Preparing to write your Cambridge International exams

Exam imageButterflies in the stomach! Judgement Day! Am I prepared? Will I do well enough to be accepted for my first choice at University? Or to proceed to the next level of my Cambridge studies?

These are the feelings, thoughts, and questions that go through your mind (and stomach!) as exams approach. These final weeks of preparation are crucial, and can easily make a difference of 20% to 30% on your final result; but what do you do when you sit down at your desk to revise? How do you prevent your mind from wandering as you page through your text book and your notes? How do you use your time effectively so that you are not like a boxer punching the air?

Here are some guidelines to help you ensure success. They are especially applicable to subjects like mathematics and physics, but will be useful for other subjects too.

  1. As a first step, review your notes which summarize important theorems, formulae, and procedures. (These are given in the green note boxes on the web pages of the lessons.) If there is anything you don't understand, go back and revise the relevant section.
  2. The bulk of your revision can be done by working through past papers. Each paper covers every major area of the syllabus, and if you do enough of them you will encounter questions in a wide variety of forms. This will help you avoid the panic one feels in the exam room when one is confronted with something unfamiliar and unexpected.
  3. Allow at least four weeks for this revision phase and aim to answer at least three past papers per week. This should give you sufficient exposure, but be prepared to extend your revision if necessary. Choose the most recent papers to work on.
  4. For the first few papers, don't worry about how long you take, and feel free to look up information in your notes, in the text book and on the website. In this way you can revise sections of the curriculum that you have either forgotten, or didn't understand very well in the first place. At this stage, you can make use of the strategy given in the Lesson 1.4 of Maths P1 for the miscellaneous exercises.
  5. Mark your work according to the published mark schemes. This is very important as it will (a) make you familiar with the examiners' expectations, and (b) teach you to evaluate your own work. Learning to evaluate your own work is a critical step in effective learning and study.
  6. Don't worry too much if your marks are disappointingly low for the first few papers. If you follow the strategy outlined here, you should be able to increase your initial marks quite substantially.
  7. Once you are comfortable with every section of the curriculum (say after one-and-a-half weeks), you should start completing the past papers under exam conditions — don't look up anything while you are writing the paper, and time yourself. The P1 paper is quite pressurized from a time point of view, so you need to learn to work quickly.
  8. Be honest with yourself when marking your work. Don't think that you can get 80% in the final exam if you can only manage 60% when practising. In this regard, the available past papers give you a tremendous advantage. If you answer them under exam conditions, and you mark them honestly, you can get a good idea of what to expect for your final result. Yes, you may have a particularly difficult paper, and you may have a bad day, but these factors will not cause a huge difference to your final result (usually not more than 10%); the key here is to be honest with yourself! If you don't complete the past papers, don't complete them under exam conditions, or fail to mark them honestly, you may be disappointed with your final result, but you will have yourself to blame! (Sorry, but I have to say that!) So be wise, face up to reality in your preparation rather than when you get your final results.
  9. When you have marked a paper, go back over each question where you had mistakes (no matter how small) and ask yourself where you lost marks. Generally, your mistakes will fall into three categories:
    1. careless mistakes, such as writing down a formula incorrectly, or using the wrong formula even though you know which one you should use, or copying incorrectly from one line to the next or from the bottom of one page to the top of the next;
    2. computational errors, such as manipulating an equation incorrectly or making errors with your arithmetic (e.g. adding fractions);
    3. conceptual errors, where you don't (adequately) understand the concepts involved in the question.
  10. Here are some suggestions for eliminating careless mistakes:
    1. Make sure that your mind is fresh. This applies to practice but especially to the final exam. Get enough sleep, rest and exercise, and eat healthily.
    2. Learn to apply your mind and to concentrate while you are answering maths papers. Check and re-check every step.
    3. Don't try to do too much in your head. Rather write down too many steps than too few. In addition to helping you as you work out the answer for the first time, this will also make it much easier to check your answers.
    4. Set out your work neatly. Don't write down numbers, equations, or formulae at random on the page. Make sure that the meaning of each number/symbol is clear. Use standard mathematical notation. Consult the worked solutions for guidance in this regard. You don't need to include detailed explanations in your answers (as the worked solutions do), but make sure that the flow of your answers is logical and clear.
  11. Here are some suggestions for eliminating computational errors:
    1. The suggestions mentioned in the previous point apply here as well.
    2. It is important to have mastered basics skills of mental arithmetic, and to think clearly while using them, but do not be afraid to use your calculator. Definite integrals in particular can produce some tedious numerical calculations — often involving fractions — and it is usually quite risky and slow to rely only on mental arithmetic for these. These days, most scientific calculators can handle fractions. Make sure you know how to use this function on your calculator — and use it!
  12. What about conceptual errors? This is where you need to work hard — and in good time, well before the exam!
    1. Identify which major section of the curriculum is involved (essentially this means identifying which is the relevant chapter in your text book). Also identify which sub-section you are dealing with.
    2. Review your notes, as well as explanations in the text book and videos on the website where necessary.
    3. Find similar questions in the prescribed exercises and look at the worked solutions for those exercises.
    4. If you realize that you are quite weak in a particular area, practise a few questions which test the particular concepts and skills that you are weak on. Here you can use exercises in the text book which weren't prescribed during the course; you can also use past papers, selecting only those questions which cover the area that you need to brush up on.
    5. Get help from a tutor, friend, or family member who can explain the concepts to you.

We wish you every success with your preparation, in writing your final exam, and in your future career!