Typing v. Handwriting the bar exam

Although I am a huge proponent of typing the bar exam (and, in fact, I typed during both of the bar exams that I have taken), I will discuss what I believe are the pros and cons of each method.  Then, you can make up your own mind.


All bar jurisdictions of which I am aware permit examinees to take the bar exam using a laptop computer.  This requires the examinee to purchase overpriced exam software ($150 or more for a single exam) to secure his or her computer during the exam.  The added expense is worth it.

In my opinion, typing the exam on your computer is the clear winner.  Most people that I know can type much faster than they can write by hand.  I am no exception.  In fact, I actually believe that I can think better when I am typing that when I am writing something long-hand.  This is especially true when in an exam setting that demands quick regurgitation with minimal analysis.  If I am ruminating about my place in the universe, well, then, maybe I'll use a pencil and paper, especially since doodling helps me contemplate.

If you have taken all of your law school exams on a computer and have taken all of your outlines on a computer, then your brain is used to thinking about the law with a keyboard in front of it.  DO NOT change this for the bar exam.  Habituation is important  to the process of studying and exam performance.  Anticipate conditions and practice under those conditions.

There is, however, at least one negative to typing the exam:  a computer glitch.  At every bar exam, there are at least a handful of people whose computers crash, break, or otherwise fail to perform as expected.  This is terrible.  If you are anticipating taking the test on your computer, and it crashes in the middle of a performance test, you will likely freak.  This is an argument for using pen and paper. 

Of course, if you practice writing a few essays by hand during your studies, then you will be prepared for this.  I wrote a few essays and one entire performance test out by hand during my studies for the California bar exam to prepare for this eventuality.

Even with this fear of computer mayhem, I personally cannot imagine that I could have written enough or well enough or legibly enough to have passed a bar exam had I been hand-writing.  (Of course, there are some who can do it -- see comments to this post.)

[Note to MAC users:  I have known a few MAC people who borrow a beat-down 5-year-old PC on which to take the bar exam.  Then, because the computer has sat unused in someone's closet for the past year, the computer crashes during or shortly before the test.  Don't let this happen to you.  As far as I know, the exam software that all bar jurisdictions use is for PCs only.  So, you will need to have access to a working PC.  Since you can get a laptop for a few hundred dollars, I suggest you buy a new one if you can't borrow something less than two years old.  It is worth the expense for peace of mind.  There is another option, which is to run some sort of PC emulation software on you MAC.  I have no idea how to do this or how stable this is, so do this at your own risk.  If someone has done this, please post a comment.]

[UPDATE:  One commenter has stated that MAC users can now get bar exam software for their computers, so no need to use a PC if you don't have one.]


The only advantage I can see to this method is that you do not have any chance of a computer crash.  Seriously, unless you have cramp-less hands or are a luddite, I cannot imagine how writing the exam by hand can be of any advantage.

Of course, if you have such a severe phobia of computer crashes that will keep you from performing at your peak during the exam, then by all means, hand-write the bar.

If anyone out there can think of any other benefits to writing the exam by hand, please post a comment. 

[UPDATE:  Based on one of the comments to this post, I should add that if your thoughts flow better when handwriting and you feel that you can handwrite the volume of words needed on a bar exam, then you should hand write.  The key is using the tool (computer vs. pen) that YOU believe will get you the best result on the bar exam.

My judgment here may have been a bit harsh and does reflect my bias in favor of typing, though I do like to handwrite when I am thinking creatively, I do not like to handwrite when I am taking tests or explaining information gathered through research.]

[Photos:  bigpresch and kevinzim]


Forgery expert said...

This post reminds me of a long time ago when in school we used to have a subject (with proper lectures - although I don’t remember about the exams: P) called "handwriting improvement". It sounds quite a funny but helpful course now :)

Anonymous said...

Mac Users are now able to type the exam natively on MAC OS and MAC OS X systems.

Bar Advisor said...

@Anonymous -- Thanks for the information. I figured the bar people would eventually realize that MAC people are people too!

Anonymous said...

Handwriters go into the handwriting room (at least in Illinois), so there's no keyboard noise.

I think it'll depend on the person. I can type faster for sure, but I make a lot of typos whereas I make very few mistakes writing. Also, crossing stuff out is inelegant so I think my thoughts out more thoroughly before writing them.

Bar Advisor said...

@Anonymous July 10, 2012 -- Thanks for the insight as to other benefits of handwriting. I was recently talking with a colleague who took the California bar exam in 2006. He wrote it by hand. I couldn't believe he wrote 6 hour-long essays and 2 3-hours long PTs by hand, but he did and he passed the bar exam!

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

There is substantial science to show that memory is triggered by handwriting in children, and in adults learning a new cognitive skill. If you took your first bar before computers and know that your memory is triggered by hand writing, it seems like it could be a much safer bet. And studies have shown the handwriting boosts the brain's ability to memorize and comprehend. So . . . that's another reason to counter the post above which certainly doesn't engender confidence for the the handwriter.

Anonymous said...

It's possible that the time it takes to write something out gives your brain more time to think about it and memorize. I find taking notes by hand does help me to retain more information about any subject. Is there a study that compares the scores of groups who wrote the exams out versus groups who typed out the bar exam? If the difference is significant enough it could be reason to standardize the way the test is taken.

Anonymous said...

If one opts to type, are you able to use the editing tools in Word? It seems like it would be very helpful to be able to go back and add or delete text. I want to be sure that I can do that before I go ahead with my plan to type a February 2013 bar. Thanks in advance for any feedback...

Bar Advisor said...

Anonymous @1/27/2013

Unless things have changed drastically, you have the ability to edit your text when you type. You can delete, cut and paste, and use bold, underline, and italic. Other than saving, I believe those are the only word processor functions you have access to.

I would recommend checking out the website for whatever software you had to buy to type the exam. I would guess that it will explain the functionality of the software.

Anonymous said...

Thank you -- I'm in Hawaii and the Bar Examiners here aren't very forthcoming so I appreciate the feedback.

Anonymous said...

This was a ludicrous column. Clearly the writer is biased to begin with and doesn't even make a serious attempt to discuss handwriting.

Frankly, my thought processes are much more focused with handwriting. I can type very fast but I can keep a better train of thought with handwriting.

I also read that a comparison between handwritten and typed exams, the handwritten ones are much tighter.

Bar Advisor said...

I think ludicrous might go a little far. But, you are correct that I am biased towards typing. If your thoughts come better by handwriting, then by all means you should handwrite. In fact, I will revise the end of this blog post to include that idea.

Thanks for the input.

Anonymous said...

I passed the California exam a year ago and my computer did freak out and I had to hand write three of the essays. I then spent the entire lunch on the third day getting exam soft to reload. It was horrible, but I survived.

I am now preparing to take the Oregon bar and surprising to me, there is a character limit of 4,000 characters per essay. That includes spaces. If you hand write, you get three single sided pieces of paper. I can write pretty small and am wondering if I could get more information in by hand writing. Otherwise, I will have to unlearn double spacing after each sentence.

Bar Advisor said...

@Anonymous 6/6/2013

Yeah, isn't the character limit thing crazy? I took the Oregon bar before taking the Cal bar, so I spent a good deal of my study time figuring out ways to respond to essays as succinctly as possible. (Which I had to unlearn when I took California!)

I would suggest typing the exam, since it seems that is your default choice. Believe me, the character limit will require some practice, so you can unlearn the double spacing at the same time.

I would suggest this approach: write your initial practice essay responses with as many words as needed. Once you get back in the grove of spotting all the issues, then begin to work on shrinking the length of your responses. About a month out from the exam, you should try to hit the character limit on all your essays.

Greg said...

The DC bar exam doesn't allow you to use a laptop. I don't believe Puerto Rico does either.

Anonymous said...

Puerto Rico does allow laptops, and the laptop fee was $70 for the Sept 2014 test, iirc.

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