Taking the Exam

When you log in to take the Writing Exam, you will find a few pages of information and questions before you reach the actual placement exam.

Page 1: First is the Harvard College Honor Code, along with a brief prompt asking for your reflections. You will write a 2-3 paragraph response to the Honor Code. This is not part of the timed portion of the exam.

Page 2: Next is the honor pledge indicating that all the work you submit for the placement exam is your own.

Page 3: Next is a brief survey about your writing background before coming to Harvard. The survey questions do not count as part of your timed work on the exam; the 72 hours you have to read the source and write your essay begin only when you have entered the exam itself.

Page 4: The last page before the placement exam prompt and reading gives you advice and instructions about taking the Writing Exam. A version of that information is included below to help answer any questions you might have before taking the exam. For answers to additional questions, see the Frequently Asked Questions section of these pages.

These first four untimed pages do not count toward your 72-hour limit.

Page 5: The timed portion of the Writing Exam begins here. The final page is the placement exam itself, containing the source you will read for the exam and the prompt for the essay you will write. We expect that it will take you several hours to read the source and several hours to write the essay. The source you will read totals approximately 20 pages. You have a maximum of 72 hours in which to do the reading and complete the placement exam. (If you start your exam fewer than 72 hours before your exam window ends, your essay will still be due before your exam window closes.) Given the scope of the exam, you should not plan on being able to complete the reading and write the essay in one sitting.

  • Navigating the exam pages.  Do not click the “back” button on your browser to return to an earlier page of the exam. Once you have completed a particular page, you will not be able to access it again. If you need to access a copy of these instructions once you’ve begun writing your essay, please return to the Writing Program website.
  • Starting the exam.  The 72-hour limit for the exam will begin after you read the instructions page and as soon as you open the next page (the final page of the exam). Those 72 hours include the time you will spend reading the prompt and the source, as well as the time you will spend writing your essay. Even if you are logged out of the placement exam system while you write, the 72-hour clock is running. (Please note that we do not expect you to spend the full 72 hours working on the essay; we give you that much time so that you can move back and forth between this exam and your other commitments.)
  • You must submit your essay by the end of this 72-hour limit (or the end of your exam window, whichever comes first). You will not be able to access the source and prompt at one time and begin your 72-hour limit later.
  • The essay prompt.  When you open the final placement exam page, you will see the prompt giving you the instructions for writing the essay. It contains a few paragraphs explaining the topic of the placement exam, followed by directions explaining the kind of essay you will write. You will also find a copy of the prompt available as a PDF if you want to print and keep a copy in front of you as you write.
  • The reading.  Below the prompt, you will find a “Guide to the Source” page that offers bibliographic information for the source. You should read this page before reading the source itself.

You will also find a link to the source you will read for the placement exam. You should use no other sources to write your essay.

The link gives you the option of downloading the source from the electronic resources within the Harvard library; you should be able to access the source with a high-speed Internet connection. If you have difficulty with the Internet connection, there are alternate links that will take you to the source in other formats. To be sure that you retain access to the source while you write your exam, please save the downloaded source to your computer. Please be aware that the source link may require a few minutes to load; we appreciate your patience, and please click only once.

If you do not yet have Adobe or some other program on your computer allowing you to access a PDF, please go to https://get.adobe.com/reader and access the free Adobe Reader download before you begin the exam.

  • Composing your essay.  Do not compose your essay directly in the placement exam screen itself. You should write your essay in a word processing program, saving your work as you go, and then copy and paste your final essay into the essay window on the placement exam screen. Do not paste text into the program if you are leaving and returning to the exam page—copy and paste your final essay only when you are done. Please note that a right-click copy/paste might not work well with some browsers. If you have trouble copying and pasting, keyboard commands should work (Ctrl-C Ctrl-V for Windows, Cmd-C Cmd-V for Mac). Your final essay should be about 750 - 1000 words in length.
  • Citing the source.  When you are quoting or paraphrasing from the source, you should cite the relevant page number. Please use an in-text citation format, putting the page number in parentheses at the end of the sentence. For example, a citation from page 200 in a source by John Harvard would read (Harvard 200). The placement exam software will not accommodate footnotes. (For an example of MLA in-text citation format, consult the Harvard Guide to Using Sources.)
  • Submitting your essay.  Once you have accessed the reading and the prompt, you can exit the placement exam or close your browser page to work on your essay. When you are ready to log back in to submit your essay, simply return to the placement exam log-in and re-enter your HarvardKey. The exam will return you to the page you exited. The clock on the placement exam page will keep track of your allotted time. Only press “submit” when you are finished with your essay, as you will not be allowed to make any edits once your essay has been submitted.

For answers to additional questions about the Writing Exam, see the Frequently Asked Questions page.

If your question is not answered there, please email expos@fas.harvard.edu.

For help with technical issues, please email ithelp@harvard.edu.

For all petitions regarding exam dates, please go to the Online Placement Exam Registration Application