by Mia Herzog
Part II Zoology can be an unusual choice. In Cambridge it encompasses both the typical subjects as well as some unexpected ones: anything from ecology, behavior and evolution to development and biochemistry. (This can be slightly confusing if you are applying for e.g. a PhD position.) The modular structure can be great if your interests are varied and some of the other subjects have modules/lecture courses that just don’t float your boat.
Zoology offers 7-8 different modules per term. In order to be able to answer enough questions in your exams you will have to take at least two (of any combination), but you can take as many as you can handle. Or you can just attend some lectures for fun. Some are shared with other subjects (e.g. Biochemistry and PDN) or offered by other departments. The most difficult thing will be organising supervisions because you need to annoy your lecturers by yourself. They prefer if you attend in groups of 3-4, but I have found that sometimes the other students can be annoyingly difficult to coordinate. It took me two months once to organise a single supervision. It was then cancelled on the day: I was the only one who showed up. It took about 1.5 months to rescheduled. So in case it seems impossible to get a group formed, just try to arrange a supervision for yourself only. It is possible depending on your lecturer and it will allow you to learn a lot about the subject. Sometimes that will give you invaluable tips that will put you miles ahead when writing your essay. In one of my single supervisions (I was only one of two students who bothered to have supervisions with that lecturer) the lecturer gave me tow very short, but critical reviews to read – in the end the exam was about that same topic.
Reading papers is part of the deal. I hate reading papers, so I have a few suggestions. Make sure you understand the lecture material first. That is your basis. Papers come often on top of that. My suggestion: don’t get bogged down in the details of the papers – that you do if you are actually working in that field. Read the abstracts, maybe skim the discussions. If you are writing a long practice essay try finding a good review. Lecturers often provide you with good clues as to what to read. And don’t feel too bad if you can’t read the whole reading lists. It’s about making a few extra bits stick in your head, rather than reading tons and forgetting it all. And don’t forget to make very concise, short notes – as if you’ll remember the details of a paper you read in October at the end of May.
In your first term you are required to write a critical review – basically a 2,000 word essay on a paper that you choose from a list compiled by supervisors. You are allowed to have one supervision with whoever picked that paper, but you are not allowed to show him/her any of your work. It is mainly an opportunity to make sure you understand the paper. My advice: have the supervision once you have actually written your first or even fifth draft, because then you will have probably have understood the paper to the best of your own abilities and you can focus the supervision on the really tricky bits. It is also an opportunity to get a feel for what the supervisor thinks about the paper. Remember: you need to describe, but then also evaluate the paper. What is good, what bad, what experiments should they have added? You need to submit 2 bound copies and an electronic version before the end of Michaelmas Term. It will count for 8% of your final grade. Sometime during Lent Term you will receive feedback comments, but no indication of your grade.
You will be expected to do two terms worth of project work. One of those can actually be in the summer preceeding your third year. You just need to tell the Department beforehand and find someone willing to supervise your write-up. I found not having labwork during Lent Term a great advantage. Email Torsten Krude if you have questions. You can also replace one of your projects with a field course the Department organizes. You need to hand in two bound copies of your write-up and submit it electronically. If you do two one-term projects the write up has to be 5,000 words long, 7,500 words if you do one two-term projects. You can have your supervisor read your draft once. My suggestion: get it as good as you possibly can. You’d want your supervisor to do the finishing touches, rather than order a big overhaul of your work. You will also give a small oral presentation in a group. This will give you 1% of your mark regardless of how well you do. Make sure you show up and I wouldn’t be too nervous. It is good practice.
The Exam Week
Zoology has 5 exams in 5 consecutive days. The first is the essay paper and the other 4 are about the lectures. Paper 1 and 2 will be about the Michaelmas Modules and 3 and 4 about the Lent Modules. For example Exam 1 will contain 3 questions for Modules M1 to M8 each. Exam 2 will contain 3 different questions for the same set of Modules. You will have to write 3 essays in total, but you cannot write more than 2 per section/Module. Thus, you will have to attend lectures from at least two Modules. If you are worried about the vast amount of work and reading. Sometimes it is more important to have truly understood the lecture material as opposed to knowing lots of detail. Your lecturers are less impressed by people soaking up facts like a sponge, they prefer people who show they are thinking and actually answering the question. Sometimes you can score points by actually discussing the question in a critical way. Example: in my exam I was asked to describe a strategy for deriving embryonic stem cells from an endangered species. I spent a page of the essay arguing that that was possibly not ideal and suggested several alternatives of deriving stem cells without “wasting” embryos.
The Essay Paper is the odd one out. It is a two hour paper and you write a single essay about a science-and-society issue. My advice: there is almost no way to study for it. But generally you should be opinionated and it helps to be aware of science issues. For example, read the science section in The Economist. The questions often don’t actually require much knowledge on your part. You will need a few examples, but generally you will just need to be able to argue a point.
Cambridge exams are designed in a way that you can’t be ideally prepared – if you can you must be a superhero. I never could. The examiners will say time and again: “We are just trying to sample your knowledge”. This means you will actually only answer questions on a small subset of topics. It is thus a good idea to be exceptionally good on these. That usually required selecting some topics while drawing others. A word of warning: That is incredibly difficult for Zoology.
Here is example math: Module M7
Module M7 is shared with Biochemistry, but the exams are separate. There will be around 7 different lecture courses. In biochemistry you would have one exam on the topic where you will usually get at least one question each, sometimes more. You will have to answer 3 questions. That will give you a lot of options. In Zoology you will get asked 6 questions in total split randomly over two days. Thus, it is incredibly hard to tell whether you can drop anything. It is more limiting in any case.
My advice: Try to cover your bases as much as you can and have a good basic knowledge of most topics. You can still write a great essays if you haven’t done much extra reading. Specializing too much will almost certainly put you in the position where you will not be able to answer a single question out of 3 and you will have to wing it. Depending on who you are that can be horrible for you.
All in all I thought zoology was a great option to take. I had barely any topics I didn’t like and the projects were great. The exams can be especially tiring and nerve-wracking, but with determination you can do it well.