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Some Part IA exam advice

[Update, 29 March 2015: A lot of this advice is applicable to people who aren’t in the first-year Maths Tripos at Cambridge, so I’ve tidied it up, and made a new page for my updated advice.]

About a fortnight ago, I gave a talk to the first-year maths students1 as part of a session about preparing for exams. For the benefit of anybody who missed the session, didn’t take notes, or future students, I decided to post my notes here.

This is my personal advice, and other people may say different things. And details may change as Tripos evolves; I only affirm that this is correct for the 2014 exams.


The first section is advice for how to prepare for the exam, and what to do once you’re in the exam. Most of this could be described as “obvious”, but enough people seem to forget it that it’s probably worth restating anyway.

Revision requires quality, not quantity

Some subjects benefit from continuous hours of intensive revision, but maths isn’t one of them. You’re better off doing a few hours of good revision a day – whether that’s Tripos questions, looking at supervision work or reading lecture notes – than doing passive reading into the small hours of the night (more on this below).

Do a three-hour mock

For a lot of IA students, your first three-hour exam was STEP, a year ago. It’s worth doing a couple of timed papers, just to get back into the feel of a three-hour paper, pacing and the like. You could also use this to think about your question strategy.

Look at supervision work and examples sheets

As you look through past papers, you’ll find questions on this year’s examples sheets. Sometimes you get lucky, and ideas from examples sheets show up in exam questions. This is also a good way to make sure you have good coverage of material in the course.

Don’t ignore Section I questions

A lot of people go straight to the harder Section II questions (which unlock more marks), but the Section I questions are worth trying as well. A solid short question may be a better use of time than struggling with a long question.

Personally, I prefer to start off with an easy Section I question. It gives me a good start to the exam, and makes me feel better about going on to tackle a harder question.

Read the rubric

Every year, there are students who misread the number of questions they can do. They do too many questions, which costs them time in the exam (and potentially marks). Read it carefully: it’s printed on the front of past papers, the exam on the day, and I’ve reprinted it below.

Candidates may attempt all four questions from Section I and at most five questions from Section II. In Section II, no more than three questions on each course may be attempted.

Don’t waste time on questions that aren’t going to score you any extra marks.

Examiners are around for the whole exam

If you think you’ve found a mistake in the paper, you can call an examiner and have them check the paper. In most subjects, an examiner is present for the first thirty minutes, but after that you’re on your own. This is not the case with maths; examiners will be present for all three hours.

In practice, there are very few mistakes in first-year papers (normally zero or one per year), so you probably shouldn’t worry about this, but it’s nice to know.


The advice in this section comes partially from my DoS, Dr. Gog, and partially from experience. It’s easy to just focus on revision, and forget to look after yourself in exam term. I stand guilty as charged on that one.

Have regular meals

It’s easy to slip into poor habits with meals (I’m particularly bad for having meals late into the evening). Even if you don’t usually have three meals a day, it’s good practice in exam term.

If you have morning exams, then it’s especially important to have a good breakfast. Personally I’m a scrambled eggs on toast person, but what you have doesn’t really matter; it’s just important to have a good meal before your exam.

Get some decent sleep

Mathmos, like all students, aren’t well known for having a good sleep schedule. But sleep is a key part of “cementing” your revision, and it’s important to get good sleep every night. Like I said above, maths revision values quality over quantity: your nights are better spent sleeping than trying to cram in a few more facts. Doubly so the night before an exam.

Take a break

When you’re working on a tricky problem, you often find that if you step away for a while, the solution becomes obvious when you come back. Your brain works on the problem in the background, but it needs that breathing room to work.

Revision is exactly the same. Sometimes you need to step away and let the dust settle. Taking time to do something other than maths makes the revision really count, and stops you becoming overwhelmed. You should build regular breaks into your revision plan.

Keep perspective

While these exams are important, they’re not the be-all-and-end-all. Getting through your exams with your mental health intact is more important than any grade. Every year, there are people who overwork during exam term, and it hurts their grades and their health. Try to be sensible with how much work you do, and how stressed out you get.

Look out for yourself, and for other people. It’s easier if we all work together to keep our stress levels down. Personally, I find it nice to put aside time with some friends every week where we don’t mention the R or the E words, and remind ourselves that there’s important stuff beyond exams.

If you do find yourself overwhelmed, then you can, and should, get help. Go to a friend, your tutor, your DoS or the University Counselling Service. It’s much better to let stress out than to bottle it up inside and let it gnaw away at you.


Good luck with all of your exams!

  1. There’s a session for first-year students to talk about exams about a fortnight into exam term. Since I was the student rep to the Faculty Teaching Committee, I was asked to come along and give a student’s perspective. ↩︎