Economics

by Martin Iacoponi; edited by Tristan Dunn

General points

Economics is one of the best courses at Cambridge: it’s engaging and interesting throughout, with sufficient variety and breadth to suit most needs, and certainly a whole heap of relevance for the real world and students’ aspirations post-graduation. Across the three years you’ll develop the way you think about the world and find your mind has somehow been moulded by tripos. Sure there’ll be qualms about the quality of certain lecturers, at times the materials (especially towards the end of the course) will become somewhat abstract, and the workload can be pretty intense, but that’s all part of the experience. And it’s one I found thoroughly rewarding. Looking back, I’ve jotted down some thoughts on how to tackle it all – hope you find them useful. These are very much from my own perspective, so not at all general rules for all but perhaps useful to apply if the context is right.

Tripos success is effectively exam success, so a lot of what I talk about is really how to do well in the exams rather than necessarily how to squeeze he most out of the ‘learning’ available from the course. For the latter, lecturers and supervisors will be more than happy to discuss their learning materials and help you probe into further study or at least engage in a heightened discussion.

During the first two terms my approach was simply to keep head above water: go to all the lectures, make good notes, produce high quality and comprehensive supervision work and ensure you’re on top of the material at the time. Highlight areas where the lecturer commits particular focus or strays off on a tangent – the lecturer will likely be your examiner, so picking up their preferences will both hint at what might come up in the exam and indicate what kind of material they’d be pleased to see in an answer.

I personally took the Christmas vacation as an opportunity to relax and unwind at home before what effectively becomes one elongated 6 month stint from January to the end of June as the Easter vac can be squeezed out by preparation for mocks (which inevitably help as they force you to start picking up the material earlier on) or, in final year, the dissertation.

My revision strategy has always been to learn everything I’ve been taught, both in lectures and supervisions. But to achieve that it was necessary to drop chunks of nearly every course, with the choice depending on how much choice there is in the exam, how much I enjoyed the modules, how well taught they had been and how confident I was in the examiner to set reasonable questions. Talking to the other economists helps to reach a decision and you’ll often find there’s a majority of people dropping the same certain element of the course.

I started by going over all the lecture handouts and converting them to handwritten notes. This is time consuming and my goal was to get it done with 3 weeks left before the first exam. Then I went over supervisions and appended those notes. Finally, I collected a big wodge of extra readings for each paper (some papers require more than others) as indicated in reading lists and lecture notes as well as supervision questions. It’s impossible to read all the articles out there so be selective and try to cover all areas you’re revising so that you always have some references up your sleeve regardless of the question that comes up. I summarised the readings and appended my notes as necessary.

Once I had this stock of knowledge ready to go, I spent lots of time committing it all to memory whilst also going through the relevant past paper questions and re-attempting the supervision questions. In first year it was possible to cover areas from as much as three papers in one day; by second year I only managed to look at two papers properly in one day; and by third year I found I was spending whole days on one paper alone due to the detail and difficulty of the material. This affects your revision timetable, which is always handy to plan out at least a week in advance from around 6 – 8 weeks before your first exam. Always plan conservatively – the worst thing that can happen is you walk into the exam underprepared. Start revising early enough so that you can cover everything you want well in time, and give ample space to go over and over past papers, plus don’t underestimate how long it takes to commit material to memory. In the week prior to an exam I’d plan to spend at least two full days (including the day before) going over my notes and memorizing it all, little chunklets at a time.

The most important thing is always intuition. Be able to explain theories and models in laymans terms and see the big picture motivating any question or economic theory; keeping in mind policy implications, weaknesses and criticisms of theories as well as extensions of the models also seems to help add a little edge to an answer. Show the examiner you know what the whole point is, whilst also recognizing the importance (where appropriate) of nitty gritty technicals, maths and equations. One of the great things about economics is you have the freedom to write an essay in nicely-worded and elegantly crafted prose, plus fill time and gain marks by drawing some straight lines on a diagram and adding some simple algebra alongside – and both are relevant, complementary and hugely appreciated by examiners.

Exam technique is vital – spend equal amounts of time on each part of a question and on each question across the exam, answer the question in a focused and relevant manner (the examiner has probably spent a lot of time and effort constructing a viable and decent question, and will be hugely disappointed if you bypass all that and regurgitate some chunk of the lectures that doesn’t address the nuances properly), keep reading and re-reading the question throughout and write a clear, intuitive and well-structured answer (with intro, conclusion etc). Read and re-read the examiners’ reports. Some are better than others but quite often the same examiner stays on from last year so will soon be looking at your script with the same scrutiny and critique that s/he is explaining in the report. Often the examiner makes the same basic points year after year – if you pick up on what they want to see and others continue missing it, bingo.

Brief points on Part I

Probably the hardest of the three years in terms of managing workload and different areas of economics – effectively you have to do 6 papers (as stats and maths are taught and often supervised separately). The exam week is also the toughest of any course and any year across the whole uni in my opinion, coming right at the end of term and all in one go. You’re also starting out at uni and lots of other things will be happening, so I’d suggest just do what’s asked of you in the first two terms – get yourself to every lecture, hand in the best you can for supervisions – then head down for exam term to learn it all. Stay motivated, work with other economists in your year and make the most of the fantastic breadth offered up in first year. Having said that, breadth means you’ll need strength in depth when it comes to exams, being able to deliver high quality essays (for history and politics), precise and accurate maths, and a combination of the two (macro and micro). Find out what you’re weaknesses are from this repertoire early on and smooth them out. Also, the stats project is important but it’s also worth a very small % of your overall mark for the year, so don’t stress too much over it.

Brief points on Part II

I’d say the lightest workload of all three years of tripos comes in second year, so enjoy it. For the optional paper, make a choice based on both feasibility and interest – have a look at past papers and scores and take into account how you performed in Part I on the related papers. The stats project is of more importance than Part I and acts as a good building block to the dissertation in third year, so commit time to it and make sure the final document is nicely formatted and presented to maximize the examiner’s experience of reading through. Talk to the economists in the year above as they’ll have the most up-to-date advice on how to tackle it (this point applies generally to all areas here). Refine and build on your Part I revision strategy, invest more time in areas where you performed comparatively worse, and make sure you do extra work in sections of the course that initially make less sense / were less comprehensively taught.

Extended comments on Part IIB

Common papers

Micro

Generally quite a hard exam because you need to apply what you know to new situations not seen in lectures. There’s also (and this applies to Part IIB in general) just not enough time to answer the questions, so you need to be selective and concise in condensing all your knowledge down so you don’t muck up your timing in the exam. There’s lots of maths in lectures but you won’t need to know all of it necessarily – sometimes it’s more efficient to know final results instead of entire derivations as there’s little time in the exam to lay out the latter.

Macro

The exam problems here rely heavily on working through lots of maths, and whilst the maths itself isn’t difficult it can be very easy to lose yourself amongst all the greek letters and to forget the mechanical steps necessary to reach the required answers. Going through supervision and past paper questions again and again is the key, and the lectures – especially international finance – are pretty comprehensive. Providing intuitive explanations alongside the algebra is also invaluable. It’s probably easier to hit the higher marks in the problem questions than the essays as the former are more mathematical on the whole, but there are essay questions that ask for algebra as well. The exam sits very closely to lectures so there’s less need to be concerned about surprises.

Dissertation

Seems to mostly get done at Easter holidays when the pressure’s on and you can focus solely on it, but there is always the risk it will start infringing on revision as the deadline is just over 4 weeks before exams start. It’s certainly worth chugging along with literature review (effectively reading journal articles and textbook chapters) and data collection early on as this is time consuming and you likely won’t have time for it come Easter. Read the mark scheme on the faculty website and strive for the top band. It’s effectively a mini journal article so reads lots and lots of these to get an idea of tone, content, structure, layout etc. Having a rigorous theoretical foundation as well as strong empirics and a ‘nice story’ to tell all seem to go well with the examiners.

Choice papers

Industry

Section A of the exam is a bit of pot luck and not very easy to revise for apart from past papers and ensuring you really know the maths in lectures inside-out. Section B is straightforward essays sticking very close to the lectured material. The examiners want to see you know the theory as well as the empirical evidence in the literature and the relevant real world examples so it’s useful to have some industries you’re interested in up your sleeve eg. airliners, banking, electricity etc.

Development

Section A of the exam is usually essays broken into parts to make them easier to answer; section B is metrics and tends to be pretty random – effectively just need to learn all the econometrics issues and problems you know already from Part IIA and ensure in your answer you relate it to the relevant area of development theory (plus always useful to drop in limitations, extensions and empirical evidence). Read the questions in B carefully, give the answer they want and then use your metrics arsenal to pile in extra ideas and thoughts. Section A sticks closely to lectures so learning these thoroughly is invaluable. There’s lots of scope for extra reading here and it does come in useful. Not much scope for dropping courses given the set-up of the exam but certainly possible if you make a well thought-out decision on what to leave out.