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Undergraduates usually sit four separate exams at the end of each year, one for each of their paper choices.

Each exam is three hours long and asks students to answer three essay questions from a list of options. This gives students one hour to answer each question. The questions students are presented with will be related to the topics covered in the lectures and supervisions earlier in the year.

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Exam FAQs

The sections below provide some answers to help students prepare for their exams. Students are encouraged to reach out to their peers, supervisors and/or Directors of Studies if they have concerns about exams.

What does Easter Term (exam term) involve?

In the third term (Easter), you will receive revision lectures and supervisions which will help you to target your revision and prepare for the exams, which usually take place in June. Most students prepare in depth four or five of the topics they have explored over the course of the year. Some prepare six to give them greater choice in the exam, though it’s worth bearing in mind your time-limitations for revision, and your memory capacity.

It’s up to you to decide over the course of the year how many essays you would prefer to write and how you choose to revise the various topics covered; your supervisors and Director of Studies (DoS) should be happy to chat through this decision with you if you are unsure.

For many people, a significant element of exam term is expanding their knowledge through extra reading and thinking, rather than just memorising stuff they’ve already done over the course of the first two terms. A good place to start is the reading lists for the topics you wrote about for your supervision essays. Since few people get through the entire reading lists, this is a good time to catch up on some of the readings you didn’t find time to look at. Aim for two or three extra readings for each topic: this can broaden your understanding, build on what you know already, and provide you with extra material to deploy in your exam essays.

What’s the best way to prepare for exams?

One thing that is different about university exams compared to A Levels (or equivalent) is that they’re somewhat less about memorising material and more about applying that material. The exam question may ask you approach a given topic from a different angle, or in relation to another topic. Hence memorising a set answer won’t work, what’s more important is for you to develop a strong conceptual grasp of the topics at hand so that you can shape your answer to fit the question.

Your revision supervisions should help you to explore the different ways of approaching a topic, and practice essays will force you to be selective in applying the material from the readings and lectures as well as your own knowledge in new ways. This will help you to build confidence around how to approach the topic - your general point of view, common arguments and trajectories etc - while keeping it sufficiently flexible and open that you can apply it in new ways should that be required by the exam questions.

Answering practice questions based on supervision titles or past papers in timed circumstances is one of the best ways to prepare for the exam. Don’t worry if, at first, the thought of writing against the clock is daunting. You can always start by writing a handwritten essay which contains about as much content as you think you could include in an hour, but without actually placing yourself under any time-pressure. Then, to ‘level up’, give yourself unlimited time to plan your essay and to write the introductory paragraph, before writing the rest of the essay in 45 minutes. Many students find they need five to ten minutes to plan their essay before they start writing in an exam, so it’s good to account for this in your practice. As with all things, practice is key, so don’t expect perfection right from the get go. Work with your peers and your supervisors to help improve your style and approach.

How do I register for exams?

When you register your paper choices on your CamSIS self-service in the Michaelmas term, you are automatically registered for examinations in those papers (all you have to do is sign the entry verification in Lent Term). Further details are provided in the HSPS Part I Handbook [link].

What if I have a condition that requires adjustments or special examination arrangements?

Colleges are responsible for submitting applications for adjustments or special examinations arrangements (such as extra time or a scribe) on behalf of their students. These applications usually have a deadline of 31 January, so it is important that you discuss your requirements with your Tutor as early as possible and preferably in Michaelmas Term.

How are the exams marked?

Each of the four exams you complete is given a mark out of 100, and the average of those four marks gives you an overall mark for that year. Your overall mark will be assigned a ‘class’ ranging from a First to a Third according to the following boundaries; 40-49 is a Third, 50-59 a 2:2, 60-69 a 2:1 and anything over 70 a First. The marking criteria set out the criteria for each mark range, such as argumentation, structure and originality.

There are some other criteria related to how many of your papers individually received a given mark, that can help avoid situations where a very high or low mark in a single paper drags the average radically up or down, or to deal with ‘marginal’ cases such as when a student’s average is borderline.

Do these exams count towards my overall degree?

On results day you will receive your overall mark, and a breakdown of each paper, by logging onto your student account on the Cambridge Student Information System (CamSIS). Each year’s overall mark is standalone - there is no carry-over to the next year. This means that, technically, you graduate with three separate marks (one per year of study) and no overall grade for your entire time at Cambridge. However, because of the way CVs and job applications (and other universities) tend to operate, people have come to refer to their third-year mark as the ‘overall grade’ that they graduate with.