Outlining (Creating Study Tools)

The student's development of an outline is not merely an act of summarizing or synthesizing. It is a process of creative intelligence by which (the student) must force the material of the course into a coherent, organized, meaningful form. –Arthur Vanderbilt

Outlining may not be the best term to describe this process. Your study tool may look more like a flow chart or a set of flash cards or a combination of different organizing tools. It's the PROCESS of synthesizing that readies you for the final exam.

Why Outline?

  • It enables you to condense and organize a semester's worth of disheveled course materials into a manageable tool that you can understand, study and memorize.
  • The process of reviewing and manipulating the course materials helps you master the material.
  • Preparing an outline forces you to think about the concepts, theories and rules.

When to Outline

  • Some students outline weekly. Others outline after the completion of each chapter or concept. Do what works for you and that particular class, but whatever you do, DO NOT PROCRASTINATE.
  • Once you begin your outline, keep up with it by setting outlining goals.
  • Outlining takes longer than you may think. Reserve time slots in your study schedule specifically for outlining.
  • Your outline should be complete by the start of the exam study period.

Outline Format

  • There are no format rules. Experiment to find what works for you.
  • Before selecting a format, think about the course material as a whole and consider the most logical and organized way to present the material.
  • Don't know where to start? Consider looking at the table of contents in your case book for ideas on how to organize the material. Use the headings in the book and then add your class notes.
  • Consider whether the exam will be open or closed book. For closed-book exams, make the outline short enough to memorize. For open book exams, try a beefier outline with a table of contents, key word index or tabs so you can quickly navigate the outline during the exam.
  • The format should help you analyze legal issues and create a framework for legal arguments.
  • Break concepts down into elements.
  • Organize by topic, not by cases (classify and synthesize the cases into groups).
  • Use cases and class hypotheticals to illustrate concepts.

Outline Essentials

The outline should contain:

  • Key points from every class
  • Not the whole brief from every important case, just key points
  • Don't forget to note cases mentioned in class.
  • Every rule of law, with variants, exceptions, minority/majority splits.
  • Every legal theory and doctrine
  • Policy considerations (crucial for some professors)
  • All arguments and ideas learned during the semester (consider arguments for both sides of every issue)
  • Professor's buzz words, key phrasing
  • Anything the professor wrote on the board
  • Exam tips and strategies: create an "attack sheet" to work out ahead of time what steps to go through in analyzing a given issue.
  • Important hypotheticals from class

Some Typical Outlining Mistakes

  • Failure to create your own outlines. Reliance on commercial outlines or outline-swapping do you a disservice: you will not gain the in-depth knowledge of the material that you need to do well on the exam.
  • Failure to start outlining until November (or April).
  • Creating an outline that is too lengthy to commit to memory. If your outline is unwieldy, try synthesizing a shorter capsule version that keys into the fuller version.
  • Failure to break concepts down into elements.

Mastering the Study Tool BEFORE Taking the Exam

  • Memorize your outline; rehearse it as you would to prepare for a part in a play.
  • Use your outline to create other study aids: attack sheets, flash cards, flow charts, diagrams, tables or charts, whatever works for you. Each time you re-structure the material, you improve retention and understanding.
  • Use your outline while taking practice exams to reveal where your outline is lacking. Fix it before the actual exam, especially if the exam is open-book.


Please visit Academic Success & Bar Programs in Warren Hall room 206, call (619) 260-4793 or email lawacademicsuccess@sandiego.edu.


Academic Success and Bar Programs
Warren Hall, Room 206
Phone: (619) 260-4793
Fax: (619) 260-7715


Mon. 8:30-6:30 p.m.
Tue. 8:30- 5 p.m.
Wed. 9:30-5 p.m.
Thur., Fri. 8:30-5 p.m.

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