Exam Horror Stories

Thom Lambert —  4 January 2008

Many TOTM readers are students or professors, so it’s likely that there are a number of examination horror stories out there among the readership. As we professors finish up earning our pay grading exams, I thought I’d share a couple of my own horror stories — one as a professor and another as a student — and see if I can get others to contribute theirs.

First, the professor story.

Last semester was pretty rough for me (I took a new administrative position, which has greatly reduced my blogging time — New Year’s resolution: Blog more!). To celebrate the end of the semester, I decided to spend a few days in my favorite European city, Amsterdam. I was to leave on December 26 from Knoxville, Tennessee, where my family lives. Since I didn’t have time to finish my grading before heading to my parents’ house, I had to take with me a small suitcase full of Contracts exams. When I arrived at the Knoxville airport on December 26, my flight to Detroit (from which I would connect to Amsterdam) was delayed. Realizing that my window for making a connection in Detroit would be mighty short, I decided to check only my clothes suitcase and take the exam suitcase as a carry-on. Prudent, I thought.

When I reached Detroit, I had to race to catch the Amsterdam flight. I barely made the flight and was told as I was entering the plane that the overhead compartments were full and that I would have to gate-check my carry-on bag (the exams). No problem, I thought, as I could see the gate-checked bags being loaded onto the plane.

When I arrived in Amsterdam, I went to baggage claim and was surprised but pleased to see my larger clothes suitcase on the carousel. Wow, I thought. Northwest Airlines is amazing. They managed to transfer my luggage from the Knoxville-Detroit flight in about 10 minutes. Within a few minutes, though, my enthusiasm for Northwest waned, as I realized my gate-checked exam suitcase was not in the offloaded luggage. It waned even further when I took my claim check to the baggage office and was told there was no record of my missing bag in Northwest’s system.

At that point, I started to panic, but the nice Dutch man behind the counter assured me that the bag must have been left on the steps in Detroit and would be on the next flight to Amsterdam, which was to arrive at 5:55 AM the following morning.

After a fitful night’s sleep, I called the baggage office at the Amsterdam airport to check on my bag. I was disheartened to learn that the bag was not on the morning flight from Detroit and had not been scanned into the Northwest Airlines system. Still no record of the bag’s existence.

I had to do something, so I grabbed a train to Schiphol Airport and convinced the security folks to let me into the bowels of the airport, where unclaimed bags reside. I searched through all the unclaimed luggage, but mine was nowhere to be seen. I also waited around for the next flight from Detroit. No bag.

At that point, I began preparing for the worst. As I wandered through the city for the rest of the afternoon, I composed in my head an email to the dean and associate dean explaining that I had lost all of my Contracts exams. It was not going to be pretty.

When I finally returned to my hotel room at around 4:30 PM, I had a letter from the front desk: “Dear Mr. Lambert, Your luggage has been found and will be returned to the hotel between 16:00 and 20:00 this evening.” I immediately ordered champagne.

Around 6:00 PM, my luggage and I were reunited (and it felt so good!).

Reunited (for blog)

Next, the student story.

The exam for my own Contracts course (taught by Larry Lessig) was a four-hour take-home exam. At that time, the University of Chicago Law School allowed students taking take-home exams to state in advance what their travel time would be to and from the law school. That amount of time was added to one’s allotted exam-taking time. Since I was taking my exam in the law school library, I gave myself only 10 minutes to get to and from my study carrel. This meant I’d turn in my exam earlier than most students, who drove home to take their exams.

About halfway through the exam, I realized I was running woefully short on time. I therefore flew through the remainder of the exam and rushed to the registrar’s office to turn in my diskette. When I arrived, no students were around, but that didn’t strike me as odd, since I figured most were in transit.

As I handed the diskette to the registrar, she said, “Wow. An hour early. Impressive.” I looked at the clock on the wall and freaked out as I realized I was wearing a watch set on Eastern time. I retrieved the diskette from the registrar, ran back to the library, and tried to do a little more work on the thing. I was so flustered, though, that nothing in the exam or my answer made any sense. I ultimately ejected the disk, turned the thing in, and drove home.

As it turns out, Contracts was my highest first-year grade. Perhaps I should’ve spent less time on the other exams!

Anyone else got an examination horror story to share?

Thom Lambert


I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.

24 responses to Exam Horror Stories


    I think Landes was my third lowest. Fischel was near my top, though.


    Geoff–Oddly, I received my HIGHEST law school grade in Sunstein’s environmental law class. My lowest was Law and Economics (Landes), and my second lowest was Corporations (Fischel). (I’m not sure if you’d call that ironic or not….)

    Bodie–I think that if you gate-check on a smaller plane, you retrieve at the gate. On a larger plane, though, you normally get the bag at baggage claim. In any event, I asked where I should get the bag and they told me to pick it up at baggage claim.

    Fitts–Your very relevant and uber cool Contracts/Bus Orgs prof would NEVER base a hypo on Dharma and Greg. Please.


    My first law school exam was Civ Pro, it was late fall of course and unusually cold. About 2 hours into the exam the fire alarms sound. What do you think the proctors did? Well, the ones at the front of the room insisted that we leave, the proctors by the door, though, would not let us. So we all try to continue the exam, praying that the alarms will shut up. The alarms continue ringing for what felt like an hour but was probably closer to 20 minutes. I, of course, could not concentrate to save my life (I can’t stand ear plugs, alas) So, the damnable alarm rings and rings. Finally sense prevails and we are asked to leave the building. We are told, though, not to bring anything with us. In my case that would be a jacket. We all wind up waiting outside on one of the coldest days of the winter for at least 15 minutes. Mind you, I come from Wyoming, if I think it is cold it is bloody frigid. So, the wind is howling, the Mercury is way low, and I can feel my hands turning into useless lumps of frozen flesh.

    They did allow us additional time once we were let back into the building, unfortunately I spent the time trying to get blood back into my fingers.


    I had a Contracts and Biz Org professor who insisted on using very distracting fact patterns based wholly off circa 1998 sitcoms (i.e. Will and Grace, Darma and Greg, et al.). Pretty nightmarish, if you ask me.


    I have a technical question — isn’t gate-checked luggage usually picked up at the gate? Or is it different for international flights? I was in a cold sweat just reading this story.


    First semester of law school taking a Crim Law class, the professor provides the space to reply to each question — 4 lines for some, 1/2 page for others, etc. When I get my grades, I have a C+ (this was the one exam I really studied for, so I was pissed). I went to talk to the Prof. He didn’t have my exam to discuss with me, but said “It was clear from your responses that you knew the material.” I asked why I got a C+, but his answer made absolutely no sense.

    A few semesters later, I took Crim Pro having attended only one class, done no reading and having reviewed the Nutshell for about 4 hours. I was taking the class P/F, so who cares, right? Well, I got a C on the exam, not sure why I didn’t get a P. School says they had no record, so I’m SOL. Moving out of my apartment about 1 year later, I found the completed P/F Request Slip in my desk. D’oh!

    I guess it’s a good thing that I’m a securities lawyer.


    When I was in law school I used an old (well, then new) Apple iBook or whatever it was called. It was a fine computer. Except it had one glitch.

    But I get ahead of myself.

    The class was administrative law. Cass Sunstein was the professor. It was one of these multi-hour take homes like Thom describes above, and, like Thom, I took it in the library. Cass had given the exam a strict word limit, and, if I recall corectly, said he would not read beyond a certain point (this may be artistic license/revisionist history, but I was definitely worried about writing too much). So about a quarter of the way through the exam, I ran the word count. It seemed I was in good shape, and I kept going. At about the half way point I ran the count again. Still good–and I had slowed down quite a bit so I was in really good shape.

    Now, the glitch. As I remember it, but did not know at the time, the default setting on the word count was that it would count words not for the document as a whole but, instead, from the last time you ran the word count. I discoverd this when I ran the word count a third time and it indicated that I had written fewer words than the last time I ran it! Crap! I figured out the error, unchecked a box, ran the word count properly and discoverd that, with about 30 minutes left in the exam, I had written close to three times the allotted amount!

    I scrambled in the last half hour to delete 2/3 of my exam answer without deleting important content or making the exam unreadable. Apparentley, I failed, and I received my lowest grade in law school.

    On the other hand, I received my second lowest (but still considerably higher) grade in Cass’ environmental law class the next semester, so perhaps the problem wasn’t technical after all . . . .


    This one doesn’t even rank in the top 5 from the list, but here goes:

    I was using a laptop computer for the California Bar exam that had removable disk drives, e.g. one for floppy disks and another for CDs. Studying for the Bar, I generally had the CD drive in so I could listen to music while I studied. Being paranoid about bringing the wrong drive to the bar exam, I switched drives about 4-5 days in advance of the Bar Exam so as to avoid any disasters on exam day. Somehow, in a sleep-deprived stupor the night before I must have switched drives again (forgetting I had done so previously) because it was not until the proctor announced that the exam was starting and it was OK to insert the floppy disk that I noticed the problem!

    I scrambled around looking for the other drive in my bag after the exam started (of course, I didn’t bring it) and finally found a proctor in the back of the room (I didn’t want to walk to the front because my sister was taking the exam 2 rows in front of me and I didn’t want to freak her out watching me handle my own disaster!) and got some exam books, borrowed a pen, and started writing. Given how horrendous my handwriting was (and is), I switched back to the laptop on the second days of essays despite potential confusion about having part of the exam on the computer and the other part handwritten. I just hoped that all of my materials would be graded together. They were. I passed.


    I know I am paranoid, but when I travel with exams, I make three copies — one to keep in my office, one at home, one with on the plane with me. My theory: what if someone breaks into my office/home and steals the exams?

    The horror story from my student years: the night before a major law school final, my laptop collapsed, along with my outline and all class notes (that’s right, no backup). I frantically ran around and found a friend who lent me his laptop for the exam. At the time, I had a Carpal tunnel syndrome and absolutely had to use a large ergonomic keyboard. I brought my friend’s laptop and my large keyboard to the exam room, connected them, and sure enough, the computer didn’t work! It took me about 20 minutes of test time and multiple restartings to figure out that my friend’s computer didn’t actually crash – the problem was that my keyboard was not compatible with his laptop (that’s right, I did not test compatibility beforehand). I then tried to use the laptop’s own keyboard, but had to stop every 10 minutes because my fingers would freeze from the bloody Carpal tunnel syndrome. At the end of the exam, when the proctor told us to save our work on a provided floppy disk, it turned out that my friend’s computer had no floppy drive! The proctor took pity on me and brought me to the registrar, who somehow figured out how to transfer my scribbles from the computer.

    That was my lowest grade in law school. Better yet, the class was Corporate Acquisitions — my current specialty. Best of all — the prof was my current husband! We didn’t start dating until much later, alas.


    Feb. 2002 KS bar exam story: coldest windiest night ever the night before the test. I stayed in a Topeka flea bag motel. Was really hungry and drove my 1990 Trooper to get some food. Car broke down, etc etc. I didn’t get back to motel until after 1 am. Also, I had had a bike wipe out about a week before the test so my shoulder was absolutely gimped and I was in pain and in the worst mood possible. The fact that I passed just goes to show that they apply a different standard to test takers who already are licensed in another state.


    Some great stories, folks. Thanks for sharing!

    Also some good advice from David Bernstein, though I must say I thought I had taken all cost-effective precautions by carrying the exams with me.


    I showed up to Legal Ethics thinking it was open book (most of our other exams that year were). Talking with others outside the room I found out it wasn’t. Despite this botch up I still got a B+.

    Another story comes from a friend who had all the lights go off in her exam room shortly before the end. From what she told me some people started screaming others, seated near the door, were anxiously trying to write using the small crack of light sneaking in from the corridor.They all got extra time.


    The very first question on my very first bar exam (New York) involved a “notice of pendency.”
    This prompted me to ask myself, serially, “WTF is a ‘notice of pendency’?” and “how can it be that after three years of law school and seven weeks of intensive test preparation, my first question on my first bar exam is about something I never heard of in my entire life?”

    My brain kept saying “lis pendens…lis pendens…they MUST be talking about a lis pendens” but I was so rattled, and so preoccupied wondering whether the appropriate targets of my wrath were my bar review people, or my professors, or those snarky bastards at the Board of Law Examiners, that I spent almost twenty minutes wringing my hands over what had been intended to be a one- or two-minute multiple choice question.

    Predictably, I failed.

    It’s now a quarter-century later, and I’ve STILL never again heard anyone ever refer to a “lis pendens” as a “notice of pendency.”


    The exam that still gives me the willies is an undergraduate, advanced calculus class. Because the professor felt that there had been some hi jinks on the last exam, no one was allowed to leave the room until the entire time for the exam was finished. We had three hours. An hour and a half through and I’m finished. I check my work and still have an hour left. I look around and everyone else is still going like gangbusters. Strange. As I was a solid B student in the subject, I was surprised that some of the A+ students were still going like mad instead of just checking their work. I check my work again. I still have half an hour left. Everyone else is still in panic mode. I sit there for five minutes and decide to check it again. I then realize that the exam is printed double sided. I’ve only twenty minutes to complete other half of the exam. I sit there a minute or two stunned. I finish all but one of the questions and received an A on the exam and in the course.

    The next story is graduate school statistics exam story. As I was a social science major it was generally felt that the statistics seminars are where students could distinguish themselves. It was a non-proctored exam. We were given four hours and had to slip the exam under the professor’s door by 4 pm. I took my exam and went to the smoking room. (Both the habit and smoking rooms are long gone.) The last question was a multidimensional, multivariate analysis that I could not have completed if I were given till the end of time. I went over the other questions several times but with an hour left, I felt that there was nothing more I could do. I went to turn the exam in. As I passed the graduate student lounge, I saw half of the students gathered around a table comparing answers. They saw me and gave me a lot of guilty looks but didn’t say anything. I turned in my exam. To get our grades we had to meet with the professor. The meeting didn’t go well. The professor said that my B minus was particularly disappointing because the rest of the class had done so well. He went on in that vein for several minutes. I couldn’t take it and said that because we were graded on a curve and at least half the students had cheated, I don’t think the grade reflected my effort. I asked him what he was going to do about the cheating. He said that if they cheated, it would catch up with them eventually. (I told him that the odds of getting caught were exactly the same every time and some other very impolitic things.) Because I was really pissed at everyone, I went to the dean. Because I refused to name names. I ended up a pariah both among the students and the professors. I learned a lot more than statistics from that course.


    Our tax procedure exam was a full page, single spaced question on the mitigation of limitations rules (a point of arcane tax law used only to tax the mental stamina of grad students). The context was a estate tax controversy. The question was “Do the mitigation of limitations rules apply here?”

    The design was probably to allow the student to fully display his or her knowledge as they tried to shoehorn the facts into the mitigation rules.

    As it turns out one of my fellow students had lent me a copy of an outline written several years before by a lawyer in his firm who had also taken the program. By luck, I’d finished reviewing my own notes (for the 3rd or 4th time) about 8pm the night before and I had decided to scan the outline. Somewhere on the first page it said “these rules only apply to income taxes…”. I didn’t believe it. So I looked in the Regs and found that the rules did only apply to “Subtitle A” taxes. I rushed to the IRC table of Contents and there it is … “Subtitle A – Income Tax”. I’m stunned because I spent an entire semester unaware of this. I give up and go to bed.

    So there I sit during the exam with this question on my mind — how much do I trust the Professor? After 5 or 6 minutes, I reread the Reg. and write “No. See Reg. section 1.1311(a)-2(b).” Then I get up and walk out 20 minutes after the start of a three-hour exam.

    The professor was trustworthy.


    I was taking my evidence exam, and showed my school ID to the proctors to get into the room. I tucked it back into my wallet, but crammed it into a weird, almost hidden compartment in my wallet. I set up my computer and logged onto the exam software, which asked for my student ID, which I didn’t know – it was on my ID. I frantically searched my wallet, then went up front and asked the proctors if I had left it up there. I had to step outside and get the reps from the registrar’s office to radio back to the office to get my number (the office is in a different building). I got back to my seat and the proctor’s said, “There are now 2 minutes until the start of the exam.” I looked around and, in my absence, they had handed out the exams. Panicked, I (practically) screamed “I don’t have a test! I don’t have a test!” I wound up getting an A, but it’s a law-school story that we still laugh about to this day. Though maybe you had to be there.


    My story is similar to Ted Franks’s. On the second day of the three-day bar exam, I started throwing up about fifteen minutes after we started, threw up approximately every 30 minutes for the rest of the day, tried to sleep in the backseat of my truck (I was staying with friends about 45 minutes from the testing site) during lunch, and quit on the second MPT question with about an hour to go, because I just couldn’t take it anymore. The weird thing is, never in my life, before or since, have I thrown up that many times in one day, and it has to be during the freaking bar exam? I did pass, so now it’s a funny story, instead of making me furious.


    My exam horror story arose out of a fed courts final I just took last month. Going into the exam, I was certain that it was a four-hour test, based on the prof’s old exams that I had taken for practice while studying.

    The exam itself was two parts– basically a lengthy issue-spotter and an essay. I apportioned my time carefully in my head and figured I’d give myself 2 3/4 hours for the issue spotter and about an hour and fifteen minutes to complete the essay. I worked my way through the exam, giving fairly elaborate explanations for the issue-spotter issues, and feeling pretty confident about them. Just as I was about to start on the essay, believing I still had roughly 75 minutes left, I heard the proctor announce, to my horror: “there are now fifteen minutes remaining in this exam.” It was every test anxiety dream I’d ever had, come to life. So certain had I been that it was a four-hour exam that I hadn’t even bothered to look at the instructions on the first page, or even to glance at the bulletin board at the front of the room where the proctors had posted the start and end time. Heart pounding in my chest, I raced to get down something, anything, somewhat coherent for the essay question in the time I had left. I left the exam furious with myself, because I had really enjoyed the course and felt pretty confident about the exam, and couldn’t believe that my final grade wouldn’t reflect my actual understanding of the material, all because of a supremely dumb mistake on my part.

    After putting it off for a while to avoiding putting myself in a bad mood, I just checked my grades a few hours ago, and incredibly, I somehow managed to pull down an A minus in the class. Here’s praying that it’s not a registrar’s error!


    I took the three-day California Bar Exam with a fever of 103. Because I registered late (I had moved to California in December), I had to commute to Orange County to take the exam, but fortunately I had reserved a hotel across from the test center. But I was in no shape to sit through the three-hour sessions; I paced myself to complete each half-day’s work an hour early, and slept the remainder of the time, literally sixteen hours a day. I passed.

    My other exam horror story was an in-class open-book exam for David Currie’s Conflicts of Laws class. Three questions, three hours, and I realized to my horror that one of them was on a topic where I had not only missed the day of class, but hadn’t studied at all. I resolved to do the first two questions (where I was fortunately well up to speed) in 70 minutes, spend an hour learning the new topic (full faith and credit clause? I sadly forget now), and finish up the exam with that question. I somehow got an excellent grade in that class.

    David Bernstein 6 January 2008 at 10:36 am

    Lesson for law professors: If you are going to take your exams anywhere but your office or your house, have them photocopied first, and leave the photocopies at school! Fortunately, now with exam software, there is a backup of the vast majority of esxams.


    My first law school class — and exam — was also Contracts, taught by JJ White. About 2 hours into the 6-hour exam, we all came across a question on a provision from UCC Article 9, which we hadn’t so much as mentioned during the term, let alone studied. You could almost feel the moment when the bulk of us read the question. Most ill at ease were those who had ripped article 2 from the heavy UCC supplement to lighten their knapsacks. I seem to recall permission being granted for those folks to run to lockers or home. The question was a minor part of the exam — one question out of 50 in the multiple-choice/short answer section of the exam. But the impression it left (almost twelve years ago) is a lasting one. I’m kinder to my tax students now: there’s always a sight reading exercise on my exams, but I disclose that fact up-front in the syllabus.


    first year my legal rhetoric class decided to give us a quiz in citation and resaerch worth 15% of the grade (legal rhetoric itself was worth only about half a rgular doctrinal class). the test was 5 pages and was open book bluebook wiht plenty of time to be a walk in the park to bring up our rhetoric grades.

    when i got a cell call in the middle of the test i relaized iforgotto turn the ringer off. i puhsed cancel to silence the call and evryone looked at me.

    the person called back and everyone looked at me again. i finially tuend the phone off but was distracted and didnt see the last two pages of my exam. i scored 100% on the questions i completed but failed anyway becuase i didnt see the last two pages


    Well, it’s not a horror story – just an almost horror story. I took the Florida Bar Exam at 37 weeks pregnant. My biggest fear was going into labor in the exam room. Lo and behold, during the Florida essay portion I began to feel a constant and uncomfortable pressure that I just knew was labor (it was my first child – I knew nothing.) I finally became so distracted and worried by it that I decided to leave my seat and find a proctor. Only upon pushing away from the table did it dawn on me that it was not labor, but rather just pressure from the edge of the table on my very big belly as I sat hunched over to write. Crisis averted. I passed the exam and gave birth to a 8 pound 12 ounce baby girl at 42 weeks (so the worry about early labor was really, really not worth it.)

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  1. TRUTH ON THE MARKET » Common Errors on Exams - December 31, 2009

    […] I suppose students make this mistake with such frequency because one of the UCC’s most notorious provisions — Section 2-207 — makes merchant status relevant for one matter (the question of whether additional terms in a written acceptance or confirmation become part of a contract). We spend quite a bit of time on 2-207’s intricacies, so this must be the genesis of the confusion. In any event, it’s maddening! (Though not as maddening as losing your students’ exams on an international flight….) […]