Guest Post by Swathi Sreerangarajan, Santa Clara Law 1L
[Jess’ note: Law school might require you to develop new study habits, especially remote law school. Everyone has a different way of studying. And importantly, everyone has a different idea of success. When I was a 1L, I found it useful to learn about the different ways my peers were studying as I was trying to figure out what worked for me. This is one student’s approach.]
My classmates and I finished an unprecedented first semester of remote law school. It was weird, it was brutal, and it was transformative. With an acknowledgment of the incredible luck and privilege that has allowed me to stay alive and healthy and able to focus on school, I wanted to take this time before the new semester to reflect on my study habits and share what I think served me well.
This is not for everyone, but I would try to finish my readings for the whole week by Sunday night. This worked really well for me as a student, but it also meant sacrificing family time and ignoring my husband and 2-year-old for big chunks of time. Not ideal, but I want to maintain this pattern of reading a week ahead, so I will have to find ways to accomplish this without burning all my weekend hangout time. My process:
On Friday afternoons, I made a list that (given the number of pages) completely freaked me out; I then spent the rest of the weekend racing to read everything on that week’s list. It’s probably relevant to note here that I did not brief or take any high-level notes at this time, so this was relatively fast; the goal was simply to comprehend, making minimal annotations and highlights for future reference. I did this because trying to brief/take notes without a fuller picture frustrated me and slowed me down. Carving out time to just read was liberating–I could focus on absorbing the material and could follow various tangents without feeling the pressure to translate it all into digestible notes. This first pass took me about 10-12 hours of weekend time, roughly. Sometimes there would be a couple of additional hours for legal writing homework.
Before class: I had blocks of time reserved before each class to go over the reading a second time, typically no earlier than a day before the class meeting. During this second read, I was a more demanding reader with little time for anything but the main takeaways. Having done a full sweep of the week’s reading, I found it easier to distill and enumerate key concepts and write (very terse) briefs. I found writing by hand helped me remember things better, and I would leave space around my writing to plug in relevant notes from class. I was then ready for class with a sort of half-filled template for that day’s notes.
During class: Each professor has a different style and you kind of have to adapt your own approach accordingly, so I don’t have a very helpful description here. Some classes were too fast paced for me to write things down directly into my pre-filled notes, so I scribbled things down separately and synthesized them later. But mostly, I just focused on listening and participating. Having my pre-class notes out front helped me keep track of my understanding and frame any questions I had about the material quickly along the way.
Lastly, 15-20 minutes after class were spent reviewing/combining notes and checking again for comprehension. If I had specific questions, I emailed the professor right away. If it was a less immediate question, I wrote it down somewhere to pick up at another time. Then, I saved all of my paper notes in OneNote (see below) and….one class, done. Rinse and repeat for the next. If you like speed, this method does not make much sense at all. But it really worked to drill these concepts into my brain, and I think it saved me a lot of time and stress during exam time. Knowing what I know now, I really do think reading and preparing for each class is the ultimate form of exam preparation and is non-negotiable for good grades.
On average, I attended about 3-4 times total for each class over the course of the semester. It was always great to get some relaxed/social time with the professor and other students who attended. But I think going once a month (and no more) is the sweet spot for me. This is probably true of in-person office hours as well, but I found virtual zooms took time I would otherwise have used to work through the material and practice for exams. And most professors are generous about emails and will typed detailed answers when needed, so I feel that emails work just fine when you have very specific, clearly defined questions. But this depends–if you need more general guidance in understanding the material, attending office hours early and often is probably the best idea.
Mediocre outlining worked out just fine for me. Outlines are probably overrated. It really helps to make them—but understand that they are one of many useful study tools to choose from. Nearly all of my exams were open book, but I did not look at my outline for a single one of them. Because of all the mythology around outlining, I treated outlines like some kind of sacred creations that must be finalized before I took practice exams. This only made me procrastinate; plus, it wasn’t actually until I tried a few practice exams that I started to understand what actually needed to go into my outline. I did eventually complete outlines for all my classes, but they were pretty barebones and hastily thrown together in between practice problems. It helped to read my own outline in addition to reading the Barbri, Crunchtime, and upperclassmen outlines on the day before the final. But next semester, I’m not letting myself get all that stressed about outlining.
Striving to find logical, intuitive ways to save my work and organize the material was completely worth the effort. I like Microsoft OneNote, and I keep separate notebooks for each class, further divided into separate sections for each unit of the course. This is where I scan my handwritten notes (via my phone–very low tech) and copy paste important sentences from pdfs. I also make separate pages within each section for professor hypos. I have a “big picture” section in each course notebook where I put professors’ exam advice, store my thoughts about various topics within the class, and keep a running list of questions for the professor that I want to ask at some point. During the semester, I would look at this list of questions time to time and cross things off as they were answered/clarified. Writing down these questions took some discipline, but I found articulating them really helped me engage with the class and the material better. I also found this list helpful for getting more value out of office hours.
I’ve listed what worked well for me, but there are so many ways I could be better. For example: because I had a young kid and we were living through crazy covid times when childcare sometimes felt uncertain, I felt I had little time for anything else besides studying and said ‘no’ to a lot of things. That was isolating and even a little unnecessary, and I regret not taking the time to get to know my classmates better. Another great use of my time would have been extracurriculars that help build various kinds of career competencies. Being well-rounded is so important. They say success is about having clear goals, so here is my dream list for the spring: I want the pandemic to end. I want the motivation to take more walks and to refrain from doom-scrolling. And I want all of Jess Miers’s energy and people skills.