This is some advice that I originally gave to some first-year maths students while I was at university. But this advice isn’t just useful for maths students at Cambridge: I believe this is applicable to technical subjects at many different levels. This is just a tidied-up version of my original advice.
This is my personal advice, and other people may say different things. Everybody learns and revises differently. Think about what will work best for you; don’t just do something because I said so.
The advice comes in two sections:
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 technical subject don’t tend to be among them. You’re better off doing a few hours of good revision a day – whether that’s past paper 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 full length mock
It’s worth doing a couple of timed papers, for the full length of the exam, to get into the feel of doing a paper. It gives you a sense of pacing, and encourages you to think about question strategy. The first time you see a paper shouldn’t be on the day of the exam.
This is especially important if you’re doing Tripos. Probably the last three-hour exam you did (if any) was STEP or last year’s Tripos, and that was a year ago. It’s important to get back into the feel of a three-hour exam.
And here are a few suggestions more specific to the Maths Tripos:
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.
There aren’t many mistakes in papers (particularly in first-year), but it’s important to know that you can raise a query at any time.
(This was true when I graduated in 2014, and as far as I know, it is still the case. I will update this section if that changes.)
The advice in this section comes partially from my DoS, Dr. Gog, and partially from my own experience.
Your health is far more important than any exam revision. It’s easy to just focus on revision, and forget to look after yourself in exam term. I made that mistake when I was at university. Please don’t do the same.
Have regular meals
It’s easy to slip into poor habits with meals (I was 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 always had scrambled eggs on toast before an eam, 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, revision of technical subjects 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.
While exams are important, they’re (usually) 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. Almost everybody suffers from some degree of exam stress. It’s completely normal.
Look out for yourself, and for other people. It’s easier if we all work together to keep our stress levels down. Personally, I found it nice to put aside time with some friends every week where we didn’t mention the R or the E words. We could remind ourselves that there are important things beyond exams.
If you do find yourself overwhelmed, then you can and should get help. Go to a friend, a teacher, anybody. It’s much better to let stress out than to bottle it up inside and let it gnaw away at you.
I wish you the best of luck in whatever exam you’re taking.
Comments and feedback are welcome.