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The MAT can be daunting. It has a very different structure to your A-Levels, so it’s definitely important to take some time to familiarise yourself with the format. You don’t want to be caught off guard when you open the exam paper. 

There are two sections: the multiple choice section and the long answer section. Here are some tips to help you prepare for both these sections, as well as some overall guidance. 

Overall Preparation

What does the MAT test?

The MAT focuses on the first year of A-Level pure maths and the modules on sequences and series from the second year.

 

Obviously, it is hugely important to have a good grasp of this content. You must also remember the formulas from this content, as they will not be given to you on a formula sheet in the MAT. You will also not have a calculator, so make sure your arithmetic abilities are up to scratch. It would be a bit embarrassing if you were applying to Maths at Oxford but couldn’t perform simple division. 

A-Level style questions are good preparation for the MAT in terms of familiarising yourself with the content, but the actual style is completely different. 

To prepare for the format of questions that appear in the MAT, I would recommend: 

  • Finding some harder, more abstract questions for the topics you are studying in school. This will help you apply the concepts you are learning in a foreign and more complex environment, a crucial part of the MAT. You might try Maths Olympiad papers, ask your teacher for more difficult problems, or use STEPMaths’ online resources for the MAT, which include hundreds of MAT-style practice questions covering all topics.
  • Do past papers! I would recommend doing the past papers in three different ways: 
  1. Doing some to get a grip of the format and style of the MAT. Just sketch answers to the questions and explore ways you would answer them in the exam.

  2. Answering some as perfectly as you can. Take your time to complete these; go way beyond the two and a half hours allotted. Try to make your answers neat and perfect. Write full solutions to all the multiple choice sections. Get your teachers to help, and use the answers if you need a hint, but try to compile two or three perfect solution sheets, so that you know what you are aspiring towards. This will also ensure that you are completely comfortable with the papers, and if any of the questions are similar to the exam you sit (this is highly likely), you will have a real advantage.

  3. Doing some papers in timed conditions. This allows you to see how much you can complete in the allotted time. Try to get a maths teacher to mark the paper afterwards, or do it yourself with the online marking guidelines. A subscription to STEPMaths’ MAT video resources is particularly useful here, as they include full video solutions for all the MAT papers, which can really help to explain the questions you didn’t quite get right. 
  • Try practising other exams as well. For example, the TMUA has questions that are very similar to the multiple choice MAT section. These can be really useful to warm up into the MAT questions. The STEP papers, especially STEP I, which shares a lot of overlapping content with the MAT (but does cover the entire Pure Maths A-Level syllabus), are also great practice, and they have a similar format to some of the MAT long-answer questions. 
  • STEPMaths courses. If you have a peek over at stepmaths.co.uk/mat, you can see the wide range of courses that we offer in preparation for the MAT. On top of our online resources, we also run four single-day MAT courses. These cover general MAT preparation, the multiple choice section, and the long-answer section, as well as an extended course which looks at some of the complicated nooks and crannies of the paper. This is a great opportunity to practise the MAT with expert tutors who will offer you individual attention and guidance, and help you devise techniques that work for you when it comes to answering MAT questions. 

“I would recommend the STEPMaths courses simply because of the detailed help and variety of methods they teach you. This is essential for the MAT because a huge variety of questions could come up, so understanding different methods is key.”

Obi

 

Multiple Choice Preparation

The first section of the MAT gives you the opportunity to pick up 40 marks. It is made up of ten four-mark multiple choice questions, and crucially, no marks are given for workings. Therefore, it is hugely important to practise your ability to estimate, and to do workings that are not neat and complete (the opposite to everything your teachers have drilled into you at A-Level and GCSE, I know), as timing and efficiency are key in this section. 

To prepare, it is definitely worth trying to do the questions in high time pressure, allotting yourself perhaps four minutes per question. If you spent equally long on each mark, the multiple choice part is actually worth an hour, but it is good practice to do the questions as quickly as you can. This will hone your ability to work out what is needed for each question, and to make your workings more concise, so that you can reach the correct answer in a flash.

The multiple choice section is less of a struggle if you can easily eliminate incorrect answers. For example, there is usually a graphical question where you have to guess which graph fits a complicated equation. This can be done very quickly if you can easily identify patterns and then rule out options, thus coming to the correct graph quickly. 

For example, with a graphical question you should be looking for things like: 

  • Roots: Where does the curve cross the x axis? 
  • Y-intercept: Where does the curve cross the y axis? 
  • Behaviour as a variable goes to infinity: Look at how the equation would behave if you increased x to positive infinity and decreased to negative infinity. 
  • Is the graph even? Is the behaviour in the negative x-quadrants a reflection of the behaviour in the positive x-quadrants? (Think of the function f(x)=cosx here.) 
  • Transformation: Look at the equation: is it in the form of a transformation of an equation whose graph you know? 

You should prepare by trying to identify graphs like this. Also, you can write similar lists for other questions which have the same style across many MAT papers. For example, you could make lists of facts about sequences, which would help you answer these questions by elimination. 

Even if you cannot get down to a final answer, using these methods will mean you have only a couple left, so you can make a more accurate guess. 

“I went on the STEPMaths MAT short questions (multiple choice) course. This was the most beneficial piece of preparation I did. The extra questions were just like the real MAT questions, and I got so much individual attention helping me to perfect my skills. Also, I found it really useful listening to how the other people there answered the questions, and it made me think about questions in different ways, which really helped me in the exam.”

Long-Answer Preparation

The long-answer section is quite a lot more difficult than the multiple choice section (in my opinion anyway) and requires more preparation. Time management is also very important in this section. You want to be looking at spending about 20 minutes per question (if you do spend a full hour on the multiple choice section), leaving yourself 10 minutes to check. 

“If you do struggle more with the long answer section, as I did, I would recommend spending maximum 45 minutes on the Multiple Choice questions, giving you an hour and 45 minutes for the long answer sections. This gave me more time to properly digest the questions and think about possible routes for answering them.”

I found a good way of preparing for the long-answer section was through mind maps. I would find a question from a MAT past paper, and then draw a mind map about that question. Based on this, I would write all the possible methods I could use in this question, brainstorming concepts and potential routes through it. I would then try and answer it, and if one route through it failed, I could try another route outlined on my mind map. From doing a few of these, you begin to identify methods that are generally more useful than others, and can hone those before the exam. 

Again, practice is so important with these questions. Familiarisation is key. Although the long answer questions you sit in the MAT will be different to any past paper questions, it is all about acclimatising to the new style. 

“Past questions are key. The MAT style of questioning is very different to GCSE and A-Level, and something you have to get used to. This is especially true for the longer questions, which you have to learn to persevere at.”

Anya S, Maths, Oxford
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