Thanksgiving has come and gone, which means that, as a TA, I am starting to get a lot of questions from my students about finals. I would like to take this opportunity to pass on some of the things that I took away from my experience as a 1L regarding exam preparation. Keep in mind that these tips are things that worked for me. Everyone is different, and different things will work for different people. As such, my best piece of advice is to find out what works for you and to stick with that.
One common question many 1Ls have is what upperclassmen mean when they talk about “outlining.” The term is an example of the sort of law school jargon that becomes so essential to one’s vocabulary by the end of 1L year that it can be difficult to remember that we did not always know what it meant. In essence, outlining is a way of reviewing and synthesizing a semester’s worth of material. As a general caveat, not everyone in law school outlines. While most people do, some use alternative methods. For instance, I had a TA last year that made giant flashcards on each topic in lieu of outlining. I cannot speak for everyone else, but when I outline, I go back through all of my notes (both from class and from assigned reading) for a particular class and condense and assemble them into my best attempt at a coherent outline of the course. While most of my classes have allowed me to bring my outline into an exam, I almost never reference the outline on test day. It is the process of making the outline, rather than the existence of the outline itself, that renders me prepared on test day.
The SBA has posted a number of class outlines to its website, and many people find them very useful. What one uses them for will depend on one’s study style and how one learns. First semester of 1L year, I made my outlines completely from scratch. The following semester, I used preexisting outlines and edited them based on my own notes. Personally, I get more out of building my outlines from scratch. It takes longer, but it gives me a stronger command of the material and forces me to confront and resolve points of confusion head-on. This year, I will be making my outlines from scratch and then checking them against an old outline after the fact. While this is my own personal take on outlining, I have plenty of friends who swear by preexisting outlines.
The format of the outline is important. I am a firm believer that longer is not better, and that it is in fact worse. This is less true if you are facing a closed-book exam, but even if you cannot bring your outline into the test, forcing yourself to condense the course to fewer than 20 pages (I usually end up at 13-17 pages) will take more mental effort and is therefore more likely to force you to engage with the material more deeply. Additionally, if you are bringing your outline into an exam, you want to be able to use it. If your outline is 80 pages long, referencing it is going to slow you down. In the time-pressured environment of the exam, that is a very bad thing. I ended up striking a happy medium. I came into the exam with both a long outline, containing more detailed discussions of each concept, and a short, concise outline that occasionally cited to a page of the longer outline in case I wanted to pull a longer policy argument from the bigger outline. I never had to reference the long outline, but it was there if I needed it. Page numbers and a table of contents are also crucial to allow you to access the information in your outline quickly.
The best thing you can do to prepare yourself for an exam is to take practice exams. Many professors make their old exams available to students as the semester draws to a close. 1Ls can also ask around for these exams, as some upperclassmen might have access to the practice exams that they used to study. You should take practice exams under the same conditions under which you will be taking the real thing. You should time yourself strictly and according to the stated time limit for a particular exam. You should take your exam in a quiet place, such as a library. Additionally, you should use any materials that you intend to use on the exam. On the flip side of that, avoid using materials that you will not be allowed to bring into the exam (for example, if your professor has stated that the only book you can bring in for the exam is the textbook, do not use an E&E during your practice exams).
The one exception to this rule arises in situations in which you have a totally closed-book exam, or an exam into which you are allowed to bring a single sheet of paper. If you have a sufficient number of practice exams for that class (three or more) and you are not yet fully prepared for the exam when you take the first of these practice versions, I would recommend using your outline so that you can still get a decent practice run out of the exam. It is more important for you to practice the process of crafting an exam answer in a timed environment than it is for you to test your memorization of the material, so long as you have the material memorized in time to do a closed-book practice exam. Afterward, you can make a note of things that you missed, had trouble recalling, or only remembered because of your outline. You can also tag particularly important information for inclusion in your “one-pager.”
Especially as a 1L, it can be easy to get caught up in an arms race of sorts in which students overhear others discussing their own preparation methods and feel the need to “one-up” their peers, and so on and so on in a vicious cycle of color-coded panic. While it is next to impossible to avoid hearing about your classmate’s incredibly condensed outline or the five supplements the biggest gunner in your section supposedly read, do your best to tune it out. While some of this is often puffery, the main point is that the same study methods and materials do not work for everyone. Instead, be honest with yourself. Do you have a deep understanding of the material? Have you been hitting most of the points on your practice exams? Have you put in a solid number of hours of studying each day? If your answer to these sorts of questions is yes, you are probably on track to be ready for the exam. Do not feel pressured to pull an all-nighter in the library “cave” just because your best friend is doing so. Do not feel that you have to mirror the actions of all of your peers. So long as you are honest with yourself about your level of preparation, stick to whatever seems to be working for you. Above all, do not panic.