Entering first year can initially seem daunting; gone are the revision guides, syllabuses and detailed mark schemes, and enters an unclear path for learning; what do we need to know from the lectures? How much detail do we need to know? Which textbooks do we need to memorise? This guide will cover all of these issues so that you can focus on what’s important for the Tripos examinations. Note that everything I say won’t necessarily be everything I did, however they are points which I consider to be useful. My discussion will firstly focus on the 2nd MB component (which comprises 50% of the Tripos mark in first year and 40% in second year) and then the essay component (which comprises 50% of the Tripos mark in first year an 60% in second year).
- 1 2nd MB
- 2 Essays (Tripos only)
The lecture notes contain everything you need to know for the 2nd MB component
This point is extremely important – pretty much everything you need to know for the 2nd MB component of the examinations (ie. MCQs/SAQs) are contained within the lecture notes (or are stated during lectures). Therefore reading additional sources such as textbooks is only useful in terms of examinations for a) understanding/clarification of concepts and b) essays (which I will cover later).
The exception to this is HR in Part IB. The HR notes are the least detailed and complete notes you’ll find during IA and IB. Many of the MCQ answers aren’t mentioned in the lecture handouts and so you’ll have to do extra reading. Human Reproduction by Martin Johnson is absolutely essential and I’d recommend you make your own notes from this textbook. These will allow you to write very good essays and answer all of the MCQs (none of which is possible using only the lecture notes for HR).
Consolidate your notes
You might take notes during lectures. There is no point having two sets of notes – one the lecture handout, and the other your handwritten notes which say the exact same thing. It merely makes it harder to memorise things when it comes round to examinations. Therefore I’d advise annotating the lecture handouts during lectures or after, or least ensuring that your extra notes don’t just say the same thing in a different way. This way all your notes are in one place and not repeated and it’ll be much easier to memorise as there’ll be a) less to read and b) less of the same thing said in a different way which in my opinion can hinder the consolidation of facts into your memory.
Look at past papers early
It’s important to look at past papers as early as possible (I’d recommended during the Christmas holidays). Only by going through past papers can you really appreciate the level of depth you need to learn the lecture notes in – they can ask you the smallest of details. I understand that FAB have started to withhold the past papers from public release. Note that many of the old FAB papers are far too easy, and that the papers have subsequently become much harder, so don’t let the old papers fool you into thinking the questions will be that easy. The more recent examinations differ in that they a) ask trickier questions on more detailed aspects of anatomy and b) they often ask about the contents of the lecture handouts, not just dissection manual, which didn’t used to be the case in the past.
As with the lectures, pretty much everything you need for the practical examination from a theoretical perspective is in the practical handbooks and notes. However, in all cases, what you learn in the practicals visually is vital to your understanding and for the examinations. Make sure you go through the handouts during the session and see everything you’re ‘meant’ to see. My general advice (which I wish I had done!) would be to try and read the handout/practical book/manual before coming to the session and to ask for the demonstrators help as much as you possibly can.
Essays (Tripos only)
Do some extra reading – but not too much
Whilst I mentioned above that extra reading isnt essential for the 2nd MB component, it’s much more important in writing essays. Try and look at past paper essays and construct essay plans based on the lecture notes and some extra things you’ve read. Its easy to get carried away with reading so make sure you remember that you only have 40-60 minutes per essay so memorising a chapter of a biochemistry textbook really won’t be useful – be selective and pick things that are relevant to the course.
Structure your essay and ensure coherency
There are no hard and set rules on how to write essays, however there are some general points which might be useful. Firstly, read the essay title twice. This sounds obvious but it’s easy to misread a word and therefore end up writing an essay on the correct topic but maybe not answering the question or with a different emphasis. Also ensure that your essay is well structured and consider the use of subheadings. Using subheadings can help with your essay structure, as it forces you to structure it, but this is entirely up to you; if you’re confident you don’t need them and that your essay will flow well without then you might not need to (I used to use subheadings in some essays and not others depending on how I was structuring the essay). Additionally, ensure coherency; try and form an argument/discussion which follows a certain line of argument/discussion and doesn’t simply jump around from point to point – it should flow well.
Handwrite essays for your supervisor
It’s poor practice (in medicine anyway) to type your essays on the computer; this might seem good – you can copy and paste, easily edit and have a digital backup, however it ultimately hinders you when it comes to the examinations. By handwriting you gain an idea of how long it takes you to write and what you might be able to include if the essay came up in an examination. It also forces you to think about structure before you’ve written the essay which ensures coherence.
Practice writing essays under timed conditions
Whether or not your college gives you mocks, try and do a few essays under timed conditions so you have an idea of the rate at which you write and know how much to include – perhaps the hardest aspect of writing essays in MVST fitting everything in in the limited time.
Looking at trends in order to ‘predict’ essays can be a dangerous strategy. It can work, but it can also be disastrous. For instance you might say “essay titled “x” usually comes up every year but hasn’t for two years so itll definitely come up this year”. This necessarily isn’t the case, and it’s possible that the lecturer and/or lecture contents have changed resulting in a shift in emphasis. Thus whilst it’s perfectly safe, reasonable and effective to focus on topics you think will come up, ensure you don’t completely rely on them coming up such that if they dont you can’t write any good essays.
Special Options papers (MVST 1B only)
The special options papers are two essay papers which you to choose in first term in order to study in lent term. What it’s imperative to appreciate the moment you start these courses is that unlike the rest of the lectures you attend, you won’t be asked on minute details of the handouts – you’ll be asked only essays. This point is really important as it should shape how you go about learning and preparing for these papers. Very often the questions are on a single lecture and hence there isn’t really much that can be asked. You’ll also note that it’s often possible to completely ‘bin’ some topics. Some people end up ‘binnning’ far too many topics and so it comes back to bite them, whilst others waste time going into depth on all the topics in the option, so try and strike the right balance.
Best of luck and remember there’s more to life than Tripos!