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How to survive exam season, according to six Cambridge tripos toppers

Everything from grapefruit Haribos to using retrieval techniques!


It’s that time of year again: the birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and Cambridge students are locked away in their rooms gearing up for the long-dreaded exam season. Whether you are a first-time exam-taker or a seasoned veteran, studying for exams can be an overwhelming and exhausting process. 

To help you navigate this stressful period, The Tab sat down with six high-achieving Cambridge students who ranked impressively in their past exams and picked their brains on how to survive Easter term. Covering everything from time management to mental health, these high-performing students share their tried-and-tested strategies for exam success.

Here are some highlights from our conversations with them.

Staying motivated and productive

Establishing predictable routines can be incredibly helpful. Jacob (ranked third in Medicine IA) created “a fairly regular revision schedule, especially during the holidays […] starting at around 10am and finish by 10pm but with regular breaks.” Another student (ranked fifth in History and Politics IB) compared her routine with a 9-5 job, sharing that “a clear schedule helped me allocate and balance revision and coursework with other commitments I had.” 

Working with study partners can be another great way to stay productive. Henry (ranked third in Engineering Part IA) credited his friends for being his study partners. He commented that he “thought it could be distracting at first but it really helped to motivate me to get up early each day and to get to the library to work alongside them until lunchtime, when we’d sit in the sun with a sandwich or go to Selwyn brunch or into town.” 

The Cambridge Market Square, a popular location for a quick lunch after studying (Credits: Flickr via the Creative Commons License)

Others shared their own unconventional strategies. For Lily (ranked second in HSPS (PolSoc) IB), this was bubble tea and grapefruit flavoured Haribos. For Hari (ranked first in Chemical Engineering IB), this was his fear of failure: “four weeks before the exams, I did a mock paper and got 30 per cent, which pretty much guaranteed my motivation for the next month as I thought I was on a rescue mission.”

Approaching revision strategically

In the STEM domain, some used a more structured approach. Henry discussed maintaining a good pace when completing problem sets. “I tried to answer roughly eight tripos questions per examples paper that was recommended to match that paper’s content during the holidays. By the start of the Easter term, I was ready to attempt full tripos papers…. I found one tripos paper a day to be manageable: it was three hours a paper, and about an hour to mark.” 

In the STEM domain, some used a more structured approach. Henry discussed maintaining a good pace when completing problem sets. “I tried to answer roughly eight tripos questions per examples paper that was recommended to match that paper’s content during the holidays. By the start of the Easter term, I was ready to attempt full tripos papers…. I found one tripos paper a day to be manageable: it was three hours a paper, and about an hour to mark.” 

In the humanities domain, a History and Politics student shares a different strategy. To prepare for her online exams, she used “mind maps and colour coding to clearly delineate different themes, schools of thought and key paradigms. I also include little comments on them so I have a bank of starting points with which to approach the more specific exam questions.”

Managing distractions and burnout

All six students recommended a work-life balance. Hari revealed that he “avoided stress and burnout by maintaining balance. Eating well, sleeping well and playing lots of sports with friends.” Another constantly reminded herself to “not try to cover absolutely everything and keep in mind that spending time doing things with people you enjoy is not wasted time.” 

Reach Out Cambridge, a campaign by Cambridge University (Credits: Instagram @cambridgeuniversity)

Yet another commented on how she approached distractions, as, to her, spontaneous plans with friends do not constitute distractions. “What you’re really going to get out of Cambridge are the connections you make. In a few years’ time, you won’t remember that supervision essay you didn’t hand in on time because you decided to go to the pub. But there’s a high chance that you’ll still have those friends.”

Lily discussed how her place of study helped her maintain focus. “I tried to study in different locations over the course of the day: say, I’d head to UL/Sidge during the day, come back to Homerton at around dinner time, and head to college library with my study group in the evening. That way, I chop my days into segments and become more productive over the course of each segment.” 

The University Library (UL), where Lily and many Cambridge students enjoy studying (Credits: Flickr via the Creative Commons License)

Maintaining a healthy mindset

One student suggested her own approach to manifestation: “For arts degrees, the more you let go of that obsession over academic achievements, the more you will attract them. It’s kind of like manifestation in that sense. You need to let it go to receive (as cringy as that sounds). The more you worry and overanalyse everything you do, the more likely you are to fall into perfectionism, and perfectionism will end up killing you.”

Luckily, as another student points out, there is plenty to look forward to after exams. “Exam term was a chaotic mix of revision dragging on, exams hurtling towards you imminently and then – in the blink of an eye – they’re over. May Week is well underway and before you know it the summer holiday starts.” 

At the end of the day, according to Lily, “do not indulge in alcoholism, eat well, sleep well…or to the best of your ability, and you will get there in the end, it will all be alright!”