Institute of Astronomy

Part II Assessment - 2019-20 - is subject to change



Students may choose to undertake an extended essay. Please note that before you take Part III Astrophysics, if you choose the essay option, you will be required to complete a CATAM project in the long vacation. The purpose of the essay is to bring students to a closer awareness of the current frontiers of astronomical research, by reading and assimilating research literature addressing problems in some limited area of endeavour that have not been completely solved. The essay should be at the forefront of research and not be merely a summary of the literature (or lecture notes) and the ideas they contain, but should be organized in such a way as to address specifically some issue or issues which the candidate considers to be particularly interesting and important. A critical approach should be adopted and students should not refrain from making their own judgements on the validity or plausibility of the arguments discussed. Back-of-the-envelope calculations and general physical arguments should be made to support those judgements, whenever that is possible.

The regulations require that the essay be submitted to the Examiners not later than the tenth day of the Full Easter Term [Thursday, 30 April]. Late submissions must be submitted via your College Tutor with an accompanying letter of explanation from the Tutor. The length of the essay shall be not more than 5,000 words (exclusive of tables, figures, footnotes, appendices, and bibliography). Note that figure captions and table captions do not count towards the total word count. The subject of the essay shall be chosen from a list of approved subjects not later than the division of the Michaelmas Term [9 November]. Each candidate shall, not later than the end of Full Lent Term [Friday, 13 March] notify the Course Administrator of the subject chosen from the list. It is expected that the maximum credit obtainable is equivalent to that for a course of 24 lectures and that it will be added to the credit gained in the written examination.

It is important to realize that marks are awarded by the Examiners not merely for a well written review, which shows that the candidate has understood the issues in question, but also for originality of presentation providing a demonstration that those issues have been thoroughly digested. More credit will be given for an essay containing a thorough, well reasoned discussion of a relatively small area of the subject than a superficial review of a wide area. Nevertheless, candidates are advised to set their discussion into a wider context, explaining briefly its relevance to other issues. The Examiners will award marks for an up-to-date essay which demonstrates a good physical understanding of the material.

The candidate may choose whatever format and style of writing they prefer although they should be aware that an overly sensational or journalistic style may not suit their subject matter. The essay should incorporate in-text references with a complete reference list, as found in journal papers in the subject area, at the end.

It is a fundamental tenet of scientific writing that due acknowledgment is given to the work and ideas of others that form the basis of, or are incorporated in, an essay. You must always acknowledge the source of an idea or material you use with a specific reference. *Plagiarism, including the use of another individual's ideas, data or text, is regarded as an extremely serious disciplinary offence by the University: for further guidance on what constitutes plagiarism, see

*Note:  Essay writers will be required to sign a declaration on submission which states that they agree to allow the examiners to use plagiarism software. In addition, the essays must be submitted electronically in pdf format.

A list of the essay topics will be posted on the Part II noticeboard outside the Course Secretary's office by the middle of the Michaelmas Term, [not later than 21 October] and she will have further details from the essay supervisors giving brief descriptions for each of them.

All candidates are strongly encouraged to consult the advisor who has been assigned to the essay of choice. They should also be aware that some advisors may be difficult to contact for extended periods over the Easter break, so starting work on the essay no later than the start of the Lent Term is advisable.

Computational Projects

Students may (as an alternative to the essay) complete computational projects selected from those offered in Part II of the Mathematical Tripos. The maximum credit for the projects, which is equivalent to that for a course of the 24 lectures, can be obtained for projects amounting to 16 units. This will generally involve two, or at most three, projects. Fewer units may be offered for proportionally less credit. If more than 16 units are submitted (e.g. if your choice of projects does not fit in the 16 unit total) then your credit will be scaled to bring the number of units back to 16. A full description of the projects on offer, and the number of units ascribed to them, can be found in the  CATAM handbook (Mathematical Tripos Part II, Computational Projects). The CATAM handbook also details the required form of the reports and the assessment procedure. For Part II Astrophysics students, there are two major differences from those taking Part II Mathematics:

  1. Maximum credit can be obtained by submitting projects amounting to 16 units, and this credit is equivalent to a 24-lecture course (rather than as stated in CATAM sections 1.1 & 2.1.1).
  2. While the marking scheme is the same, the scaling of the marks will be carried out to reflect the fact that 16 units corresponds to a 24-lecture course. (The comments regarding the marking for Mathematics students in the third paragraph of CATAM section 2.1 are not relevant.)

All other aspects are as described in the Part II Computational Projects Manual.

There is a CATAM helpline, catam(at) Please read advice in CATAM Project Handbook Introduction and also read Questions and Answers concerning Part II CATAM projects before submitting a question to the helpline. One Computational Projects lecture is given at the beginning of Michaelmas Term by the various assessors who introduce their projects and answer questions on them. The lecture is on Wednesday 9 October, 14:00-15:00, Babbage Lecture Theatre, New Museums Site. Further help is available from Professor Richard McMahon at the Institute of Astronomy.

All students who intend to submit computational project reports should notify the Course Secretary by the end of the Full Lent Term (13 March) that they intend to do so. When they have submitted their project reports, they should tell the Course Secretary which ones they have attempted.


The topics starred in the Schedules will be lectured, but questions will not be set on them in examinations.

Specific information regarding the examinations will be given in notices posted on the Part II noticeboard outside Hoyle Room 6 and in The Reporter.

The Teaching Committee have recommended to Examiners that, in addition to a numerical mark, extra credit should be available for the completeness and quality of each answer. An alpha quality mark signifies an answer of high quality which is substantially complete. A beta quality mark usually signifies at least half marks. It must be understood that Examiners have discretion in the implementation of these recommendations.

In the examinations candidates will not be required to quote elaborate formulae from memory.

It is the responsibility of each student to equip themselves with a suitable calculator (see following notice).  A few spare calculators are provided in the examination rooms but only to students whose own calculator has malfunctioned.

Electronic calculators in University examinations, 2019–20 (Cambridge Reporter)

The Faculty Boards and other authorities concerned give notice that in the following examinations candidates will be permitted to take a designated calculator into the examination room:

Natural Sciences Tripos, Part II
For the above examinations the following calculators marked in the approved manner are permitted:

  • CASIO fx 991 (any version)
  • CASIO fx 115 (any version)
  • CASIO fx 570 (any version)

It is the responsibility of each student to equip themselves with a suitable calculator as described.

Each such calculator permitted in an examination must be marked by the Department in the approved fashion so that they are clearly identified as being permitted during the examination.

No other calculator may be brought into the examination.

Sale of approved calculators

Approved calculators, marked in the approved fashion, will be on sale from:

  • Department of Physics, Bragg Building  (Natural Sciences Tripos)

Approved calculators bought elsewhere will need to have the approved marking applied by the Department.

Enrolling for examinations see:

Special Examination Arrangements

Any student who believes there are circumstances that require special treatment by the examiners must ensure that this information is communicated to the Course Secretary by their College at the earliest opportunity, see

The form of the examination

There will be four papers in total of three hours each.  Each of these four papers consists of a question from each of the eight courses, which carry equal total exam credit. Candidates may attempt not more than six questions on each paper and have free choice of these.

Each question will consist of a Part (i) and a Part (ii). Part (i) will be designed to be very straightforward and to take about half as long to answer as Part (ii). In a given question, Part (i) and Part (ii) may or may not be directly related and will be given separate quality marks. Previous examination papers can be found here. Last year's report by the External Examiner is here.    

The examiners may, at their discretion, further examine a candidate viva voce.

Examination Results

Examinations are a University matter and covered by strict regulations. Whether you have a complaint or not, you should not, under any circumstances, seek to discuss your examination result with your examiners. The University has a standard procedure for dealing with complaints about examination results.

Any complaints or requests for reconsideration must be made in writing by your College (usually via your Senior Tutor) to the Chairman of the Examiners. You should therefore discuss the matter with your College Tutor who will advise you further. You should note that any investigation by the University will usually confine itself to seeing that the examiners acted correctly (for example that all the marks you received were entered into the mark book) and not try to second guess the examiners by re-marking your papers.

Criteria for Marking Pt II Astrophysics Examination Papers

The Institute of Astronomy Teaching Committee recommends that the NST Part II Astrophysics examiners mark the written examinations and assess their contribution to the overall degree class according to the following criteria:

First class marks

A candidate placed in the first class will be able to demonstrate a full command and a secure understanding of the examinable material. Scripts will contain substantially correct solutions to most of the quantitative parts of a question, showing a good grasp of mathematical skills. For the essay and questions of an essay nature, first class marks will be awarded for work which is excellent, both in range and in depth of knowledge and in the argument and analysis that it brings to bear.

Upper Second class marks, II.1

A candidate placed in the upper second class will be able to demonstrate a good command and some understanding of the examinable material. Scripts will contain solutions to most of the quantitative parts of a question, thereby demonstrating the basic skills involved. For the essay and questions of an essay nature, II.1 marks will be awarded for work that demonstrates knowledge, but which does not provide as impressive a display of understanding, argument and analysis as those in the first class.

Lower Second class marks, II.2

A candidate placed in the lower second class will be able to demonstrate some command of the examinable material but with limited understanding. Candidates should demonstrate the ability to make good attempts at the straightforward parts of questions but limited ability to tackle any of the more challenging topics. Answers to questions of a mathematical nature will show an indication of what is required, but fail to proceed sufficiently far into the later parts to demonstrate the skills involved. Essays in this class may often read like prepared material rote learnt for the occasion and fail to be impressive in the range of relevant knowledge and depth of understanding, being superficial in scope or lacking clarity of structure.

Third class mark

A candidate placed in the third class will be able to demonstrate some knowledge, but have a poor command of the skills expected and very limited understanding of the examinable material. Essays in this class may be unduly brief, lacking in examples or failing to adhere to the rubric, by, for example, answering intelligently, but on material unrelated to the question, or containing some relevant material presented without clear structure or reasoned explanation.


A fail mark will be given when a candidate demonstrates little or no knowledge of the material and little or no ability to begin to tackle questions of a mathematical nature. Essays in this class will demonstrate unsatisfactory command of material through a lack of knowledge and an inability to demonstrate any appreciable understanding. It is likely that such answers will be very brief and incomplete, or rambling and irrelevant.

















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