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Thinking about exam essay questions will be relevant in your first year when you take 'prelim' exams set by your College, as well as the formal exams at the end of Part I in your second year. However, developing the skill of precisely interpreting what the question is asking is a useful one to develop when working on your supervision essays. Moreover, if your Supervisor sets you a title (either in College exams or a supervision essay) it will offer valuable experience in practising the kind of close engagement needed in an exam context.

Basic technique

The following basic advice is often given at GCSE/A-level, and in many study skills books. While it may on its own be too simplistic for the kinds of essays set at Cambridge, it is nonetheless a sound basis. It is particularly useful in exams as part of your routine, to help you to focus on the question and ensure that you have read it carefully. This can easily be overlooked in the pressure of an exam situation, leading to a general answer on the broad topic named, rather than an argument which closely engages with the problem that has been set.

Identify the key terms in the title. These may include:

  • the topic on which you should write (this will be a combination of the author or text under consideration, and the theme or other angle you should investigate)
  • the instruction or question word which tells you what to do with the topic
  • any other parameters which specify which area of the topic you should focus on or include/exclude

This is still a useful exercise, particularly in exams, as it ensures that we read the question accurately. A common mistake, especially under the pressure of an exam, is to read too quickly, identify the broad topic, and write down everything we know about the subject, rather than considering what we are being asked to do with this knowledge. The essay then becomes a descriptive, superficial and unselective catalogue of what we know, rather than a focussed and analytical consideration of a problem, and may lack structure if there is no ultimate aim.

This approach is developed in some of the strategies suggested in later sections of this online resource, particularly in working with question or instruction words, identifying propositions and assumptions, and defining or deconstructing concepts.