Your training programme for the Tripos exams has four main elements: lectures, reading, essay-writing, and supervisions.
The most important of these four elements is the third: essay-writing.
Writing Essays is Difficult...
Essay-writing is the most underrated and underdeveloped, and yet the most important of academic skills. Too many people think that to do well in the Tripos you must simply go to lectures, read books, absorb the information and then reproduce it in supervision and exam essays. This overlooks the crucial fact that writing an essay is not a simple matter of spilling on to the page all the ideas that you have ingested; rather, it is a difficult and highly skilled craft.
The aim, which is the goal to have in mind throughout your training programme, is to be able to produce grammatically correct, elegant, concise, well-informed, clear, logical, and persuasive essays.
In the Tripos system you are examined by just one method: written work. A large proportion of this work is made up of essays written under quite stressful exam conditions. To excel under this system you must be an excellent essay-writer. You need to be so good at writing essays that you can write good essays even under stressful conditions.
...But Not That Difficult
At the other end of the spectrum from those who think that writing essays is effortless are those who, equally misguidedly, think that writing essays is impossible. It is good to be ambitious and quite right to have high standards, but you will not be able to produce excellent essays straight away without any practice, and you will not always be able to live up to your highest standards. Do not aim always to produce an absolutely perfect essay – that would be unrealistic. It is more important that you produce essays regularly, which will then be marked and commented upon by your supervisors with a view to developing your skills further. The result of having your standards set too high would be that you produced no work because your perfectionism did not allow you to hand in work with any imperfections. It is absolutely natural and normal to write essays with imperfections and faults – even the best writers do not write perfect essays.
Supervision Essays and Exam Essays
The essays that you write for supervisions are an important part of your Tripos training programme. One of the main points of striving to improve your writing skills in the context of your supervision essays is so that you have developed those skills to a high level when you come to be appraised in your exams.
There are differences between supervision essays and exam essays. You have more time for the former, and they will be longer and, sometimes, a little more discursive than the time¬pressure of an exam may allow. But, as a rule, you should approach writing essays whether for a supervision or for an exam according to the same basic principles: you are being asked to write a well-informed, logical, persuasive, and clearly structured answer to a specific question. You should get into the habit of writing well-structured, well-written essays for supervisions so that you know how to do so when it comes to your exams. So, you should not get into the habit of writing supervision essays that are basically unstructured reports on your week's reading that bear no real relation to the essay title you have been set.
The advice in this package relates primarily to supervision essays. More specific advice about exams is in a separate package: Exam Writing.