Tips for Hand-Writing a Law School Exam

For those law school students who have the option of using a computer or hand-writing an exam, here are some factors to consider before presuming that the benefits of typing outweigh those of writing by hand.

Today I took the first of my 2L exams. After traveling through a blizzard to make it to school, I was unpleasantly surprised when my computer, running ExamSoft‘s Softest application, hung on restart and deleted my test template.

I could still take the exam, having lost only a few minutes to the rip-the-battery-out-and-pray battle with my Vista system, but it required a lot more physical effort, putting a pencil to paper in a dreaded “blue book” (not to be confused with the alternate law school enemy, the Blue Book).

After a few deep breaths, I recalled the fundamental rules for writing out a law school essay by hand:

  • Outline your answer first
  • Use lots of subheadings
  • Double-space and write legibly

When I finished the exam, with just a minute to spare, I was disheartened by the fact that my essay was probably many fewer words than my classmates’ and that my handwriting might be off-putting to the professor. But then I thought about some of the benefits of being forced into the hand-writing scenario:

  • I was darn sure about what I wrote before I wrote it. Writing by hand takes much more precision than the stream of consciousness created by typing frantically for three hours straight.
  • I had zero post-exam stress about the test file uploading or submitting correctly. In fact, it was quite cathartic to walk to the front of the room with a tidy stack of papers, literally leaving it behind me when I walked out.
  • My exam will stand out. I guess this could be good or bad. But let’s say the prof is facing a pile of identical printouts and just a few hand-made essays. I would like to think that having my exam read first, or last, might be a good thing. If nothing else, the professor will probably have to read my exam more slowly, which I can only hope means he won’t skim over any bits that will garner some points.

The lesson here is that there is benefit in thinking through a problem deeply enough to put it into words on a tangible page. Whether or not you choose to hand-write any of your exams, it can’t hurt to approach every essay as if your professor was going to be muddling through your chicken-scratch: make it worth reading.

Good luck to all the other law students who are currently suffering through exams!

Featured image: “Young female student with others writing notes in the classroom” from Shutterstock.


  1. Avatar Eric Fink says:

    I suspect Laura may be on to something in identifying advantages to hand-writing v. computers for essay exams. It would certainly be an interesting issue to explore with some empirical research, and I just might pursue that. In any event, as a professor, I do endorse Laura’s advice for those who do choose to hand-write. Well-thought-out, clearly organized, concise answers are almost always better than stream-of-consciousness brain dumps.

  2. Avatar Laura Bergus says:

    Professor Fink,
    I’m so relieved to hear that a professor agrees with this, even in part. Getting past the adrenaline of the computer failure made it tough to see anything positive in the situation. Also, a couple students I discussed this with totally disagreed with my assessment. Now I just have to hope that my prof agrees with you! :)

  3. Sam Glover Sam G. says:

    I agree with you, too. I think hand-writing notes is superior, and for many of the same reasons, can be just as good as a laptop for exams, if not better.

    While I was in law school, I used a laptop for note-taking for about a day, before I realized it was actually impeding my ability to process the information. Most students would be better off not taking any notes at all than trying to copy down every word the professor says.

    For exams, where the goal is basically to spot as many issues as possible, and dump them onto the page with some quick analysis, a pen can be just as effective, and if done well, better than a laptop.

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