by Christopher Loy
No aspect of law school is more hyped or feared than the dreaded final exam. The last fourteen weeks of arguably the most confusing period of your life comes down to a four-hour test. However, fear not—the following tips will help you structure your outline and attack your exam period like a champ.
Understand the Law School Exam and What It Is That You’re Being Asked to Do.
In order to construct your outline most effectively, you have to understand what you’re being asked to do on an exam. Law school exams are not general knowledge exams. You earn points by spotting the issues that the professor has built into each fact pattern and analyzing them properly. Thus, your goals in outlining should be to (1) learn the material so you won’t have to defer to a cumbersome outline often and to (2) provide you an accessible tool to spot issues and provide you with the relevant law and how to apply it.
Structure and Organization—Two Keys to Exam Writing Success
You have to remember that your professor, the person that lectured you all these weeks, will be grading your exam. They will be the sole individual administering points to you on your journey to 1L stardom. They will have over a hundred exams to grade. I don’t think there is one professor in academia who is thrilled to grade exams. With that said, you want your professor to grade your exam as quickly and as painlessly as possible. You want to make it as easy as you possibly can to let the professor give you points. Walls-of-text and confusing, run-on sentences don’t work well. You’re professor will likely write, “Sorry, bro. TL; DR” on your exam. Accordingly, a quick word about exam structure:
- Use headings, bold, and italics.
- If you’re confronted with a contracts question and you’re being asked to decide whether there was contract, break it down. Bold each element of a valid contract that is in question: “Offer”, “Acceptance”, “Consideration”, etc. Analyze each aspect of the contract in question. You do not want anything in the way of the professor giving you points. You want to make your exam as easy and as painless to read as possible. The harder and more convoluted your answer, the more chances there are for the professor to miss one of your arguments.
- For every new issue, start a new paragraph. If “acceptance” in a contract is at issue, start a new paragraph and format your answer in IRAC. “The issue is whether Donald accepted Hillary’s offer by email.” Then state the applicable rule (or rules if there are majority or minority positions). Then apply the facts to the given law. At the end, depending on your professor’s preference, you may or may not want to conclude about whether there was valid acceptance.
- Again, structure is key to a high scoring exam. This structure should guide you in your outline creation and studying.
Outlining—It’s the Process.
An outline is like a personalized toolbox for your exam. Every rule you put into your outline will help you attack different issues you spot on an exam. Like a toolbox, if you put too much information in your outline, you risk wasting time to find the right tool for the job. However, if you don’t put enough information in your outline, you risk not having the correct tool to do the job. With that said, it all comes down to personal preference and knowing what works best for you and how you conceptualize information. Here are some helpful tips that might help you during the final stretch of your first semester:
You’re probably better off making your own outline (or heavily editing an old outline).
It’s not the outline that helps on the exam. You can have the greatest outline on the planet; however, it is worthless if you can’t utilize the information in the outline to help you on the exam. With that said, it’s the process of creating an outline that is the real benefit.
Materials to consult when outlining:
- Your own class notes
- You sat in class all these weeks. You know exactly what the professor covered and how that professor covered the material. Many times professors will cycle through different material, so it’s not always the best practice to rely strictly on old outlines. Use your own class notes to fill in the gaps and tailor an outline to your specific class.
- Pro tip: If your professor has a quirky way of explaining a concept that is unique to their class (I’m looking at you John Marshall Highway), use that structure in your exam/outline.
- Commercial outlines
- These are hit and miss; however, they can be utilized to structure your outline. Generally, commercial outlines will have “standard” black letter law, which may or may not be different from how your professor taught the law. Use the commercial outlines to provide a framework and use your class notes to fine tune and fill in the gaps.
- Old outlines
- Generally, these are also useful for the same reason commercial outlines are, but old outlines are more tailored to your professor’s class. Beware, however, that just because you have the “book award” outline doesn’t mean you can coast through. You need to know exactly what is in your outline and how to apply it. Having the information in the outline does not show your professor you know the material, and it does not lead to you scoring well if you can’t put it on paper.
- Supplements, hornbooks, etc.
- These are useful if you are still confused on an issue. Generally, supplements go into greater detail than the professor will expect you go into. Thus, beware of loading your outline up with information that is irrelevant or not useful to your class.
Factors that should be considered when outlining:
- Longer is not always better. If it’s too long, you risk getting lost looking for something you believe to be in your outline. The outline shouldn’t be your security blanket. Remember, it’s a toolbox, not the whole hardware store. Generally, you are not going to have enough time to consistently refer to your outline throughout the exam.
- Do you like colors? Do you like roman numerals? It’s entirely personal preference on how you set up your own outline. I use colors, capital letters, boxes, underlining, and italics to help emphasis certain aspects of the law.
- Pro tip: State the general rule and highlight any exceptions to that general rule in another color to draw your attention.
- Do you like a typical outline that consists of headings, sub-headings, and bullets OR are you a visual learner who prefers to set up an outline in a “block” format.
- Generally, for classes that deal with different “sets” of law—i.e. common law and MPC in criminal law—it might be beneficial to have a chart with each crime listed on one side and two columns that list how each authority approaches that particular crime.
Forms of outlines
- The “Manifesto”
- This is the gigantic, 100-page compilation of every nuance of any material your course covered. It’s impressive, it’s thorough, and it will likely not help you much during the time crunch of your exam. Why? It’s too dense.
- The Attack Sheet
- An attack sheet is a short, one or two page “outline” that is essentially a table of contents to a larger outline. This is incredibly useful to serve as a process to attack hypotheticals. For contracts, a good attack sheet will list all the aspects to the path of enforceable contract. For instance:
- “Was there an Offer?” Under that heading, you will list all the elements to a valid offer—objective intent to be bound, definite and certain terms, communicated to the offeree.
- In the same portion, list all the cases you dealt with in your class that “colored” the black letter law—i.e. Lucy v. Zehmer – objective conduct; Owen v. Tunison – intent to be bound; mere statement of selling price is not an offer.
- Flow charts
- Flow charts are fantastic if you are a visual learner. Similar to an attack sheet, you can use flow charts to walk through different aspects of seemingly confusing laws, i.e. UCC §2-207.
- Rule blocks
- Rule blocks are tiny paragraphs of the black letter law that can be useful in a time crunch situation. Rule blocks serve two primary purposes: they force you to condense and synthesize the law into quick blurbs, and they can be used on exams for rule statement purposes. If you already know exactly what you’re going to say, you’re a few steps ahead.
- When should you start?
- Outlining can take a lot of time. It’s quite a task compiling all those class notes into a neat, ordered outline. Generally, you want to give yourself enough time to review the material as you compile your outline. I would say the earlier the better, at least at this point in the semester. You want to give yourself enough time before the exam to take practice exams and problems.
You are almost there, but that is no excuse to let your personal health go down the tubes. It is crucial to keep your priorities in proper order. A slew of studies point to the value of sleep, exercise, and a proper diet on your cognitive ability. A law school exam is neither like the LSAT nor your undergraduate level classes. All night cramming will not help you on an exam (generally). Take your health seriously in this next month, and if you find yourself burning out, recognize it and adjust your plan. Take a few hours off, and go for a walk. However, above all, trust and believe in yourself.