Start of Term Collections

Sections on this page:

  • What is a collection?
  • What is the purpose of collections?
  • My collection has come back covered with Greek letters further confused with plus and minus signs. What on earth do they all mean?

What is a collection?

A collection is a sort of mock examination set at the beginning of term, often (depending on your subject) on the previous term’s work. Once you are past Mods or Prelims it will normally take the form of a Final Honour Schools paper on the subject in question (though it need not be an actual past paper). It will be marked by the relevant subject tutor much as if it were a Schools paper, but it does not count towards your degree in any way.

What is the purpose of collections?

The primary purpose of a collection (at least at Harris Manchester) is to give you practice in doing something like a Final Honour Schools paper (or, perhaps, a Mods or Prelims paper) under something like genuine examination conditions. It also has some value in indicating how well you are doing and might expect to do in Finals and in forcing you to review your term’s work in the vacation, which helps fix it in your memory. It should not be seen as an inquisitorial test designed to trip you up.

What do my marks mean?

When I originally wrote this guide back in 1995 collection (and exam) marks were expressed in odd combinations of Greek letters and plus or minus signs, a system so obscurely mysterious that, having at last figured it out, I took the trouble to explain it in some detail. This alpha-beta system (as it was known) has long gone the way of the Dodo, to be replaced by a (seemingly) simpler numerical system, but since the precise significance of the numerical system may not be immediately apparent to the uninitiated, a few words of explanation may be in order here.

In finals, a mark of 70 or above represents a first class mark (or a distinction in mods or prelims or in most master’s and diploma exams). A mark in the 60s would correspond to an upper second, a mark in the 50s to a lower second, a mark in the forties to a (now rarely encountered) third, a mark in the thirties to a bare pass (in finals; for mods or prelims it would be a failing mark), and a mark below thirty a fail. For most postgraduate examinations the pass mark would be higher. Note that although marks are theoretically out of 100, examiners (and collection markers) in practice find it rather hard to distinguish 31 different gradations of first-class work (compared with only ten of upper second), with the result that, except in certain subjects where answers can be objectively correct (such as language papers or mathematically-based science subjects), marks above 80 are exceedingly rare and even a mark of 75 may be regarded as a pinnacle of excellence.

If you have been admitted to read for an Oxford undergraduate degree, your college will be hoping (nay, expecting) that you will obtain at least an upper second degree. Therefore, you should be hoping to achieve collection marks of sixty or above. If you find yourself getting marks of seventy or above this means you’re doing really well – the marker considers your work (on that paper) to be first class so you are entitled to feel distinctly chuffed. If, on the other hand, you get a mark in the fifties, don’t despair; doing examinations is an odd skill and as a mature student it’s probably one you haven’t practised in a while. Improvement is readily attainable by gaining and practising exam technique (and you can request help with study skills should you need advice on this, though you’ll also find some tips in this Guide). Remember, it’s far better to mess up in a collection (and learn from your mistakes) than to do so in the real thing, and the odd messed-up collection can just be put down to experience (but it’s best not to make too much of a habit of messing them up!).

Delicacy prevents my commenting too much on marks of less than fifty. Suffice to say that to achieve such a poor mark requires either truly dreadful work or (far more likely) an incomplete exam (or collection) script – in other words one where you failed to answer the required number of questions. Hopefully neither situation will arise for readers of this Guide!