Comprehensive papers

The end of my undergraduate studies was approaching and I had to prepare myself as my friends from the Czech Republic for the final exams. However, there was a big difference. While there is a state examination at Czech universities at the end of undergraduate studies, there is no such examination at universities in England. Nevertheless, our Department of Physics prepares a traditional exam for students at the end of their studies. This exam tests students' general knowledge of physics and their analytical and abstract thinking. Initially, I thought it would be a physics exam similar to the A-levels. However, it turned out that preparation for this traditional “comprehensive paper” exam will require a lot more effort than I previously expected.

The tutorials began in the first week of the first term immediately after our return from the summer holidays. They were focused on practising the questions which appeared in the previous comprehensive paper exams. The very first tutorial showed me how difficult the exam will take place at the end of my undergraduate studies. It took me and my three coursemates one hour and a little more of work and cooperation to get through the first question from mechanics. The atmosphere was somewhat nervous as this question was supposed to take maximally half an hour of our time during the actual exams. We had to ask for a help a PhD student who supervised the tutorial just after the 15 minutes of our effort to solve the question. We discovered that there are ten questions in each comprehensive paper exam randomly chosen from different fields of physics. Each question is practical and often focused on physics research. However, I found strange how ten questions can cover all the fields of physics which we were taught during the undergraduate studies. However, this ambiguity was resolved after I received a preliminary exam timetable before Christmas. The comprehensive paper exam will consist of two separate exams. Hence, there will be 20 questions in total. Suddenly I realized how important the exam will be considering the awarded mark and the complexity of questions.
I do not think the beginnings of my comprehensive paper exam preparation were good. I needed at least one hour to solve each question. However, I always did extra homework questions before each tutorial. Thanks to the tutorials and the extra work, I gradually gained an intuition what questions I can expect in the exam and how to solve them. Moreover, I have gradually managed to revise all the fields of physics and mathematics which were covered during my undergraduate studies. I had to revise all the topics from the Fourier transform to quantum mechanics. The amount of revision material increased unstoppable. Eventually, I stood next to the printer for about an hour to wait until my revision notes were printed. The notes covered almost one thousand pages. Subsequently, I spent the whole nights by revising. The day of the exam came at the end of the spring break. I was full of determination in the morning with a rose attached in my suit jacket walking through the Kensington Gardens to take the first of the two comprehensive paper exams.
The two comprehensive paper exams took place right at the beginning of the exam period. This was probably arranged in this way due to the fact that the comprehensive papers are demanding. We were supposed to relax during the spring break before the exam period apparently. However, this was not a case for me, I had to work hard during the spring break. In addition, I had a lab report submission the day before my comprehensive paper exam and a German exam which took place in the same week. These other obligations made difficult to get out of bed in the morning before the exam. The good news was that only the best eight questions were marked out of all the twenty questions. Moreover, I was pleased that I got about three hours and fifty minutes for each comprehensive paper exam. In addition, I could ask for 15-minute long rest breaks. But I only asked for the break once because I did not want to bother too much a PhD student who had to keep an eye on me during the exam. Every time when I asked for a break, a student had to re-calculate the time of finish. It is always hard for me to start answering a question at the beginning of the exam. Fortunately, I enjoyed a lot the sense of humour of our professors who prepared questions for us. For example, there was a question based on relativity and particle physics about the lift in our department, where a charged particle is fired. Next, the question from statistics was about the probability that Brexit will be avoided. In fact, the two comprehensive paper exams were not as bad as I expected. The real challenges came later, in the third year exams which covered courses such as fluid dynamics or physics of the Universe. The comprehensive paper exams were a good opportunity for me to say goodbye to the university. I will miss studying at Imperial College London.


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