Launch School’s 109 Written Assessment: A Non-Native English Speaker’s Perspective

Launch School’s assessments can be quite challenging. If you are a non-native English speaker, they can be even more so.

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I just passed my first written assessment. The experience has been as rewarding as it has been intense and I felt like I could share with the community some of the strategies I’ve used to prepare for the assessment, as well as my personal experience with the exam. These tips are especially directed at the Launch School students who, like me, started learning English in high school. So let’s get started!

1. The exam

The written test is not easy. It’s 3 hours long and contains around 20 essay-type questions. The questions usually require you to explain what a fragment of code does and why with extreme precision. This is quite challenging because you really have to know your stuff if you want to get an answer 100% correct. And as if that weren’t enough, you only have about 8 minutes per question if you want to get to the end of the exam with some time left over to review your answers. If English isn’t your native language, regardless if you are fluent, this time crunch may prove to be really challenging. You really need to practice your writing skills if you want to succeed.

2. Preparation

You aren’t going to have time to consult any references. You have just 8 minutes per question. If you want to submit it on time, make sure you have fully mastered all the topics listed in the Study Guide. The more confident you feel about the material, the faster you will be able to go through the questions.

I highly recommend you attend at least one Study Group session. This is a fantastic opportunity to learn about the types of questions you are going to find on the exam and the level of detail required to answer the questions. Pay special attention to the technical language the instructor uses when articulating their explanations and answers. Take notes so you don’t forget anything.

Every time I need to prepare for a technical exam in a foreign language, in addition to familiarizing myself with the material, I focus on 3 areas:

  • Technical vocabulary
  • Brevity
  • Speed

The following tips outline the process I followed to prepare for the Launch School 109 written assessment, but they can be applied to pretty much any other area of knowledge:

  1. Stuff all the technical vocabulary into your brain. The precision of language required for the assessment is very high so this is really where you want to start. Begin with the examples provided by the instructor in the Study Group session. Answer the questions as detailed as possible while paying attention to the technical words and expressions you will need to use to describe a concept. Do this while you thoroughly read through the Launch School lessons: all the vocabulary you need is in there. Don’t worry about time. At the beginning, you will probably need one hour (or more) to describe each example. That’s actually a good thing! The more time you spend on a question, the more effective the technical vocabulary and expressions will become second nature to you.
  2. Make them shorter. By now, your answers are probably great in terms of quality, but remember that you only have 8 minutes per question during the exam. Shorten your answers. Rewrite your responses and try to be more succinct. For each question, try to identify what is important, requiring a detailed explanation, and what you don’t need to explain in detail (or you even don’t need to mention at all).
  3. Create more examples. Hopefully you now have some nice responses to the Study Group examples. However, your examples probably don’t cover all the topics listed on the Study Guide. Create a few examples for each topic listed on the Study Guide. The more, the better. Make sure you have done step 1 and 2 for at least 1 example of each topic. The idea is to have a nice template answer for each topic.
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Now is time to get faster. Without looking at any reference, answer your examples trying to be both precise and concise at the same time. You should time your answers and note the time for each answer. That way you can track your progress and assess more easily when you are ready to take the exam. After you are done with an example, stop the timer and compare your answer with your template answer to make sure you are using the right language and haven’t forgotten to mention something important. Make changes if necessary. Then, go to the next example, and the next one, and the next one… Repetition is the key here.
  5. Take the exam. Once you feel comfortable with both the level of quality of your answers and the time you take to write them, take the exam.

3. Time management during the exam

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It is just as important to know how to efficiently manage your time during the exam as it is to be prepared to take it in the first place. Everyone has their own approach— I do too! These are the strategies that I try to use:

It’s very important you know how far along you are at any given moment. I use three timers:

  • A timer to track the time I have left. I set it to 2h 59min (I leave a one-minute buffer to make sure I submit the test on time)
  • An alarm. I set it to go off 20 minute before the end of the exam, so I know it’s time to wrap things up.
  • A stopwatch. I use it to control the time that I spend on each answer.

You should allocate a maximum time for each question. In my case that’s 8 minutes. When answering a question, I try to adjust the length of my answer to fit within that 8-minute limit. In fact, I try to spend as little time as possible on each question. If I can write a nice answer in just 5 minutes, that’s what I do. Some questions are easier than others. You want to save as much time as you can during the easier questions to have more time for the more difficult ones.

I like to spend some time at the beginning to quickly read all the questions. This gives me a general idea of 1) the difficulty of the exam and 2) which questions are more time-consuming. I also try to set aside some time at the end of the exam to do a final quick review of my answers (typos, format error, etc). The amount of time you allocate for the revision will depend on your speed. I like 15 minutes. And the most important tip: leave yourself a minute or two to submit your exam. Don’t risk all that effort you made in the past few hours by submitting just 5 seconds before the 3-hour mark.

In an exam as long as this one, it’s very easy to become derailed if you don’t have a plan. You should at least have a general idea of how much time you can spend on each question, reviewing, etc. For reference, this is my plan:

I like to create a number of checkpoints during the exam. In addition to timing my individual answers, I also check the timer at each checkpoint to see my progress in real time and update my plan as needed. For example, according to my schedule, I should have spent no more than 1 hour and 25 minutes by the end of question 10. If the timer shows 1:17, that means I’m doing great! I might be able to spend some extra time at the end of the exam to revise or elaborate on some of my answers. However, if I see 1:45 on the timer, that means I’m not going to make it to the end of the exam at my current rate and I need to update my plan (spend less time on each question and reduce revision time).

Don’t try to figure out the optimal order to answer the questions in. Remember: the goal is to answer all the questions. You should be careful to not spend too much time on a particular question. If you notice that’s happening, write something correct but brief to secure yourself some points and come back to it at the end of the exam if you have time. And if you are stuck on a particular question and are unsure how to answer it, don’t hesitate: skip it and come back to it at the end of the exam. Many times you just need to divert your focus to then unravel a problem you are stuck on.

I highly recommend you do this. Before you start the exam, write down all the numbers for the questions onto a sheet of paper. Use that list to keep track of the questions that you answer. I like to use the following system:

  • Complete answer: ✓ (check)
  • Partial answer: E (extend)
  • Question skipped: (empty)

That way, when you get to the end of the exam, you won’t need to waste any time trying to remember which question you wanted to elaborate on in more detail and which one you have skipped and you still need to answer.

4. Exam day: My experience and lessons learned

You might be thinking: “Ok, so if you did all this, you must have nailed the exam, right?” Not so much. The truth is that I made a number of mistakes that pushed me over the 3-hour mark:

  • I jumped into the first question without doing an initial scan. This is something I always did when I was in school, but for some reason I decided I didn’t need to do it now. This was probably the biggest mistake I made during the exam. If I had done that initial scan, I would have known that I was going to need more time to answer questions on the second half of the exam than on the first half.
  • I spent too much time on the first few questions. I provided very nice, long answers but consistently went over the 8-minute limit on most of them. At the checkpoint for question 10, I realized I wasn’t going to make it in time if I continued to write such lengthy answers. After that, I managed to reduce the average answer time for the rest of the questions, but it wasn’t enough to fully recover.
  • I didn’t stay calm. The longer I took on the exam, the less likely it seemed I would submit it on time. This made me make some silly mistakes on some questions. I got stuck at the end of the exam, too. I still had to answer two questions when there were only 10 minutes left. I think I could have answered something reasonably well if I had stayed calm, but I didn’t. I ended up having to submit the exam after the 3-hour mark, bringing down my final score.

So yeah, things went a bit south at the end. The “small” errors I made while managing my time at the beginning snowballed and resulted in more nervousness, more mistakes, less time to answer the lengthier questions and, finally, to not being able to submit on time. Additionally, after having taken the exam, I now know that I should have practiced the writing more. This is totally fine, though. I don’t feel discouraged about the errors I made. I now have a much clearer idea of my strengths and, more importantly, my weaknesses. Now I just need to work on them!