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Why I Ran Out of Time Taking Launch School’s RB109 Written Assessment (and what I’m changing so it doesn’t happen again)

2:56 pm. That was the time I had written down as the 3.5 hour mark from the beginning of the exam. By my estimation, I had around 90 seconds left to click “SUBMIT” and get my answers in before being docked points for a late test.

My forehead was dotted with sweat, and I was staving off rolling waves of panic, because I had two questions left to focus on, and not nearly enough time to address even one of them.

The Good Student

This week I took Launch School’s RB109 Written Assessment. It’s a big milestone in the early part of the Launch School journey; surveying student feedback from the school’s forums, proportionally this part of the Core curriculum is a significant chunk of someone’s overall path through Launch School. I’d been studying for a few weeks for the assessment and targeted a day that I felt I could carve out space for me to focus on a rigorous exam. Going into the experience, we were told to expect approximately 20 questions, and that the test’s time limit was 3.5 hours (recently bumped up from 3). Submitting answers late automatically incurs a 10% points penalty, but I did not anticipate this being an issue. I knew the material well and felt confident.

I took a melatonin the night before and went to bed early. I drank plenty of water. I woke up bright and bushy-tailed, I made myself a reasonable breakfast, I even shaved (reason: not sure). I felt like a good student going to junior high to get his blue ribbon.

I sat down at my computer, settled in, put on a comfortable set of headphones, turned on some ambient music with no lyrics, and before I started the assessment, downloaded an app called “Be Focused” to divide my time up into chunks with scheduled breaks along the way. I opened Obsidian where I would work through my written answers in Markdown (and so I would have a saved version in case something happened in the web browser where I would paste my answers). I opened up a new Obsidian file and typed:

START TIME 11:26 am
DEADLINE 2:56 pm

I clicked “Start”.

And here my troubles began

Long story short: I ran out of time.

After I started, I did a cursory review of all of the questions, but I didn’t make a concerted effort to identify which would be higher effort than others. The questions have different points values, but upon reading them, I couldn’t quickly determine what was harder than what. I had originally budgeted 8 minutes to review the entire assessment, but decided to start the test instead.

At first this seemed to be a solid decision because I chugged through the first 1/3 of the exam. “Be Focused” would ring a lovely chime every 25 minutes (a Pomodoro!), when a scheduled 5-minute break would occur. I walked to my kitchen, refilled my water, did some hip stretches, chatted with my husband. Another chime would echo out from my office and I’d return, facing more questions.

Just after the 1/3 mark of the assessment something started to happen in my mind. The clock seemed to be moving faster than normal. And I began to do a little bit of math in my head… *hmm, I’ve done X number of questions in Y amount of time… I might need to pick up the pace a little bit.*

On my next 5-minute break, I told my husband: “I might need to pick up the pace a little bit.” (He said, echoing exactly the thought that was pingponging through his mind.)

“Maybe you should,” my husband said, as he left to have lunch with a friend.

It was about halfway through the assessment that I hit a snag: question 9. It was a simple question, along the lines of “Hey, look at this code, why isn’t it working?” I answered that easily. Then there was a final sentence that asked another seemingly simple question. But suddenly… it didn’t seem simple to me at all. I had an initial answer for it, and just as in other questions I had already addressed, I copied a snippet of Ruby into VS Code to run it, to test my assumptions. But it wasn’t working the way I thought it would. Doubt crept in. I looked through some documentation and tried working out various code solutions, but I wasn’t **sure**. I kept staring at the screen. Minutes passed. Finally, as the internal math of how much time left and how many questions to go was continuing, I committed to what I had written and accepted that it might be wrong.

I skipped the following break, going right to the next Pomodoro, then skipped another break. In the blink of an eye it was 2:15 pm. My husband had returned from his lunch. What? How had he been gone for 90 minutes?

I had a handful of questions left. I type 100 words a minute and needed every single one of those 100 as I blazed through the last few.

I lost another chunk of time encountering Question 15, a query that required me to write a method. I’ve been doing a lot of coding, working through exercises on Launch School and elsewhere, but in my mind that was all preparation for the live interview that functions as the second half of the RB109 assessment. Mid-exam, this paradigm shift caused me to lockup, and I was thrown by the test cases. I skipped the question and decided to come back to it later.

Finally I was there, painfully aware of the clock, accepting that I wasn’t going to be able to competently answer two questions in a minute-and-a-half, or even, as it turned out, one. I used my last seconds of time hastily writing out a response to the final question of the exam (which I based on a simple error that compounded into an almost completely incorrect answer), while in my mind I was doing cost-benefit analysis of incurring a late penalty versus the points I would lose by leaving an entire question blank. The clock was about to turn over to 2:56 pm. I went to the text area for Question 15 and typed “Ran out of time, my apologies.” At 2:55 pm, I clicked “submit”. I took a breath and drank a last glass of water. Before I could put my cup down, the clock read 2:56.

I stared at the assessment, looking at my answers. I scrolled up to Question 15 to look at the challenge again. Then a tiny light bulb lit up in my brain. I went to VS Code and wrote out a few lines of Ruby. I copied-and-pasted the test cases in, went to Terminal, and typed `ruby 109_workpad.rb`. Then this showed up in my console:

true
true
true
true

It had taken me 3 minutes to write.

What I learned for next time

After the exam, I received my grade, which was lower than what I wanted. But I didn’t beat myself up too much about it, and my exchange with the Launch School TA was quite warm and productive. They asked me to provide revisions for a few of the answers, which I did speedily. Then they asked me to consider my approach to time management during exams and, funny enough, they wanted me to write a blog post about it. I had already considered doing this both to cement my learnings from the assessment experience and also to provide insight to other Launch School students approaching the 109 exam. After some reading and consideration, here are my thoughts going forward:

Plan on performing an initial review (and… actually, you know, PERFORM it)

As mentioned, I had allotted time for a review of the questions, but I didn’t look closely enough at them to determine where I should prioritize. Even a slightly deeper look at Question 15, for example, would have prepared me for the concept of writing actual code later in the session. I also could have paid closer to attention to the differing point values of questions as a way to think about how much time should be committed to each.

Don’t start too slow

In questions 1 through 3 I was being *very thorough* with my language. If you’re preparing for 109 you are probably quite familiar with the language usage I’m referring to: *On line 7, local variable `doodad` is initialized and the String object `’trinket’` is assigned to it. Then local variable `doodad` which is in the outer scope of the…*

You know what I’m talking about. But because of this depth (which was not necessarily warranted by the actual questions I was answering), I spent a disproportionate amount of time on the first third of the test. While being thorough is worthwhile, I think this portion of my assessment was overwritten. And I think it was overwritten because I didn’t grok the next point until about midway through:

Remember that you’re communicating ideas to an actual person, not a robot

About halfway through, I was not committing *quite* so much time to each answer, but I also got into a groove, where I felt I was writing for another person to understand what I was explaining, rather than trying to tick a bunch of boxes where I always mentioned exactly the same keywords in explaining a line of Ruby code without ever making a mistake. This feeling was only reinforced by my interactions with the Launch School TA in the revision stage. In the end, these assessments are about demonstrating a strong understanding of the material. Part of that understanding is knowing how to talk about the concepts like an actual human being, without getting bogged down (and losing time) because every part of every line of the code must be explained to 1000% detail. To badly paraphrase a sports metaphor: write to communicate, not to not be wrong. (I think Yogi Berra said that.)

Trust your knowledge

If I could focus on one question that cost me the most time, it was neither the coding challenge nor the final question. It was Question 9. As it turns out, there was a basic concept of Ruby that I absolutely knew, but in the moment I doubted myself and lost time trying to find every possible wrinkle to a situation when the correct answer had been there from my first quick intuition. In the future, if I have that doubt, I’ll mark it as a question to come back and review, but better to get my answer written and move on, since as it turns out I could have used those three minutes ruminating about a concept I already understood more productively later on in the test.

Finally: customize your time management to what has worked for you previously

This is the big takeway for me. In this assessment I used a Pomodoro + 5-minute break technique. This did not serve me well. The 25-minute timer would go off and I would feel like I had just gotten into a productive rhythm answering questions, but to be “good to myself” I made sure I would get up and stretch and walk. After the test, I reflected back on my work habits as I progressed through Launch School up to this point and realized I had miscalculated. I had regularly worked in sessions far longer than the 3.5 hour time limit of the assessment, with more infrequent breaks. A study session of 45 or even 90 minutes without a significant break was not uncommon, and to be honest, not that fatiguing for me. For the assessment, I adopted an approach that I had not used once in the lead-up to the exam. I felt my rhythms getting interrupted at intervals I had never encountered before, which made it that much harder to get back into the groove after the breaks were over. I’ll definitely schedule breaks for myself in future exams, but I think the quickest chunks I’ll schedule for the future would be 45 minutes at the shortest.

And yes, it kills me that if I had skipped just one of my leisurely early stretch breaks I could have answered Question 15 and not lost those 5 points. That’s a good memory to motivate a more finely-tuned time management approach for the next time around.

a cheerful otter

I hope you’ve gleaned some insights for your own process in Launch School exams and other time-pressured situations you might encounter. If I had to boil it down to a single thought, it would be this: *Know thyself.* Make sure that you have prepared yourself in a way that is how *you* best perform, not necessarily how other people think you should do it, or what works best for them. Take a look at how you actually use your time when you are at your most productive, and frame your approach to match that. And if you’ve diligently studied, own that fact, and be confident.

Good luck, and I hope to cross paths with you soon.

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