The Writing Exam

We are excited to welcome the Class of 2025. All admitted first-year students are required to take the Writing Exam prior to their first semester. The placement exam allows the Writing Program to make placement recommendations about how students should meet the expository writing requirement.

Who is required to take the exam?

All admitted first-year students are required to take the online placement exam over the summer prior to their first semester.  

What does the exam entail?

The format of the required Writing Exam differs from the other Harvard placement exams you will take this summer. The Writing Exam asks students to write an argumentative essay in response to several readings, totaling approximately 40 pages in length, that address a common topic. The exam is not designed to be taken in one sitting. Instead, you are given 72 hours to read the sources, reflect on the ideas, make note of your initial ideas, perhaps in an outline; draft an essay; and revise it into a finished essay that argues clearly for your ideas. 

The 72 hours for your exam will begin as soon as you log in and access the prompt and the source. When you begin the exam, you will find links to the sources as well as a detailed prompt giving you instructions and guidelines about the essay you will write. We expect that it will take you several hours to read the sources and several hours to write the essay. 

Before the timed portion of the exam, you will find a few pages of information and questions. You will read and reflect on the Harvard College Honor Code; answer some survey questions about your writing background before coming to Harvard; and read some more detailed instructions about taking the exam.  

How do I access the exam?

During the dates that the Writing Exam is open, you can access the exam here

The 72 hours for your exam will begin as soon as you log in and access the prompt and the sources. When you begin the exam, you will find a link to the sources as well as a detailed prompt giving you instructions and guidelines about the essay you will write.  

When do I need to complete the exam?

Students are expected to take the Writing Exam during the required exam period in June. 

  • Wednesday, June 2, 2021, Writing Exam opens 

  • Friday, June 18, 2021, Last day to begin Writing Exam (to have the benefit of the full 72 hours) 

  • Monday, June 21, 2021, Last day to complete Writing Exam 

Students who are unable to complete the exam during the June dates may submit a request to take the exam during a make-up exam period in July. Beginning in mid-May, the online registration system will be open for petitions.  

To receive your Expos placement recommendation on time, you must complete the Writing Exam during these available dates. In cases of unavoidable conflict, the Writing Program may grant extensions to students who are unable to complete the exam during the scheduled June dates or during the make-up period in July. Beginning in mid-May, the online registration system will be open for petitions.  

When will I receive my exam results and what do they mean?

The Writing Exam allows the Writing Program to advise students about the first-year expository writing requirement. Every placement exam is read by at least one member of the Writing Program faculty, who will use it as a basis for recommending whether students should enroll directly in Expository Writing 20 or whether they would be better served by enrolling first enrolling in the fall term elective, Expos Studio 10: Introduction to Expository Writing, prior to completing the writing requirement. The exams are evaluated for the strength of their argument, their work with the sources, their logical structure, and their clarity. Students will receive their placement recommendation in early August.

Students who are recommended for Expository Writing 20 will receive a term assignment which indicates whether they should plan to take Expos 20 in the fall or spring.

Students who are recommended for Expos Studio 10 will meet with a Writing Program faculty member in August to discuss their writing background, learn about Expos Studio 10 and Expos 20, and make an informed choice about which course to enroll in for the fall. (Expos Studio 10 is only offered in the fall term.) Students, recommended for Expos Studio 10, who choose not to follow the placement recommendation, will enroll in Expos 20 in the fall semester. 

*Students who are recommended for Expos 20 are also eligible to fulfill the writing requirement with Humanities 10a and 10b.   

Technical Tips and Tricks

Do not compose your essay in the placement exam screen. Write your essay in a word-processing program, saving your work as you go, and then then copy and paste your final essay into the essay window on the placement exam screen. Please save a final copy of your essay for yourself to ensure your work is not lost, in the event that there are any technical issues with your submission.

Any text you enter in the exam field will be lost if you log out, refresh the page, or refresh your remaining time.

Please note that the placement exam platform will not format footnotes; all citations should be in MLA parenthetical citation format (including author’s last name and page number from the source in the parentheses.) For more information about this citation format, please see the Harvard Guide to Using Sources.

Please also note that italics and underlining will be lost when you paste your text into the placement exam platform.

Still have questions?

For questions specific to the Writing Exam, please contact the Writing Program at: 

For general information and questions about other placement exams, contact: 

For technical issues during the exam, contact: | (617) 495-9000