are using an outline from a different year, the professor might have changed their syllabus or the law itself might have changed. 

Your Outline is Unique!

It is helpful to think about an outline like a snowflake or fingerprint; it is one of kind and unique to you. It is written by you, for you, and will never help anyone else understand the class like it will help you. Your outline should reflect how you learn and process information. Remember, your outline's only function is to help you specifically!

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