Richard Muller, Prof Physics, UCBerkeley, author “Now-The Physics of Time” (Norton, 2016)
It was a graduate level exam in electromagnetism, taught by Professor William Chinowsky, based around the famous book by Jackson. The problems were tough. There wasn’t sufficient time to solve them all. Which ones should I do?
Instead, I decided to write a paragraph on each problem describing how I would solve it if I had the time to do so. I laid out the assumptions, the relevant equations, showed that there were sufficient constraints to lead to the answer.
I was surprised and delighted when the exams were returned to discover that Professor Chinowsky had given me about 75% credit on each problem. Everyone in the class had also been time-stressed, and as a result I got the highest score in the class.
The next semester I asked Prof. Chinowsky for a letter of recommendation for a National Science Foundation fellowship. He probably only said that I was the best student in his class. I got the fellowship.
A large part of examinship is knowing what the professor is looking for. I know another professor, Eyvind Wichmann, who would have given me a zero on each problem had he been grading that exam. And yet trying to figure out what the professor really wants is enormously valuable, not just to your final grade, but to your education. The professor is a professor for a reason, and he/she likely has a better understanding of what is needed for success in the field than you do.