Taking the Exams

Welcome! Incoming students will take the Writing and Math exams beginning in June.  After the Writing and Math exams have been completed, you will have an opportunity to take exams in Biology and Chemistry, Languages, and Music Theory. These additional fields are not required, but you are encouraged to take exams in each of the academic areas you hope to explore. The recommendations generated from these exams can be used to begin planning your course of study.

Before the exams open you will want to make sure you have registered for the necessary Harvard systems and applications, set aside sufficient time,  and have a sense of what the exams entail.

Exam Accommodations

Students with a documented disability may be eligible for accommodations for placement exams. The Accessible Education Office (AEO) is the primary point of contact for undergraduate students seeking reasonable accommodations for a disability. You are encouraged to work with the AEO to discuss any potential accommodations you may need for the exams.  The office may be contacted by emailing aeo@fas.harvard.edu.

Before the Exams

What systems, applications, and technology do I need?

You will need: 

  • A computer (do not use a phone or a tablet as they can be problematic) 
  • Reliable high-speed internet
  • Up-to-date web browser that can handle sound files
  • To access the online placement exams, you must first activate all of the Harvard applications and systems: Set Up Your Accounts (Harvard College Email, HarvardKey, Two-Step Verification)

Please contact placement-help@fas.harvard.edu if you do not have access to these resources.

How long will the exams take?

Each of the exams, with the exception of the Writing exam, will require that you finish them in one session. Make sure you have set aside enough to complete. 

  • Writing (required): Students will be given 72 hours to read sources focusing on a particular topic and write an argumentative essay in response to those readings.
  • Math (required): This exam consists of three 30-minute parts (maximum of 90 minutes), to be taken consecutively without a break in between each section.
  • Biology & Chemistry (optional): These exams are each 90 minutes.
  • Languages (optional): Depending on the language, these exams range from 90 minutes to 3 hours.
  • Music (optional): The timing of this exam varies. For further information see the Music Department Music Department website.

How do I prepare my workspace?

You do not need to study for the exams. The Academic Resource Center recommends the following strategies when preparing your workspace and yourself for remote learning and exams:

  • Wherever possible try to create a dedicated workspace in a quiet place
  • Clear off a flat surface where you can sit or stand to work
  • Keep everything you will need nearby (notebook, post-its, pen, pencil, water, etc.)
  • Communicate to those around you about your need to focus
  • Sign out of social media and turn off notifications
  • Social distancing protocols may mean that finding a quiet, unoccupied space is difficult for many people. Do your best, and communicate with placement-help@fas.harvard.edu about any challenges you are facing as soon as possible

What do each of the exams include?

What are they like?

Writing Exam (Required)

What: You will be given a 72-hour period of time to read sources focusing on a particular topic and write an argumentative essay in response to those readings.

Why: The exam will provide a recommendation for which expository writing course to take.  Learn more about Harvard College's expository writing requirement

Math Exam (Required)

What:  This online exam consists of three 30-minute parts (maximum of 90 minutes), to be taken consecutively without a break in between each section. Part I is required and you are encouraged to complete Parts II & III if you have studied the relevant materials previously.

  • Part I—number sense, fractions, algebra, elementary functions, and functions and graphing (30 minutes)
  • Part II—differential calculus and elementary integration (30 minutes)
  • Part III—integration, series, and differential equations (30 minutes)

Why: The exam will provide a recommendation for a math course, but also offers useful information for taking courses in other areas of study as well.

These exams should be completed without a calculator.

Biology and Chemistry (Optional)

What: Each of these exams is 90 minutes and will focus on the basic concepts of biology and chemistry.

Why: If you are interested in taking any science courses, these exams will provide you with helpful advice about where to start.

Suggestion: We recommend that you take both of these exams, regardless of your prior science background. Introductory life science courses at Harvard integrate concepts from both chemistry and biology, so the combined results will provide you with the most useful course recommendations.

Languages (Optional)

What: Depending on the language, these exams range in length from 90 minutes to 3 hours.

Why: You should take a placement exam in any language with which you have prior experience and intend to study at Harvard.

Music (Optional)

What:  This diagnostic will help identify your understanding of simple tonal material (scales, intervals, chords, basic roman numeral analysis, and ear-training). Keyboard skills are helpful but not required. For further information see the Department of Music website

Why: You should take this exam if you are interested in studying music theory.

How do I get help with technical issues?

You can reach technical support help at ithelp@harvard.edu

If your computer freezes or crashes while taking the exam, you can be reassured that the exams are designed to auto-save as you progress through the questions. It is likely that you will be able to reopen the exam.

If the exam freezes or computer crashes while taking the exam, students should email ithelp@harvard.edu with details about the issue. The exams are designed to auto-save as you progress through the questions and it may be possible to reopen the exam.