Jackson Smith - Advice for offer holders


Starting a degree, at Cambridge or anywhere else, is significantly different to studying at sixth-form, for many reasons! As such, any undergraduate will naturally take some time to adjust to their new environment. However, Cambridge presents an extra challenge in that its terms are quite short (8 weeks) and the pace of learning is therefore pretty fast. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed, especially during the first few terms, so I put this page together to help you hit the ground running.

The summer before

Once you have fulfilled the conditions of your offer, your college will send out a welcome pack. This will contain an official `freshers guide', and perhaps even an unofficial one, written by students from your college. Chances are this will even include a handy checklist of essential things to bring with you. You may also receive a letter from your soon-to-be college tutor, recommending some summer reading (probably maths, if you're a scientist), along with a set of questions to be completed before term begins.

My advice for this time period is to take care of the basics; make sure the logistics are in place for your move to Cambridge. It's boring, but it'll prevent you spending your first few days trying to buy all the things you forgot...

As for the reading and problem sheet/s, enjoy them; this is the first taste of what your degree will be like.

Surviving and thriving

Once you arrive, you will probably find that the greatest challenge of a Cambridge degree is time management. You will be expected to complete multiple problem sheets per week, in addition to attending lectures and labs. It can be hard to know what's more important - is it better to finish the latest problem sheet, or to make it to the 10am lecture? In order to get your priorities right, it's important to understand how the learning process is set up at Cambridge:

Courses - courses are the building blocks of your degree. At the end of the year, you will sit a paper (or half-paper) for each course you have taken. A course is made up of lectures and associated problem sheets. Typically one problem sheet every two weeks of the course.

Lectures - the lecture is the fundamental unit of a course. The material in lectures builds; it is important to understand each lecture as you go along, otherwise it is unlikely you'll be able to make sense of the next one. Lectures are very different to school lessons. A lot(!) of content is covered (a one-hour lecture is an hour of pure intellectual content), and all of what is said is important. There won't be a series of `revision lectures' at the end where they tell you what you really need to know for the exam; you really need to know all of it!

Giving a good lecture, like giving a good school lesson, is an art. However, Cambridge professors are typically employed more for their brilliant research credentials, so be aware that lectures can be delivered in a way that is difficult to understand. Don't be tricked into thinking that lectures are a place where great minds will pour their wisdom into your ears; they require a lot of work on your part! What lectures do provide is the de-facto content of the course; whatever is covered in lectures will be fair game in the exam. The structure of lectures (the order in which material is presented) is also very useful. Your lecturer will have put a lot of thought into the most logical way of building up the subject conceptually. If you understand each part in turn then you understand the lecture, and ultimately the course. Don't expect this to happen in real time, in the lecture hall. You may need to go away and review the lecture slides, your written notes, a textbook or all three in order to really `get' each lecture. That's ok though, it was the same for your lecturers when they were students!

Problem sheets - these are where you hone your skills as a scientist. Questions can be broadly split into two categories: 1. do you understand this concept/derivation/simple example from the lecture? 2. Can you apply your newly-gained knowledge to a more complex situation? However, these questions are not like the ones you study at school. It is often difficult to even work out what the question is asking (often you need to read a question in words, understand the physical situation it is describing, and set up mathematical equations to describe it - before going on to solve them!). In addition, without having already understood the content of the relevant lecture, it can be very difficult to work out which questions are of type 1 and which are type 2. This is important because type 1 questions are essential to developing your understanding of the basics, so should take priority. Type 2 questions are more difficult, and are good candidates for discussion in the supervision, if you don't manage to complete them fully.

Supervisions/classes/tutorials - three different names for the same thing; these are where your marked problem sheets are returned to you and discussed. As such you will have multiple classes per week, one per problem sheet. The approach taken by the supervisor can vary, but typically they will first go through any questions that everyone (supervisions are done in small groups) struggled with, working through the correct solution on a whiteboard, before tackling any other questions that some students found difficult. If, from the problem sheets handed in, it is evident that most of the students would benefit from a recap of some basic concepts from the lectures, this could be done as well. However, due to the lag between lectures, completing the problem sheet and finally the supervision, the basics being recapped could relate to a lecture which happened two weeks ago. As such, it is a bit late to be getting to grips with the basic concepts, since every lecture since then will have been based on these!

The recipe

So in summary, the following is the recipe that has worked best for me (and many others):

1. Attend lectures, make notes/annotate the printed slides

2. After each lecture, work through the material until you understand it. You may need to read textbooks and work through the lecturer's derivations and examples for yourself

3. Once you understand the material, work on the problem sheet. Identify the basic questions and start with those. Use the time you have, and don't sacrifice lectures in order to finish the sheet - the type 2 questions are supposed to be a challenge to finish

I have found this works significantly better than the alternatives, including not attending lectures, or focusing on completing problem sheets instead of understanding lectures. This probably seems obvious, and it is - the trick is in remembering that fact when time pressure bites. The (perhaps counter-intuitive) bonus is that, as well as improving your learning in the long-term, this approach will actually save you time on a weekly basis, by allowing you to complete problem sheets much more effectively. This is because once you understand the lectures, you can easily identify which questions are type 1 and which are type 2. Indeed, for the type 1 questions, you will probably have already worked through the relevant derivation, or know which textbook contains the relevant description.

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