Running the Marathon: The 24-Hour Take-Home Exam

In the world of law school, there is an almost mythical creature called the 24-hour take-home exam. As far as I have heard, nobody has quite mastered the art of preparing for or taking such a behemoth of a test. I learned this semester that one of my courses would have a 24-hour take-home exam. Initially excited about the prospect of having 24 hours to craft my answers, I quickly became unnerved. What sorts of problems might our professor present, knowing we had 24 hours to think through and solve them?

Our professor reassured us that the exam would not be unreasonable, and should not take 24 hours to complete. He told us we should sleep, eat, and go about our days as normal. This was not reassuring, considering that this professor has the brain power of about ten Google servers, while I’m just your average law student. . . .

Unsure of how to prepare, I ended up studying just as I would have studied for a normal exam. I made an outline of the topics we studied in the course, and spent my study time applying concepts, re-reading cases, mapping out relationships between ideas. I studied the outlines of others who’d done well in the class in years’ past, covered my bedroom in post-it-notes, took released exams from previous years, and tried to let the subject matter seep into my brain.

On exam day, we were allowed to pick up the exam any time between 8:30 and 4:30; we had 24 hours from the time we picked up the test to return the completed exam to the registrar’s office. Without the usual exam proctor to pull the trigger for me, I stalled. There were just so many things I had to do before I could possibly pick up the test. Eventually, I had a spotless apartment and a suitcase packed for Christmas vacation. There was nothing left to do but hop on my bicycle and ride ever-so-slowly to school.

I presented myself to the registrar, picked up the exam, and walked into the library, holding the packet of fact patterns as if it was a bomb about to explode. I stared at it, unopened, for ten minutes, clutching it with sweaty hands. My fear was justified. While the exam was completely fair, it focused on the most conceptually difficult topics we had covered in the semester. I tackled it like a cartoon child tackling a giant football dummy, writing part of an answer here, part of an answer there, darting between prompts like a fiend. I should have known better. The 24-hour take-home is like the marathon of exams. Runners know better than to sprint the first five miles of a marathon. (I say this as if I have run a marathon, which I decidedly have not.) By hour five, I hit a brick wall.

The author at the point she lost most of her sanity...

The author at the point she lost most of her sanity…

I decided the best thing to do at that point was go home. The chilly winter air jolted me into a calmer state of mind. I pulled some stale spaghetti out of the fridge, paced a while around my apartment, and was ready to settle back into work. Things were finally flowing through my brain, but I had wasted so much time in my five-hour panic that I was concerned I might not actually finish the exam in 24 hours.

At 2 AM, I threw in the towel, collapsing in an exhausted heap for three hours before dragging myself back to my computer. At that point, I had figured out what I hoped were good arguments in response to each problem, and simply had to write my answers. I spent the next six hours pounding furiously at my keyboard, contributing to an almost certain case of carpel tunnel syndrome for a future version of myself.

Finally, I was finished with all but one question. With no time to shower, I ran my fingers through my hair, brushed my teeth, and jumped back onto my bicycle, wondering if I was breaking any law prohibiting sleep-deprived biking. I pedaled furiously to school. Back in the library, many of my classmates classmates were in the exact same spots I had seen them when I left the library the day before, looking haggard and desperate. I furiously typed my last answer, pressed print, and triumphantly walked up the registrar’s office to hand my answers in, with just a few minutes to spare.

Back at home, I surveyed the damage: two large Dunkin Donuts coffees, a box of Trader Joe’s candy-cane Jo-Jos, scraps of paper, and piles of notes were strewn about the once-clean floor. I had written more pages than I care to write in an average week. But I had crossed the finish line.

3 Comments

Evan Guthrie posted on January 8, 2015 at 2:27 pm

24 hour take home exams are deceptively difficult. Thanks for the story.

Ivan MCAlfine posted on February 9, 2015 at 5:53 am

Thank you for sharing the information. article you provide inspires me in life. and your story motivates me to be better.

Ryo Guerdio posted on February 9, 2015 at 6:03 am

I’m agree, not an easy thing to achieve something. especially in the exam takes concentration and focus in living.

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