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So, you’ve prepared as much as possible. You walk into the exam hall (generally your musty, slightly cold sports hall) and the incredibly dull yet intimidating legislation of the paper stares back at you, paired with the equally daunting University of Oxford logo. It’s a nerve-wracking experience. This paper could help secure you a place at one of the top universities in the world.

The question is, what do you need to do when you’re in there? Here are my top tips for getting through the MAT with your sanity intact.

Time Management

What is the format of the MAT?

The MAT is divided into two sections: a multiple choice section and a long-answer section, which consist of ten and four questions respectively.

  • The way to split your time is to do the multiple choice questions in an hour and the long-answer questions in an hour and a half. However, if you can, try and move on from the multiple choice section faster, as it is generally easier.

“I whizzed through the multiple choice part first, then did all the stuff I thought I knew, and then attempted everything else that I knew I could not answer.”

Mengxin Z, Maths, Oxford
  • If you find yourself spending too much time on the multiple choice questions, try and make an educated guess at the answers you can’t get. You can do this via the process of elimination, as explained in my ultimate MAT preparation guide.
  • For the long-answer section, I would recommend spending five minutes reading and digesting the questions, perhaps writing your initial ideas on a scrap of paper.
  • In theory, you’ll be spending an equal amount of time on each question, but some may be easier than others. Vary it depending on which questions play to your advantage and which don’t. For example, I love sequences but hate geometry, so I would expect to spend a lot longer on a question about triangles than Fibonacci numbers. 
  • But make sure you don’t dedicate too much time to one question. If you aren’t getting anywhere (which is very normal, especially as you get to the harder stages of a question), move on. If you have time at the end, you can come back, but don’t spend ages attempting to answer just one question when you could be picking up easy marks from the earlier parts of other questions. 

“I chose to do the-long answer questions I liked the look of first, since it’s important to rack up marks before attempting to tackle the harder questions. There is also no harm in doing the first part(s) of each long-answer question first, as these are easier than the last parts.”

Anya S, Maths, Oxford

How to go about answering the questions

  • For the multiple-choice questions, try and have a stab at them all. If you’re truly getting nowhere with one, just take a guess (ideally, an educated one), as you won’t lose marks, only gain them. You’ve got a chance of 20%, so you are 58.4 million times more likely to get it right than you are to win the Powerball lottery. Those aren’t bad odds.) 
  • When it comes to the long-answer questions, follow Anya’s advice and start with the ones that appeal to you most. If you can get a couple of solid solutions under your belt, this will put you in good stead marks-wise, and also help your mentality, as you will feel more confident addressing the harder questions. 
  • Also, you can leave later parts. Have a go at them, but remember it’s not the end of the world if you can’t get an answer. Unlike the multiple choice section, there are marks available for workings in the long-answer section. In fact, this is what they are interested in: seeing your mathematical reasoning. 

“I can’t answer the question, what do I do!”

  • If you can’t answer a multiple choice question, just guess – there’s no harm in it. 
  • If you can’t answer a long-answer question, there are various strategies:
    • Try and get as many marks as you can in the earlier parts of the question
    • Attempt the harder parts. Write what you are doing as clearly as you can, and even include comments of what you are doing if you don’t think the maths is strong enough to stand by itself. 
    • Try different methods, but don’t cross anything out, in case you are leading yourself further away from the correct solution. 
    • See if there are any later parts that can be answered without every single earlier part. For example, if part (e) doesn’t require part (d) and you can’t solve part (d), have a stab at part (e) anyway. You are aiming to pick up as many marks as possible!
    • If you can’t find a general solution and there is a clear equation to follow, try and consider particular cases, such as the behaviour of the function or sequence at x=0.
    • Alternatively, if there is a long-answer question you know you are having no luck with, answer as much of the earlier parts as you can and then move onto other questions you could make some headway with. That way, you’re not wasting time on a dead-end, but instead gaining as many marks as you can in the more involved parts of later questions. The examiners will want to see how you deal with more developed questions, and getting stuck into the later parts of the long-answer questions is the best way to do this.

Staying calm

  • Doing the MAT is a stressful experience. Make sure you take some time to breathe and just read the questions slowly. My probability tutor at university is always reminding us to “RTFQ” (read the **** question – you can fill in the gap.) 
  • My school maths teacher told me to take a trip to the bathroom in exams. This works well for me, as often I get really stressed during exams and overthink and make stupid mistakes. Also, I’m generally good at working to timed conditions, so I now always take five minutes off the allotted time to factor in my five-minute toilet break. This just helps me calm down and take a moment to breathe, and just think about the questions. This is not a very subtle way of telling you to cheat in the loos – it genuinely does just keep me calm. 
  • Remember you’re great, and you definitely can do this. You’re applying to Oxford or Imperial because you’re a top quality mathematician. Have faith in your own abilities, and take the time to show the examiner the maths you can do! Try and enjoy the paper, and remember you are sitting it because you love maths, so try (however hard it may be) to sustain that mindset for the exam.

Conclusion

I hope these tips have made it clear how you can optimise your chances of success in the MAT. For all your MAT preparation needs, just visit https://stepmaths.co.uk/mat-preparation-course/. Good luck!

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