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Examination Skills

General advice

  • Approaches to exams vary. Not all the advice that you receive will necessarily be good advice for you. Listen to what people say, then make up you own mind what you are going to do.
  • Keep an eye on notice boards in Departments. As the exam season approaches, examiners put up notices explaining how exams are organised, times and places of practical exams, and they may provide specimen questions for practical and other examinations.
  • Calculators. Make sure you bring with you an authorised calculator and you have had plenty of practice using it. For information on authorised calculators, click here
  • CUSU also run a helpful website on exams

Dates of Exams

  • Don't trust advice from fellow students. Go and check your exam dates in the Special Edition of the Cambridge University Reporter - the edition headed "ORDERS OF EXAMINATIONS" which usually comes out in late-April. If in any doubt, consult your Director of Studies.

Get Your Notes in Order

  • Go back over your notes briefly every afternoon/evening to make sure you have got the morning's lectures straight in your mind.
  • Get into the habit of looking at past examination questions relating to the topics being covered by current lectures, so that you relate what you are being told with what you be asked about in examinations. If there are discrepancies, raise them with your supervisor.
  • If necessary, produce short summaries of important facts, results, experiments and concepts compiled from a range of sources (e.g. textbooks, monographs [i.e. books confined to a single subject, and often dealing with a subject better than a multi-topic textbook], lecture notes and supervision notes). Avoid merely rewriting your notes!
  • Always revise actively. "All revision involves self-expression" (Sir William Osler). Make sure you are actually doing something with the notes as you revise from them. Don't just sit and read through them hoping that the information will sink in.
  • Start work at the beginning of the vacation rather than the end. You will be much more productive while the material is fresh in your mind.

Training (Yes! Training, not education!)

  • Remember that exams are a race against the clock. You must practice doing questions at the right speed so that you will be used to this when you sit the exam.
  • Practice past questions without your notes available. Don't consult your notes immediately before starting a question.
  • Revise a topic, then try a Tripos question on it. (You may like to try a Tripos question on a topic before revising the appropriate notes, and then try another one afterwards to see how effective your revision has been.)
  • Practice doing exam questions to time.
  • In each major subject, do as much as possible (and that should be nearly all) of a complete paper to time not later than the start of the Easter term.

If You Become Anxious Or Feel Ill or Stressed

  • Don't "sit" on the problem. Talk about it. "A stitch in time saves nine". Don't allow a modest setback to develop into a full-blown crisis. The University has procedures which can be put into effect for people whose exam preparation is impaired by illness or other good cause, but if you need to benefit from such procedures, you must tell your Tutor about your problem in plenty of time.
  • Talk to your Tutor or your Director of Studies. If you don't think your Tutor would understand, talk to a supervisor, or another Tutor in your college.
  • Talk to friends.
  • Try to set up a programme of steady work interspersed with appropriate social and recreational activities. If you keep up steady progress with your work then you are unlikely to fail.

The Week Before the Exams

  • Sleep, eat & drink sensibly.
  • Keep doing Tripos questions to time to break up your revision schedule and show which areas need most work.
  • Don't worry; if you find it difficult then lots of other people will be finding it difficult too.
  • Keep plodding on. Try not to succumb to anxiety.
  • Make a strict division between work and relaxation. Work hard when you work, completely relax when you relax.
  • Check Departmental notice boards for the rooms where your exams will be held. If in any doubt, consult your Director of Studies.
  • Make sure that your alarm-clock is in good working order.

The Exam Itself

  • Arrive 15 to 20 minutes before the start of the exam.
  • Read the rubric very carefully.
  • Read the question carefully. Answer the question, and don't massacre the meaning of a carefully worded question by simply treating it as "Write everything you know about ....".
  • Use the first paragraph of an essay to indicate how you intend to tackle the question.
  • Write clearly.
  • Do first the questions that you think you'll find easiest.
  • Attempt the number of questions required. Half the questions means a maximum of half the marks!
  • Plan your time. Don't spend too long on any one question. Answering exam questions follows the law of diminishing returns. Gaining the first 50% of the marks is much easier than gaining the last 30%.
  • Always start a new question on a new sheet of paper because (a) that is usually what you are instructed to do, and (b) if you have an afterthought about an answer to a question, you can easily add it.
  • Draw things fairly large, and ensure that diagrams are adequately-labelled. Don't be obsessive about the perfection of diagrams; they should "make the point", but no more. Appropriate diagrams can save a lot of words.
  • Take time after the end of the exam to put together your script.
  • Follow the instructions in at the top of the exam paper very carefully, e.g. make sure that the right pages are included (and excluded), tie up questions in numerical order, tie up sections (or questions) individually (according to instructions).
  • Generally aim to make life pleasant for the people marking your paper; they will probably reward your efforts.