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Writing Case Based Exams: Interview with an EC

Final exams are just around the corner, so MBA Student & Academic Services sought some advice from an EC who excels at the art of writing case based exams.

Our mystery EC is a sought after tutor for a wide array of subjects and received first year honors. Her modesty prevents us from using her name, but you can trust that this star EC knows how to successfully tackle an HBS exam.

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Jenifer Marshall (JM): How do you study for a case based exam?

Mystery EC (MEC):   To study for a case based exam, I simply review the core frameworks / concepts taught in a class. To do this, I read through framework notes and review the module and course summary slides prepared by the professor. During this process, I often write down key frameworks or concepts on a separate “review sheet” that I can easily reference during the exam. I don’t find it particularly helpful to review previous cases; I only spend time doing this if it helps me better understand the application of a specific key concept or framework.

JM: Is there anything else you do to prepare?

MEC: Before I even walk into an exam, I make sure that I have a physical copy of the review sheet I’ve prepared and that I can easily electronically access framework and course module summaries (if allowed for the exam). By having this information handy, I can make sure to reference and incorporate the relevant frameworks and key course concepts in my exam response.

JM: What is the first thing you do when you receive your exam?

MEC: Before even opening the case, I read all the questions, so that while I’m reading the case I can make notes for myself and highlight information I may want to reference in my response.

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JM: What’s next?

MEC: First, I carefully read through the case once. After completing this initial read-through, I spend time outlining my response to each question. If you’re a slow writer like me, pre-planning really helps you conserve time and ensure that your responses to the questions are internally consistently (especially since you may not have time to re-read what you’ve written). At the beginning of the exam, I also often set preliminary goals of when I should complete each question. This helps me stay on track throughout the exam, making sure I have enough time to answer each question. While I’m writing, I also liberally refer back to the case text, picking up additional details or gathering incremental evidence to support my argument. Generally, in the exam I try to complete the easier and higher-value questions first (e.g. questions that determine a larger portion of your grade) and come back to questions for which I don’t have as strong an answer or that are worth less. In terms of structuring the exam, I would recommend asking the professor how he/she would prefer you structure it – some professors prefer prose, others are indifferent, and others prefer bullet points. You should use this guidance to craft your response.

JM: How do you monitor your word count?

MEC: I recommend that you allocate words according to how much each question is worth, and try to pay attention to the word count as you go. It’s difficult to remove text once you’ve structured and written your responses, so it’s better to be mindful of word count as you’re writing the exam.

JM: Do you have any other tips for our readers?

MEC: First, I would recommend that you use headers throughout an exam. Headers clearly highlight what you plan to address and discuss in each part of your exam and allow professors to easily identify the different components of your argument. Second, I would recommend incorporating some of the course’s key concepts / frameworks. Finally, I would make sure your entire exam is internally consistent and that your argument follows a natural and logical flow. The good news about case exams is that you get better at them as you do more!

JM: Thanks so much for sharing your insights, Mystery EC, and good luck with your final MBA Program finals!

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If you’d like to learn more about exam writing, MBA Student & Academic Services is hosting the following upcoming workshops:

  • Writing a Case Based Exam presented by Bill Ellet, April 7, 3:30 – 4:30 pm, Spangler Auditorium
  • Writing in a Second Language (for international students) presented by Bill Ellet, April 27, 1:00 – 2:30 pm, Aldrich 111

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Student & Academic Services staff is available for individual appointments to discuss class participation, tutoring and learning support, stress management, and any personal concerns you may have. We also regularly offer workshops on a variety of topics such as time management, stress reduction, case reading and exam writing, and mindfulness. Email us at to schedule an appointment.

March 23, 2015
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