by Jonathan Bassett
I will give some general advice then some tips for each year.
To do well in Engineering at Cambridge you don’t need to know any special secret or formulae. You also don’t need to be a genius; if you got in to the course you are probably smart enough to get a 1st. What you do need is a lot of hard work, and perhaps being a bit smart about what you spend your time on. If you work hard to understand and learn what is taught in lectures then you will do well. Each person has different methods of doing this, so if you find your own way of doing it then stick to it! It also helps to be very good at maths.
Engineering in reality is not about getting a good grade at University. The Cambridge system is reputedly theoretical, which does provide you with a great foundation, but you will need to put extra effort in to supplement this with practical experience. The two ways of doing this are joining an engineering club (e.g. Cambridge University Eco Racing) and getting good summer placements. Try and get placements every summer. The first year you may be stuck with whatever you are given, but in later years try and choose something which will give the experience you need. Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself in these, as companies are usually willing to teach you. You can learn a lot and the practical knowledge will help you in your fourth year project and in finding a job later.
• Start well:
◦ The grade may not count as much, but the first year is useful to find out how you study best. So use it.
◦ If you want to go on exchange in the third year then your first year grade will be used in selection.
• Don’t be cocky:
◦ Everyone starts with different knowledge, so you are bound to find some things in first year easy and some things hard.
◦ Spend the time you need on each subject to make sure you understand everything.
◦ If you have been taught things in a different way at school, try and relearn things in the way they are taught in Cambridge. Courses lead on from one another, so it’s good to follow the lectures way of reasoning if you can.
• Work on all subjects:
◦ Even if you are sure that you won’t do electrical in third year, work on it. Engineering has a lot of cross over. Foundations are important and you will appreciate the breadth of the first two years later in your engineering career.
• Revise things regularly:
◦ Go over everything in Christmas and Easter, lecture notes and examples papers.
• Do examples papers:
◦ Practice is the best way of understanding and learning. Use the examples papers to stretch your brain, and the supervisions to get to the very bottom of problems that you have.
• Do practice papers:
◦ The best way of revising for exams. Do a couple in Christmas, just to see where you are, and then try and do as many as possible when revising proper.
◦ Again do them like examples papers: go to the bottom of problems and really seek to understand.
• Don’t worry about coursework:
◦ Standard credit is your friend. Do enough, but don’t stress about doing more.
Basically the same as first year, just harder. Once you’ve worked out how you study best then refine and practice the methods more. This is supposedly the toughest year out of the four, with what seems like double the lecture material of 1st year, plus IDP and possibly more social stuff going on. So take heart that everyone finds it tough.
Go on exchange if you can. Great opportunity to experience engineering outside of the Cambridge bubble, and even chill out a bit as your grade technically won’t count for anything.
This year is a beast. As well as the normal load from lectures you have the fourth year project. The grade given is the lowest out of your exam results and your project. E.g. a first in your exams and a third in your project will get you a third over all. So this year is all about managing your time and effort. This is not easy, so think carefully about it. Here is a rough breakdown of work for the year:
End of summer holidays: Project
Michaelmas term: Project + Lectures & Examples papers + Coursework
Christmas break: Project + Coursework + Revision
Lent term: Project + Lectures & Examples papers + Coursework
Easter break: Project + Coursework + Revision
Summer term: Exams followed by Project write-up
You need to balance three things:
1. Project: you can mostly choose when to do work
2. Lecture courses (theory): fairly steady workload.
3. Coursework: comes when assigned. Often mid term or during Christmas/Easter break.
Advice for modules:
• Choose the split between 100% CW modules and 100% exam modules carefully. Think what you are best at, CW or exams. Also consider when the CW is set, and think about your workload.
• Avoid 75% exam/ 25% CW. The CW usually takes longer than you want and you’ll spend just as long revising for 75% as you would for 100%. If you do choose some then limit the amount of time you spend on the CW.
• Learning the material should now be second nature to you after three years of practice.
Advice for project:
• Use the summer break before to plan your project and do as much work on it as you can.
• Try to get the bulk of the project done in Michaelmas term, this avoids extra stress when exams loom. Particularly aim to get the practical parts (building or experimentation) over as quickly as possible. You will face problems with these bits and it takes time to sort them.
• Get as much help from your supervisor as possible, they are there to help you.
• Choose something you are interested in and, if possible, something to do with your future career.
• Make sure you get on with your supervisor
• Pick a project that doesn’t rely on other people. For example you may need a PhD student or technician to help you with some experiments or building something. This is risky as they might have other priorities.
Work hard and enjoy!