Advice from the Trenches for Incoming 1Ls: On Outlining and Exam Preparation

Advice for Incoming 1Ls Part III (Studying and Exam Prep)This week we welcome back Kala Mueller to finish up her series offering advice to incoming 1Ls from those who have gone through it already. She’ll complete the series with a discussion about studying and exam prep.

Now that you’re all well-versed on the rigors of law school and the importance of self-care, we’ll round out the series with a discussion of study habits. It’s worth noting that of all the feedback I received from students on what they wish they had known before starting law school, very little of it pertained to studying. At the risk of stating the obvious, I think this is, perhaps, an indication that it’s not the most important thing for you to know as you embark on this journey.

As I said in the first post in this series, you’ve likely read or received a lot of different advice on what does and doesn’t work, how and when you should outline, the best way to approach exam preparation, etc. It can be overwhelming and hard to determine at this stage which strategies are actually going to be the most effective for you, so in one regard, I am hesitant to heap more advice of this nature on to the pile. However, I thought the feedback regarding outlining and exam preparation was relatively general (and good) advice that should be helpful for most students. And, of course, you have the ability to decide whether or not to use it.

Don’t Let Outlining Intimidate You

First things first. What exactly is this “outlining” business you keep hearing about? We all know what an outline is, generally, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know what’s expected in the context of law school. In her article on Keys to Outlining in Law School, Alexa Galloway described a law school outline as “a tool that organizes and summarizes a semester’s worth of material from both what you’ve learned in class and from your reading.”

2L Kimberly Barton said that going into law school, she thought that outlining was “a magical key to success” and hyped it up so much that she avoided getting started on one, which she described as “a big mistake.” She added:

“Outlining is easier than you think. Have faith and get started. […] You’ve probably been outlining for classes for at least four years of high school and four years of college. Law school didn’t invent it. They just changed the order. Your classes give you the bullet points and you have to figure out the headings. If you don’t know where to start, just create study guides and review like you normally would. You’ll eventually be able to consolidate the material and reorganize it as you become more familiar with it.”

Spend Some Time Organizing Your Notes

One of the topics in the previous post on self-care was the importance of creating a schedule. Well, here’s another thing from 2L Nichole Costanzo you can pencil into your daily planner:

“I would say the thing I finally realized second semester was how important organizing your notes right after class was. In my first semester, I always told myself I would do it at the end of the week, then I would never get to it because I had other things to keep up with. This made outlining so much more challenging. In my second semester, I stayed in the classroom after each class to “clean up” my notes for about 5-10 minutes. This helped me review and retain the dense material I was just bombarded with, while feeling less overwhelmed when it came time to organize all of my notes for my outlines.”

I think this is a really great piece of advice and an especially good strategy to employ if more formal outlining feels overwhelming to you early in law school.

Prioritize Exam Preparation

This probably doesn’t come as a surprise given that all or nearly all of your grade for the semester will come down to a single exam, but preparing for exams should be your number one priority. One of the keys to success for 2L Madison Huber was doing as many practice exams as possible. Here’s her advice:

“I would suggest having a rough outline finished for each class at least 3 weeks in advance. Then spend the 3 weeks prior to exams taking as many practice exams as you can. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to take practice exams. It is the best way to alleviate any test taking nerves so that the day of the only thing you’re focused on is getting your ideas onto paper.”

As the semester starts to wind down and you’re thinking of lots of excuses to justify not starting practice exams, I hope you’ll remember Madison’s advice and get after it.

Best of luck to all of you on the wild ride that is law school. You got this!

For more helpful advice, check out these additional resources:


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About Kala Mueller

Kala Mueller is the Director of Public Interest Programs at the University of Nebraska College of Law. She received her B.S. in Criminal Justice from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School, where she served as a senior editor for the Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society. Before joining the law college, Kala worked as a prosecutor and with a civil litigation firm where she practiced primarily in the area of personal injury defense. She lives in Lincoln, NE with her husband and three sons.

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