What is STEP Maths?
STEP stands for Sixth Term Examination Paper and is a collection of three exams (STEP 1, 2 and 3) which traditionally are used in conditional offers by Cambridge to determine if you get accepted for Maths or Maths-related degrees. Other universities, like Warwick and Imperial, use STEP in some of their Maths offers. You sit these papers in the Summer alongside your other exams like A-Levels, IB and Pre-U. The grades you can get in STEP, from best to worst, are S, 1, 2, 3, U.
STEP 1 has been discontinued as of 2021 and so only STEP 2 and 3 remain. In the past, if you studied only Maths but not Further Maths, you would have to sit STEP 1 for Cambridge, while if you sat Maths and Further Maths (which was the case for the vast majority of candidates) you would sit STEP 2 and 3. Now Cambridge requires that any Maths candidates study both Maths and Further Maths and so there is no need for STEP 1. However, the past STEP 1 papers can be very useful for revision, especially early on, as they are essentially easier versions of STEP 2, and so can be used as a stepping-stone.
What does STEP Maths test?
STEP 1 and 2 cover the A-Level Maths syllabus, while STEP 3 covers the A-Level Further Maths syllabus. However, the goal of the STEP papers isn’t to test that you know the syllabus (though if you don’t know it well, you will probably be in trouble!), it is to see how you respond to very hard questions and therefore gauge your aptitude for Maths at university. On the Cambridge website, they say that it is “designed to test candidates on questions that are similar in style to undergraduate mathematics.” Here is a link to the STEP syllabus.
Which universities require STEP Maths?
Cambridge requires STEP in almost all cases and some other universities, like Imperial, Warwick, Bath, UCL, King’s College London, Lancaster and use STEP as an optional part of an offer. Here is some more info for the 2022 entry:
Cambridge: At Cambridge, STEP is used as part of almost all conditional offers in Mathematics (including Mathematics with Physics). In addition, Peterhouse college often asks for STEP 2 as part of conditional offers for Engineering and Chemical Engineering via Engineering.
Imperial: All candidates who apply prior to 15 October are required to sit the Mathematics Admissions Test (MAT). Conditional offers to post-15 applicants who were unable to take MAT will include a STEP requirement. This may also be applied to conditional offers to applicants taking other qualification types. The minimum STEP offer is a Grade 2 in either the STEP II or STEP III papers. Both the grade and the number of papers may be increased in some cases.
Warwick: Warwick allows students to sit their choice of STEP, MAT and TMUA. The MAT and TMUA are sat in November and students who do well are likely to receive a lower offer. Other students are likely to receive the standard offer which will ask that they sit STEP in June.
Bath: The system is the same as Warwick’s.
UCL: Maths offers for entry in 2022 ask for either a higher set of A-level grades (A*A*A) or a slightly lower set (A*AA) and additionally a grade 2 pass in any STEP paper
Durham: “Suitable performance in the University Admission Tests TMUA or MAT or 1 in any STEP will lead to the lower A*AA offer (A*A in Mathematics and Further Mathematics, either way round plus A in any other A level or equivalent). Otherwise, the standard offer is A*A*A (A*A* in Mathematics and Further Mathematics plus A in any other A level or equivalent).”
King’s College London: Maths offers must include grades A*A in Mathematics and Further Mathematics (in any order). If you are not studying Further Mathematics, an AS Level grade A in Further Mathematics can be considered instead, only if you additionally achieve/have achieved a grade 3 in any STEP paper or a Merit in AEA Mathematics.
Lancaster: Standard offers include an alternative, one grade lower offer that includes a pass (Grade 3) in any STEP.
Bristol: STEP paper achievement may be included as part of an alternative offer.
Southampton: Typical offer is AAA or AABB including Mathematics (minimum grade A). If an additional Mathematics qualification (STEP grade 2 in any paper/MAT/TMUA) is taken alongside three A-levels then the offer will be AAB including Mathematics (minimum grade A).
Why is STEP Maths used?
STEP is used to differentiate between top candidates, who would be very likely to score A*s in both Maths and Further Maths, and to determine aptitude for Maths at university by testing how you respond to undergraduate-style questions.
What is in the STEP Maths exam?
In each three-hour paper, you attempt up to 6 questions of your choice, out of a total of 12. These 12 questions are split across three sections: 8 pure questions, 2 mechanics questions, and 2 probability/statistics questions. Each question is worth 20 marks. You may attempt more than 6 questions if you wish, but will only be given marks for your 6 highest-scoring attempts. Cambridge says “The marking scheme for each question will be designed to reward candidates who make good progress towards a complete solution.” In other words, 3 fully correct solutions may be worth more marks than 6 half-answered questions. You cannot use a calculator and will not have access to a formula booklet in the exam.
How difficult is STEP Maths?
STEP is extremely difficult. For instance, in 2021, more than 3/5 of candidates scored less than 45% in STEP II. This is, of course, in spite of the fact that the students who sit STEP are among the best mathematicians in the country. In particular, a score of 54 marks out of 120 (45%) was needed to get a grade 2 or above, and 28 marks (23%) was needed to get above a grade U. In the test, 18.0% scored a U and 61.8% scored less than a grade 2.
You will likely need a lot of time to adjust to the step up in difficulty when compared to A-Level/IB/Pre-U. The TMUA, MAT and STEP 1 (in roughly order of increasing difficulty) can be used as stepping stones to the harder STEP papers (if you pardon the pun!).
What is a good score on STEP Maths??
A grade 1 in STEP is excellent and a grade S is outstanding. Either of these are sufficient for Cambridge offers (though you will need to get these grades in both STEP papers). A grade 2 is good and, for universities other than Cambridge, will likely allow a reduction in your other offer requirements. A grade 3 is respectable and will sometimes benefit your application to some universities (like King’s College London and Lancaster).
The grade boundaries for STEP change each year, depending on how hard the papers were in comparison to other years. Here are two rules of thumb that may be helpful (though not always accurate!):
1. If you get 1 or 2 questions fully correct with the rest of the questions being relatively poor and incomplete attempts, you will likely get a grade 3. Similarly, 2 or 3 fully correct questions yields a grade 2, 4 questions gets you a grade 1, and 5 or 6 questions are likely to land you with a grade S.
2. As a rough guide (out of 120 marks) an S is 90-100+, a grade 1 is 60-75+, a grade 2 is 45-65+ and a grade 3 is 25-40+. Of course, there have been some years where the grade boundaries fall outside these limits (they really do vary quite widely) so this should be taken with a massive pinch of salt.
How should I prepare for STEP Maths?
You sit STEP in the Summer of year 13 alongside your other A-Level/IB/Pre-U exams. I would suggest that you start preparing for it as soon as you can, ideally doing the STEP Support Foundation modules in the last 6 months of year 12 or, at latest, the Summer between year 12 and 13. This is because it can take a while to adjust to the difficulty of STEP. However, I’m sure plenty of students start later than this, so don’t feel too disheartened if this is the case.
In terms of preparation, first and foremost, you should target any areas where you might have weaknesses in the A-Level syllabus. If you do IB or Pre-U instead of A-Levels, it might be worth looking through the STEP syllabus to see if there are any topics that you may have missed, or not covered to the same depth. In particular, if you know that you have covered a lot of either Statistics or Mechanics at school, it may be worth revising those as these tend to be (though aren’t always) some of the easier questions on STEP. You cannot neglect Pure though; you need to attempt 6 questions but there are only 2 Statistics and 2 Mechanics questions on the paper.
Next, there are some great resources which are listed on Cambridge’s maths site. The STEP Support Programme’s Foundation modules and STEP 2 and STEP 3 modules are great things to work through. This page also contains a link to Dr Stephen Siklos’ book on STEP preparation, which is another excellent (and free) resource.
Of course, you should round this off with plenty of past paper practice, particularly as the exam date gets closer. Make sure you have some practice at identifying which questions look easier, as it can often be difficult to tell and you might not have much experience of exams where you get to choose which questions to do. You can quickly check how accurate you are by looking at the paper’s exam report, which will tell you if the question was typically answered well (i.e. easy) or if it was hard.
If you are finding the papers too hard at the beginning, try papers for the TMUA, MAT and STEP 1 (in roughly order of increasing difficulty).
Is STEP an online test?
No, you sit it in an exam centre; usually your school.
Where can I find practice STEP tests/past papers?
You can get past papers going back to 1998 from Cambridge’ website.
Tutors for STEP Maths
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