The Curse of the Take Home Exam

I said I would write another blog post weeks (months?) ago and am just now on a surprisingly warm and sunny mid-January day sitting down to make good on that well intentioned promise.  My procrastination may have had something to do with a hellacious fall quarter we just finished, a post summer hangover,  the weighty uncertainty about what exactly comes after the impending liberation of graduation in March, or perhaps it was the take home final that we just turned in.

More on the other subjects in future posts (which I am herby making a public promising to write) but I must first unburden myself on the subject of take home finals while the memory is still freshly seared into the tender flesh of my weary brain.

At 11:51 on Friday night Dec. 9, 2011, we received an e-mail with our 16- page final exam for the two-part pricing and data driven marketing course we just completed. Ten pages of rigorous analysis had to be turned in by Jan. 5.  No problem, plenty of time! A few problems a day, I thought, and I can knock that sucker out without even breaking a sweat.  Right?

Well, if you haven’t been in school for a while, let me remind you how it works in the real world. To start, you won’t even the notice when the e-mail hits your inbox like a 100 pound brick because on Friday nights you dress up as a regular schmuck and try to play the part of someone who has friends, a family, hobbies, reads things that aren’t assigned and occasionally even eats things that don’t come pre-made from Trader Joe’s.  And besides, that bottle of scotch was going to spoil soon anyway.

While drinking coffee and checking Facebook on Sunday morning (ok, so sometimes I take Saturday off, too) everyone is moaning about how uncool it is to drop that final on us while we are four levels deep into the mind bending subject of global econ.  Here we are, trying to shift IS-BB-LM curves around without pulling something and already running dangerously low on usable mental capacity.  Some of us may have taken a break to read through the exam (well, the first few pages at least) but only the most daring few actually did anything more than that.  In the real world you will put off any serious work on an assignment until shortly before it is due.

A week later you walk out of the econ final and realize that despite how dreadful you feel, there doesn’t seem to be any bleeding.  You will recover from these wounds and live to tell about what felt like another harrowing, near death experience…at business school of all places.  For now it is time to have a  few beers, let the color return to your face, do your last-minute Christmas shopping, try to catch up at work and prepare for your spouse’s entire family to descend on you for a week over the holidays.  Ahh, sweet relaxation! (Your definition of that word changes when you go back to school – just wait.)

You tried to ignore the shadow cast by the looming final over the holidays but after New Year’s you finally force yourself to sit down with the sharp new iPad stylus that was in your Christmas stocking and start this thing in earnest.  It’s not long before you realize that this thing is going to take you hours.  Days.  Maybe the whole week.

Crap.

Why didn’t I start this earlier?  Why do use a dictionary for the very first question? Why is this stuff not in my notes?  Or the lecture slides?

…Did I actually take this class?

I am full of questions at this point but unfortunately very, very empty of answers.  So I back away.  Take a deep breath.  Go to the next page….or the next….or maybe the next.  On page three I finally find a break in the prickly madness, someplace where it looks like I might be able to get through the weeds and I slowly started to make my way in.

It was nice (“nice” in the same way as finding out you only need one root canal rather than two) to only study for the econ exam on our last class weekend of the quarter, but I would have rather gotten this one out of the way at the same time as well. Even if the wounds would have taken longer to heal, take home exams just prolong the pain and agony.  When you aren’t working on it you feel like you should be and then when you get to it, you realize it is way more of a “learning opportunity” than anything they could have squeezed into a 3.5 hour classroom exam.

In the end, I put in over 20 hours of solid effort on this exam but cannot lie – I got to a point where I had enough thorns in my side that I just wanted to hand in something that had an answer for every question so I could put an end to the exercise and start the drinking.  Oh sorry – I meant “healing” of course!

Whatever the outcome, I gave a good effort, lived to tell about it, and although I may be slightly loath to admit this, even learned a few more things about pricing in the process.

Elizabeth Rogers, an Executive MBA student at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, blogs about her journey through an EMBA program for Poets&Quants. Her earlier posts:

Introducing Elizabeth, an EMBA Student at Chicago Booth

Finding Your Rhythm

School’s Out For Summer

What’s Really Harder Than The Soft Stuff

My Favorite MBA Study Tool: The iPad

Don’t Study

The Data Behind Our Decisions

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