STEP is undoubtedly one of the hardest maths exams sat by 17- and 18-year-olds. To even consider sitting STEP, you need to be both motivated and committed. There is quite a jump from A Level to STEP that can be a bit of a shock if you’re not expecting it – in 2015, the A*-E pass rate at A Level was 98.1% (source: The Guardian) and the equivalent S-3 pass rate for STEP I was 73.1% (source: Admissions Testing Service), for which it’s important to bear in mind that STEP is aimed at the top 5% of A-level Mathematicians.
That being said, STEP is not impossible. The mere fact that you’re reading this blog post means you’re likely at an ability to tackle STEP, and you certainly have the drive to do very well. Thousands of students sit STEP every year, and many of them do very well at it, going on to study at top universities like Cambridge, Imperial College London, and Warwick, among others.
The best advice I can give is to start early. When I started preparing for STEP, I wished I’d given myself more time to practise. I’d spent a while putting off starting to prepare, particularly while I was still learning the core A Level Maths content at school. A much better way to prepare, I feel, would have been to have got through all the essential content (see the STEP specification, linked below) sooner, leaving plenty of time to work on STEP questions. Some schools teach all of A Level Maths in Year Twelve, and then all of A Level Further Maths in Year Thirteen – if you’re lucky enough to attend one of these schools, you’ll have a natural head start with STEP I and II, but you might find it tricky to start on STEP III!
Use the Siklos Booklet
Stephen Siklos (mentioned earlier) has written an excellent booklet to help you get started with STEP. It starts by explaining the differences between A Level and STEP, gives you advice on how to mentally prepare yourself for the change in level of mathematics required and has numerous questions and solutions for you to work through. It’s definitely worth a read.
Seek out Additional Help and Support
There’s no shame in asking for help. When I was in sixth form, I found that my maths teachers lacked the time and experience to offer any STEP help – I’d get stuck on a question, go and ask them about it, and I often got the impression that they’d be the ones walking away having learnt something! (Side note: my maths teachers were very supportive and encouraging, and did all they could to help me with STEP, seeking out advice and additional sources of support for me, for which I am forever grateful.)
It became apparent that I would need to find another source of support, and I came across STEP Maths and their Easter STEP III course. Although I only attended one specific course, had I started preparing for STEP earlier, I would’ve realised that STEP Maths had a February STEP course, October Half Term Course and even a Summer School for Year Twelve students. These all develop your confidence and ability to tackle STEP questions, and have the added benefit of surrounding you with like-minded peers. This is important, particularly if you come from a small school or somewhere that isn’t able to offer many resources to its mathematics department. Learning to do maths with other people is a vital skill for university, too, and going on courses and masterclasses will help to give you a different view on mathematics.
Remember, you can be the best mathematician your school/college has ever seen, but you can always learn more from other mathematicians!
Don’t be intimidated by STEP Questions
At first glance, STEP questions are somewhat daunting to look at – especially if you’re used to A Level Maths questions, which may be broken down into three or four parts and may only take ten minutes to complete a full question. It’d be reasonable to expect a normal STEP question to take 45 minutes to complete, and the question may be written as just a sentence or two. This shift can be difficult to get to grips with at first, especially if you’ve never seen anything like it before.
However, in time, and with practice, you’ll find your ability to take on STEP questions gets better. It can be difficult to psych yourself up for entering a three-hour exam that you will get stuck in, make no mistake, but as well as developing your mathematical ability, STEP preparation should you the confidence and the persistence to work through difficult maths, and will be excellent preparation for university.