Clare College Cambridge

Undergraduate Exams

Taking Exams

Nobody likes taking exams, but they’re a normal part of life as a student. At Cambridge, the exams are organised by the University, which arranges several halls throughout the city where students can sit their exams in a quiet place and with trained invigilators. It’s completely natural that you should feel somewhat stressed throughout the Easter term, especially as your own exams approach. To help you cope with this anxiety, the tutors and the nurse at Clare have drawn up these guidelines.


  • Make sure you know everything you can know in advance about the papers you are taking: the format, the rubric, the syllabus, the requirements.  This probably means consulting the 'Information for Candidates' document, and also previous years' papers (in the FML next to the main door) and examiners reports.  Your DoS will advise you.
  • Make sure you know where your exams are and how long it takes to get there.  This is particularly important if you have never been to the West Cambridge site before.
  • For general information about Cambridge exams, go to the CUSU website which is written by students for students: this is excellent
  • And go here UCS guidance for information on coping with exam preparation and stress
  • Make a timetable that apportions what is to be done within the time available, so that you know when to leave one task and move onto the next. Settle on some kind of daily rhythm, with clear breaks and a definite end-of-work. 6-8 hours a day of genuine concentration is a formidable amount; don’t try to do more, or you’ll effectively do less. Occasionally, set some boundaries for ‘crisis working’ – the sprint to complete a task within a strictly limited time (1 hour, 2 hours), rather than always plodding on with no end in view.
  • Revise ACTIVELY. Don’t just read through material, but make (brief) notes on your reading, summarize old essays, make new essay plans. Decide what is central, what is peripheral. Select. Prioritise. Be realistic about how much you can do. Unlike when you were at school, you cannot be expected to have read everything that was recommended to you (and don’t believe any students who tell you that they have done).
  • There may be parts of the course that you can usefully decide you will not be bothering with. Be very clear in your mind about what you do know about (make lists?) and about areas where you’re vague or uncertain. Sharpen up, perhaps, selectively, on a few of these – and resolve to avoid the rest. The aim is to go into the exam-room knowing clearly which are the cards in your hand that you have to play.
  • Ask your DoS for advice about the balance between the papers you take. In some subjects, you are more likely to get a first by excelling in a few papers and doing generally well in the rest. However, in others it will be your total mark that counts, and so you should make sure that you not only revise your favourite topics, but also spend time working on subjects you don’t like so much (and sometimes when you face up to them, they turn out to be not quite so off-putting as you thought).  Depending on what you’re studying, this strategy can be very effective in improving your final grade. After all, it’s far easier to rescue a weak subject and bring it above a borderline than it is to pull yourself up to the top of the firsts.
  • Do most of your writing from now on in longhand, and practise writing legibly. You don’t want to aggravate your examiners by making your scripts hard to read! When you’re doing the exams, give your hand muscles a rest by using pens of different sizes for each question.
  • Use past exam papers to give you a handy stock of ideas and to practise answers. This may mean timed answers – exam-length answers written in twice the time – detailed essay-plans – or (important) opening paragraphs. Occasionally, force yourself to take on the Question From Hell, to see what you could make of it if you had to (lifeboat drill!).
  • Critically read through your practice answers later on, after you have had more time to think about the questions. Check them against your notes. Can you follow your own reasoning? What might you have done differently?
  • Self-knowledge: what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses? Is there a pattern in what your supervisors have been telling you?
  • Keep a positive attitude. Here are some Reasons To Be Cheerful.         

(1) You are spectacularly good at this, you got in here.  You are not an imposter!

(2) Writing under pressure, imperfectly prepared, to a cruel deadline? You've been doing it all year: It's called the supervision system.  Exams are just more of the same.

(3) It is really very hard to fail                    


This is important. A certain level of stress/adrenalin can be helpful but adrenalin that you don’t work off naturally – in fight or flight – makes you ill. Headaches, stomach disorders, dizzy spells, anxiety, fatigue, depression, insomnia – a whole raft of possible symptoms.

  • Consider taking more exercise than usual, and eating more healthily. Protein during the day and carbohydrates in the evening will support a good rhythm of wakefulness and sleepiness.
  • Try to work and sleep in quiet environments. To help with this, the Tutors have arranged for the whole of the Easter Term to be a quiet period: parties are restricted, and the College is employing extra staff to prevent large groups walking through the College
  • Don’t binge-drink. Alcohol in excess is a stimulant, the last thing you need. Similarly, don’t overdose on caffeine in the crazed belief that this will somehow give you extraordinary powers.
  • Be realistic. You’re an ambitious person or you wouldn’t be here. But you are an undergraduate student, not a learned professor: there are limits to what you are meant to know. And you certainly can’t write all of it down in three hours.  
  • Don’t overwork. All the research shows that to try for more than 6-8 hours a day of intensive work is simply counter-productive.
  • Certainly, don’t work right up until bedtime. And don’t work on the bed. Make a clear area, in space and time, around where you sleep.
  • Have strategies for relaxation and for sleeping that suit you. Taking the exams will be tiring enough; you don’t want to wear yourself out before they begin.
  • Are there people you would find it helpful to work with? But firmly avoid friends whose attitude is likely to stress you out – and try not to stress out others.
  • If you are developing symptoms, go and see Helen James for some health advice.
  • Take frequent short breaks from work, partly to relax and refresh yourself, partly to take stock. For some helpful suggestions, look at the Resources section of And there are books on stress management in the downstairs computer room at the FML.
  • If you notice that you are getting uncomfortably and unproductively stressed, don't just grit your teeth and carry on. Go and talk to your tutor or Helen James or someone similar. Just talking things through with someone outside the exam situation can make a big difference.

Before the exam:

It’s essential that you eat something (even just a banana)

In the exam-room (Arts & Humanities subjects):

  • Choosing questions: take your time: an extra minute here may be time well spent. Look through the whole paper, and remember that ‘easy’ questions can be harder to write well on than more obviously challenging ones. Answer them in whatever order feels best to you. 
  • Addressing the question: does it have implications you want to draw out? is it resting on an assumption you want to interrogate? does it contain a phrase you want to organise your material around? Then, above all, KEEP RELEVANT. The further away the question is from what you want to write about, the longer you should spend establishing a real, thoughtful, not-just-token connection between the two. (This will feel scary, but read impressively.) Half-way through, and again five minutes before the end, look back at the question: are you still answering it? If you’ve drifted, work your way back into real connection. It is much better to struggle honourably with a challenging question than to unload a superb answer to a question that is not on the paper! 
  • Developing an argument: an argument is something more than the display of relevant information. It makes definite moves (paragraph by paragraph, perhaps): it has a plot. It is alert to counter-arguments, which it takes seriously; and/or it sets out a view that is complex and nuanced (‘however …’; ‘even so …’; ‘on the other hand…’) rather than bulldozing some thesis through all obstructions. It may make un-obvious connections between material; it may make discriminations between positions or phenomena that seem alike. It knows where it wants to land, and may keep back some strong new thought for the final stage of the essay.
  • Showing knowledge: often, a good argument deals intensively with a narrowly focused range of material. At the same time, you want to show your wider (relevant) knowledge. So maybe think in terms of showing knowledge at two quite distinct levels: close analysis and brief mention. Point the torch mostly ahead down the path, on narrow beam, but occasionally swing it from side to side. Even these wider references should be tied to specifics where possible: big generalizations don’t, by themselves, sound as knowledgeable as you hope. Support generalizations with specifics – or qualify them with problematic cases. And remember that you’re expected to know something, not everything!
  • Writing well:banish that fear that The Examiner Is Out To Get You, which can make people write in stiff and defensive examinese. Write in formal but plain language, as if you were trying to explain the situation to a good friend. It’s not a bad thing to show that you’re interested, to communicate engagement, to be intellectually adventurous. At the same time, don’t bullshit: academics are experts at (spotting) bullshit, and nothing irritates an examiner more than candidates pretending to knowledge or competence they evidently don’t possess. And don’t use long words unless you’re sure what they mean.
  • Write ruthlessly to the clock: short work is heavily penalized. (But if you do run short of time on a question, don’t just break off, but quickly complete the whole argument in note form, so the examiner can see where you were going.)

In the exam-room (Science subjects):

a. Essay questions.

Much of the above advice also applies to essays in the Science subjects. In particular:

Choose your questions carefully. Remember the proverb “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”! So make sure you allow sufficient time to think through what the question is asking, and then plan your line of argument before you start to answer the question.

Planning your essay is essential. It often helps to think first about what the conclusion paragraph will address, so that you make sure you cover all the points that are relevant to that conclusion, and avoid extraneous ones.

Address the question directly. To do so, you want to engage continually with the actual question set. Additional padding is not only unnecessary: it also wastes valuable time better spent answering the questions set.

Develop an argument. Don’t just describe the contents of a lecture or regurgitate examples. An essay is a bit like a book review. It should contain a clear and reasoned line of argumentation about the problem set, with evidence for and against, culminating with your own conclusions.

Aim at the right level. In order for the examiner to know how well you understand the material, you need to explain what the critical issues are. Don’t make assumptions that the examiner knows what you think. Imagine you are writing to someone who knows your general subject area but is one year below you. Above all don’t waste time and space on terms like “Importantly” unless you justify why you have used such terms.

Keep to time. You can’t score highly on an essay question that is merely a series of bullet points, or one that contains just a couple of paragraphs with no line or argumentation and/or no conclusion. Consequently it is important that you allocate approximately equal amounts of time to questions of equal weight.

b. Problem-type questions.

Read the rubric ultra-carefully and answer the right number of questions from the appropriate sections.

Answer the specified number of questions. Don’t get stuck on one or two questions only.

Re-read the question. Did you read it carefully the first time? Make sure not to miss any bits of it out.

Put into practice the revision tactics you have developed to prevent panic when faced with a difficult problem: draw a picture, make a list, write an equation or formula to help you get going, or answer an easier question and hope your brain is subconsciously working on this one. 


  • Seriously ill before the exam? If your preparation has been severely disrupted, or you think there is some chance you may not be able to complete the exams at all, contact your tutor. Arrangements can be made to prevent a fail being recorded for a student who under-performs through illness or serious personal difficulties. You may be able to make special arrangements to sit your exams in College.
  • Think you need special arrangements? Sometimes, students feel that taking exams in college would resolve all their problems. This is not necessarily true: we cannot always prevent noise coming in from the Scholars’ garden and Old Court – and there is nothing we can do about King’s lawnmowers. In an emergency, we will do everything we can to help, but we cannot guarantee an ideal solution. Sometimes you just have to choose the least daunting path.  
  • Late for the exam? The doors stay open until 30 minutes after the start. If you can definitely get there by then, hurry along – but don’t put yourselves or others at risk by trying to rush through the city if you’re ill or upset.  Depending on where you are, contact the porters’ lodge, explain what’s happened, and ask them to contact the tutorial office. It’s essential that you immediately get yourself into the presence of a porter, nurse or other senior person in college who can vouch for the fact that you have had no sight of, or help with, the exam paper. They will keep you isolated and it should then be possible for you to take the exam later in college.
  • Ill during the exam? Do not sit there doing nothing. Do not walk out. Raise your hand and tell the invigilator to inform the college. Someone will come to the exam room to collect you, and it should then be possible for you to complete the exam later in college when you are feeling better.


This is the most important point of all. In a couple of years your class of degree will be far less significant than it seems now. It will NOT determine your happiness. There is life after Tripos!

Clare College Tutorial Team

Feb 2016