by Simon Morris

Part IA

There are eight courses which make up Part IA – Differential Equations, Groups, Numbers and Sets, Vectors and Matrices, Analysis I, Dynamics and Relativity, Probability, Vector Calculus. For the sake of the examination these are divided into pairs comprising roughly of an applied and a pure course. This means that it is essential to be able to solve problems from all the courses in order to do well in IA.

Using the schedules

The schedules are “minimal for lecturing, maximal for examination”. It is a good idea to go over them some time before your exam in order to gauge how much of the course you are comfortable with and isolate areas which need practise. It’s also helpful to notice where courses have changed from previous years since this makes questions in this area of the course more likely.

Exam marking

There are two sections to papers in the tripos: Section I and Section II. Section I questions are marked out of 10, anything more than 8/10 (essentially a complete answer) will earn you a beta. These questions are usually just bookwork or very easy problems.

Section II questions are marked out of 20, anything between 10 and 14 will earn you a beta, 15 upwards is an alpha. Getting alphas is crucial to doing well in tripos and so you should focus on answering as many of these questions as /completely/ as possible.

Past papers

There are a large number of past papers on the faculty website, going back many years. It is a good idea to go through as many of these as possible since questions tend to repeat themselves (in different guises) and “tricks” to solve problems tend to come up again and again. They should also help you to appreciate what sort of level the course is pitched at.

Doing many past papers should also give you the opportunity to work out how quickly you can answer the questions and therefore how many you should be expecting to answer during the exam.

Grade boundaries and exam technique

The grade boundaries from recent years can be found in the course schedules on the faculty website. This will give you some idea of how many questions you need to be answering and how many alphas you need for a given grade. In IA the top students will be answering every question (Section I and II) and will be getting nearly every alpha and beta. Therefore speed and accuracy is an important attribute in IA.

As a rule top candidates needn’t worry about the Section I questions and should instead focus on getting as many alphas as possible (up to the maximum of 5) before starting on Section I questions.

Part IB

Unlike IA, in IB you are free to choose the courses which you will study and take into the exams. (Although your Director of Studies will have some say in this and there are “Core” courses which are essential for further study in certain areas). There are therefore many different approaches to doing well in IB but they both boil down to the same sort of thing – get as many alphas as possible. Some people will take many courses and be able to answer many questions from different course in the exam (perhaps less well) and other people will take fewer courses but be able to answer every question from those courses.


Another new thing in IB is CATAM. There are 160 marks (approximately the same as a 16-lecture course) available for completing up to four CATAM projects. While no alphas or betas are awarded on CATAM, it is regardless ill advised to not try to obtain these marks (since you can’t pick them up anywhere else). CATAM projects tend to take a long time in the write-up, but by being efficient and writing up as you go along this can be mitigated.

Part II

By Part II you should have some idea of how you are going to be performing in the exams. This year is much the same as Part IB with the added feature of C and D Courses. C course offer 4 Section I questions and 2 Section II questions and D courses offer 3 or 4 Section II questions. It is worth preparing one or two C courses even if you are a strong candidate. The questions tend to be noticeably easier and quick to solve.

With everything else, this year is much the same as IB. There is CATAM (although it counts for less and the projects can be harder (it’s worth hunting out the easier ones, even in courses you didn’t do)) and a wide range of courses to choose from.