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Empire Prep: Tips for choosing between handwriting and typing the bar exam

Bar Exam

Should you handwrite or type the Multistate Performance Tests (MPTs) and Multistate Essay Exams (MEEs) portions of the bar exam? Do the bar examiners grade the handwritten essays differently from typed essays?

Maybe I can’t answer that second question for you, since grading can be rather subjective in a world of supposed objectivity. All you need is one examiner grading your MPTs and MEEs in a bad mood to ruin your chances of passing the bar. In reality though, you have a fairly equal chance of becoming a licensed attorney regardless of whether you are a handwriting or laptop candidate.

Determining which option will work better for you depends on a number of factors. The top three which will be addressed in turn are (1) computer complications, (2) focused writing, and (3) testing environments.

Computer complications

Examsoft (or the latest bar exam software) is nothing less than a total nightmare. The process of paying for, downloading, and testing a software which ultimately crashes or doesn’t function during the exam sets the perfect stage for sheer and utter disaster.

For laptop candidates, there is always the chance that the computer will crash, leaving handwriting as the only solution. Even brand new computers can experience severe complications during the exam. In the past, candidates have experienced power outages during which there were no pauses in the exam. Not having enough power to complete the exam is equally as dreadful as having a non-functioning computer.

Handwriting candidates, on the other hand, eliminate any and all stress generally associated with a catastrophic computer failure. There are no costs associated with handwriting the bar exam. Nor do handwriting candidates have to concern themselves with using a software which could potentially freeze up.

Focused writing

Laptop candidates have the temptation to start writing even before having finished reading and fully comprehending the question(s) being asked. This subsequently leads laptop candidates to jump around a lot in answering questions. Laptop candidates do however have the added benefit of copying and/or cutting and pasting responses throughout. The opportunity to edit is unmatched compared to that of handwriting candidates.

Handwriting candidates do not have the same editing abilities as laptop candidates. The editing of grammar and/or misspelling of words is limited to crossing out words or potentially drawing arrows to guide the graders in reading the response. Handwriting candidates must be intentional in first analyzing the question being asked in order to produce a particularly neat and organized response.

Two common myths about handwriting candidates are that:

  1. Their writing hand will cramp up and that
  2. The candidate will not be able to produce an answer as substantive to that of a laptop candidate.

First, while I would agree that handwriting multiple essays for many hours is an unsettling thought, handwriting candidates are able to prevent cramping  by simulating the bar exam experience over several months of preparation prior to exam day. Simulating the bar exam experience reduces the potential of a sore hand and/or illegible writing on exam day.

Second, handwriting candidates are able to write equally as substantive MPTs and MEEs as laptop candidates. Some candidates arguably cannot write at a speed fast enough to gain points on the exam. However, for reasons previously stated, handwriting candidates are not at a disadvantage compared to laptop candidates. The inability to make edits to answers motivates a handwriting candidate to be laser focused in writing an effective response from the get go.

Testing environments

Both laptop and handwriting candidates must personally ensure that they place themselves in a comfortable environment when taking the bar exam. Laptop candidates are placed in a massive stadium-sized room where they are seated along one thousand similarly-situated examinees. The harsh and perpetual sound of “clack-clack-clack-clack-clack” on a keyboard can present a difficult environment in which to focus and ear plugs can only do so much to block out the noise.

In comparison, handwriting candidates are placed in a remote, temperature-controlled, cozy-sized classroom, fit for approximately 35-50 people. A smaller environment means that there are significantly fewer distractions and an elimination of the sound of a thousand people typing.

Ultimately, candidates have to do what works best for them. It is a good idea to practice both handwriting and typing during your exam preparation to be able to transition stress free (or as stress free as possible) should Plan A turn to Plan B. Remember that the bar exam does not require perfection on any one section. Candidates only need enough points to get licensed. You can do it.

Good luck!

Heather Bowen Heather Bowen is an intellectual property and licensing counsel in New York. She has protected intellectual property and licensing portfolios, negotiated and reviewed domestic licensing agreements, and strategically counseled internal legal, finance, sales, and marketing teams. She has continued to stay abreast of developments in intellectual property law through publications as well as her effective leadership and involvement in committees of the American Bar Association, the Hispanic National Bar Association, the International Trademark Association, and the New York Intellectual Property Law Association.