Exam Prep Made Simple: Organize Your Thoughts

OutlineIf you’ve never taken a law school exam before, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. There’s a lot to know, and what you’ve done in class has little relationship to what you’ll be tested on.

After giving the matter lots of thought (a luxury you only have when you’re not actually taking exams!), I’ve concluded two factors are critical to success:

  1. Organization
  2. Practice

Keep your focus on these two aspects of your exam prep, and you’ll spend your study time productively. Stray, and you might end up spinning your wheels and wasting time.

This post focuses on Organization, and Practice will be coming soon.

(Notice the title says “Simple,” not “Easy.” This technique is conceptually simple, but can be challenging to implement. That’s not a bad thing.)


I’ve talked before about how important it is to organize your materials. That’s part of what I’m talking about here, and you should definitely pay attention to the organization of your outline, study aids, etc.

What I’m really talking about here, is the way you organize your thoughts. That’s going to be different for each person.

Work With Your Natural Learning Style

You may be familiar with the concept of learning styles. Reasonable people disagree about how precisely you can classify yourself into any one category, but, in a nutshell, there are three major ways people learn:

  • Visual: learns by reading and seeing; prefers using images, pictures, colors, and maps to organize information
  • Auditory: learns by listening and speaking; prefers verbal instructions and retains information better after discussing it
  • Kinesthetic: learns by touching and doing; prefers to jump in and get dirty, writes down information to clarify thoughts

Looking at this list, it’s easy to see that different people can successfully prepare for law school exams in different ways. We’ll get into the specifics, but keep in mind that you always have a choice. If something doesn’t seem to be working for you (even if it’s something everyone tells you that you have to do), try something else. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

The Traditional Advice

Most advice about preparing for law school exams goes something like this:

Go to every class. Read every case. Brief every case. Make an outline. Study the outline. Learn to IRAC. Take some practice exams. Take the exam.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this advice, exactly, and it has some grains of truth. But it’s not very targeted, is it? I think we can do better!

Keep in mind the ultimate goal — to organize your understanding of the course material so that you can apply it successfully on each exam. How you get to that goal might differ from class to class, and from day to day. Having a variety of techniques to experiment with can only help.

Techniques For Visual Learners

So, if you tend to be a visual learner, what’s missing in the standard advice? In some ways it suits you well — you learn well by reading, so you’re probably pretty comfortable reading cases. But regurgitating cases isn’t the point of law school exams. If you think it is, please read this.

You’ve got to synthesize the material and understand the law, and a formal “outline” probably isn’t the best way for you to do that. You’re likely to be happier, and more productive, if you get a huge piece of paper and a bunch of colored pencils, and start diagramming the entire course. It’ll take you a few days, but, at the end of that time, you’ll have a reference that actually makes sense to you. Your friends might think you’re crazy, but so what? There’s no award for having the most boring outline!

Techniques for Auditory Learners

What pieces of the traditional advice don’t work for auditory learners? Well, the class discussion probably works great. Everything else, not so much.

If you’re primarily an auditory learner, your study group is critical. You’ve got to have people to discuss things with, because that’s how you solidify your own knowledge. If you can’t find a study partner, even explaining what you’re learning to a friend can help (it doesn’t actually matter if they understand what you’re saying — it’s primarily an exercise for you).

Many law students with a preference for auditory learning swear by taped lectures, either of their own professor or commercial versions (West’s Law School Legends and Sum and Substance series seem popular, although I’ve never listened to either, being a visual learner myself).

Techniques for Kinesthetic Learners

If you’re a kinesthetic learner, you probably find law school frustrating. Take heart — you might really like practicing law, since you’re constantly figuring things out on the fly as a real lawyer!

But the standard techniques of legal pedagogy aren’t all that well suited for your learning style. That’s not to say you can’t succeed. You can, but you’ll have to shape the experience to work for you more than some of your classmates will.

One option is to put yourself in the thick of things. Rather than making a traditional outline, pretend that you’ve been hired to argue a case that turns on the topic you’re studying. If you can get a classmate to argue the other side, even better. Then actually have the trial! Each of you gets to explain the facts and make your best legal arguments for why your client should prevail. (Maybe recruit an auditory learner friend to be the judge, and she’ll benefit from hearing both sides.) In the process, you’ll figure out the law. As soon as you understand it, write some flashcards. Tada! There’s your outline.

Please Tell Me You’re Not Serious?!?

Okay, maybe you think all these suggestions are crazy. What about briefing? What about outlining?

If those things work for you, great. Keep doing them.

But if you’re just doing them because someone told you to, or because it makes you feel better to be doing something serious and responsible (and boring and tedious), stop. You’re not actually learning anything, and you’re wasting valuable time.

Far better to risk scorn and know the material, than to do what everyone else is doing, and find out in the end that the standard approach didn’t work for you.

And, don’t tell anyone, but you might even find studying fun!

Read On:

More exam-related posts for your reading pleasure:

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