I‘m not here to tell you how to make notes or to advise you on exam technique. The following are a few dirty tricks that I’ve learnt though my years at Imperial. I’m a physicist so that’s what I’ve written about, but maybe you can transfer some of this to your own course – unless it’s geology, I have no tips on colouring-in.
The first thing to remember is all you leave here with is a grade. It doesn’t matter that you picked the hardest subjects or that your supervisor messed you around. The outside world doesn’t care. All they see is: 1st – clever (might be an arse), 2:1 – did alright, probably well rounded, 2:2 – too much sport, 3rd or below – expensive toilet paper. These grades are awarded with huge boundaries and even if you miss one by a few percent you will still get an interview to bring you up.
This makes the undergrad obsession with getting every last mark frankly ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, the mid-morning panic before an assessed problem sheet deadline is quite amusing, but it won’t make a difference to your grade.
A problem sheet is worthless and one mark is 0.017 times that. The aim of your first year is to learn how to learn. Don’t waste hours minus sign hunting when you could be grasping concepts (or enjoying yourself). If you care that much, just cheat.
Students are the best teachers so talk to your peers. You don’t get any marks for deriving the whole of physics by yourself. For me, half the time I was stuck it was just a mistake in the lecture notes.
If you’re looking for people to work with, ignore the front row. They’re not clever, they just need people to think they are. The clever kid is sitting on their own, quietly confident and definitely not
stopping the lecture every five minutes to ask yet another inane question.
Stand up for yourself, particularly with demonstrators. These are generally young PhD students with little marking experience a.k.a easy pickings. After each lab report you will have a feedback session where they point out the reasons you’ve been marked down. Your job is to listen very carefully and wait for them to slip up. Perhaps they said you left something out or that you made an error in your maths. Are they right? If not you should very politely point it out.
Don’t spend your time sitting in front of books because you’re too guilty to go out but not working because you’re too bored to pick up a pen. Work when you mean to work and play when you mean to play. If you don’t have an interest outside your studies you’ll burn out or at the very least have a miserable time.
Go to tutorials, if you’re wavering on a grade boundary the backing of your tutor will count for a lot more than those extra assessed problem sheet marks.
This one might be a bit controversial, but, personally, I don’t think there’s much value in figuring out problem sheets from scratch. Exams are about reproducing mathematical tricks, so I generally waited for the answers before attempting any.
Choice of courses is paramount, get it right and it can easily earn you a grade. First and foremost choose courses based on who’s lecturing. Get a duff lecturer with bad notes and you’ll be up a popular creek without a paddle. There are some lecturers who require students to think during exams – these sadists should be avoided at all costs. Fortunately there are others that perennially set easy papers. Find out who these wonderful people are and make your life a bit easier.
It is of course deeply unfair that the (in)competence of the lecturer should have a greater impact on your grade than your own (in)competence. You might naively expect that some central system would
sort this out. And it’s true such a system does exist, however, in practice, I’ve never seen it work, and the same lecturers give high marks year after year.
After second year there are no compulsory courses (in Physics), so this is the point where assumed knowledge stops. Yet lots of courses require the same background, which must be taught in each course. This means there’s room for the astute student to economise their learning by maximising the overlap between subjects.
In Physics, for example, General Relativity, Quantum Field Theory and Unification all require a good grasp of Einsteinian notation. Do all three and you get taught it three times, have three times the practice and get three times the marks, but only have to learn it once.
Some of the conceptually harder courses can be a good way to go. Quantum Information might seem like a lot to get your head around. However, once you get there you can almost guarantee a high mark (~90%). Get a few of these under your belt and it can really take the strain off your average
What if you’re stuck?
It’s important to recognise when you’re completely lost. Courses generally build on themselves, so when this happens it’s probably because you’ve missed something early on. Forget about keeping up with the course and go back to the start, it’s much more important to understand the basics.
If you can phrase your question go to office hours, they’re a massively under used resource. Talk to your peers.
If all that fails remember no explanation is ever perfect. Whether it’s textbooks or lecture notes they all inevitably miss out something. If you use more than one of these the chances are they won’t both have missed the same thing.
Start early, the Easter Holiday has a misleading title and even this might be cutting it a bit fine. Get a timetable and stick to it. It’s better to learn half of all of your courses than all of half of them. Stop playing sports, become a recluse and for God sake don’t do 24 hour musical or any other nonsense that gets in the way of your exams.
You’re not at school anymore. If you fail the only person that looks bad is you. Lecturers, tutors and demonstrators are too busy with their own research to drag you through your degree. You are the master of your own destiny, you can fail spectacularly and no one will blink an eye. You might not like it but “research reigns, students are pains” – even when they’re paying £9,000 a year.