How to Prepare for STEP

STEP (Sixth Term Examination Paper) is a Mathematics admissions test used by universities including Cambridge, Warwick and UCL. The aim of the STEP exam is to help universities assess your ability to understand A-level Maths and Further Maths, and test certain skills which are important for undergraduate-level Mathematics, such as problem-solving and statistical reasoning, beyond the confines of A-level Maths.

Preparing for the STEP exam can be a challenging and demanding undertaking. The test is required or recommended by just a handful of top universities, therefore many schools do not have the expertise necessary to help students prepare effectively.

That’s where The Profs’ experienced STEP tutors can help. With first-hand experience of the exam content, in-depth knowledge of the mark scheme, and an understanding of how it fits into the wider admissions process for top universities, our tutors are able to help you get the best possible STEP grade and secure a place on your first choice Mathematics course.

What is STEP Maths?

STEP (Sixth Term Examination Paper) is a notoriously challenging Mathematics admissions test used by a handful of top universities. It is loosely based on the content covered in AS and A-level Maths and Further Maths, however the style of the questions is more similar to undergraduate-level Mathematics.

What are STEP 2 and STEP 3?

The STEP exam is divided into two papers: STEP 2 and STEP 3. There used to be a STEP 1 paper however, as of 2021, this has been discontinued. STEP 2 is based on A Level Maths and AS Level Further Maths, while STEP 3 is based on A Level Maths and A Level Further Maths, so the content is slightly more challenging in STEP 3.

Both papers contain 12 questions spread across three sections: the first section contains 8 Pure Maths questions, the second contains 2 Mechanics questions, and the third contains 2 Probability/Statistics questions.

Each STEP paper is a 3-hour, paper-based exam. Students must choose 6 of the 12 questions to answer and there’s no restriction on which questions you should choose (i.e. your 6 chosen questions can be from any of the 3 sections). No calculators are allowed in the examination.

Which universities require STEP?

A handful of universities use STEP to assess Mathematics and/or Computer Science applicants. The table below shows the universities that require or recommend STEP and for which courses this applies to.

University Courses STEP is a requirement/recommendation for Which STEP paper?
University of Cambridge Required for Mathematics Both STEP 2 and 3
Imperial College London May be required for Computing
Required for Mathematics if MAT is not available
At least one of either STEP 2 or 3
University of Warwick Recommended for Mathematics (or alternatively the MAT or TMUA) At least one of either STEP 2 or 3
University of Bath Recommended for Mathematics (or alternatively the MAT or TMUA) At least one of either STEP 2 or 3
University of Southampton Recommended for Mathematics (or alternatively the MAT or TMUA) At least one of either STEP 2 or 3
University of Sheffield Recommended for Mathematics (or alternatively the TMUA) At least one of either STEP 2 or 3
University College London (UCL) Required for Mathematics At least one of either STEP 2 or 3

Each university also requires different grades in STEP to qualify for entry. See the section below for more information.

How are the STEP exams marked?

Each STEP paper is scored out of a maximum 120 marks. Each question in both papers will have a maximum mark of 20 and every question you attempt will be marked, but your score will only reflect the six questions you have best answered. However, Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing recommends answering no more than 6 questions in order to ensure answers are of the best quality and answered fully in the given time.

The overall number of marks you get will then translate into a grade ranging from S (Outstanding) to U (Unclassified). The grade boundaries differ from year to year and between papers. In 2021, the grade boundaries were as follows:

STEP 2 grade boundaries (2021)

STEP 3 grade boundaries (2021)

Score (out of 120) Grade
92 S – Outstanding
67 1 – Very Good
54 2 – Good
28 3 – Satisfactory
0 U – Unclassified

What is a good STEP score?

A ‘good’ STEP score means different things depending on the university you’re applying to and the year in which you take the exam. The University of Cambridge requires the highest STEP score of all universities: grade 1 in at least one of the two STEP papers. In 2021, around one in five candidates achieved a grade 1 or above in STEP 2, while around one third of candidates achieved a grade 1 or above in STEP 3.

The table below shows the minimum score required by each university. Note that STEP is only required by the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, and is recommended by the other universities, often in order to receive a lower A level grade offer.

Score (out of 120) Grade
89 S – Outstanding
67 1 – Very Good
54 2 – Good
29 3 – Satisfactory
0 U – Unclassified
University STEP score required
University of Cambridge Grade 1 or above in both STEP papers (with A*A*A at A-level) or a grade 1 in at least one paper (with A*A*A* at A-level).
Imperial College London Grade 2 or above in at least one STEP paper.
University of Warwick Grade 2 or above in at least one STEP paper.
University of Bath Grade 2 or above in at least one STEP paper.
University of Southampton Grade 2 or above in at least one STEP paper.
University College London (UCL) Grade 2 or above in at least one STEP paper.
University of Sheffield Grade 3 or above in at least one STEP paper.

When is the STEP exam?

Unlike many other admissions tests, including the MAT and TMUA, the STEP is not taken months before your end-of-year exams. Instead, STEP usually takes place during the same month as final A level exams (June), long after you have submitted your application and attended any admissions interviews.

Note that in the UK, the STEP exams will take place in the morning of their respective test dates. However for international centres, the exam times will vary, so make sure you double check the date and time with your local test centre.

How do you register for STEP?

To register for the STEP, you’ll need to ask the exams officer at your school or college, or your local test centre, to register you as a candidate. Your exams officer will then register you for the exam/s on your behalf.

Many schools are already authorised test centres for Cambridge admissions tests, however if your school or college is not, they can apply to become a test centre. If you’re unsure whether your school/college is authorised, speak to your exams officer. To find out where your local test centre is, you can use Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing’s Find a Test Centre tool.

When should you register for STEP?

STEP registration typically opens on 1st March and closes on 5th May. However, the 5th May deadline is for test centres to register candidates by, so you will need to register with a centre as soon as possible to ensure you give your test centre enough time to process your registration. Some test centres may even set their own deadlines in advance, so make sure you check with your school, college or local test centre to ensure that you are able to sit the exam in June.

How much does the STEP cost?

For candidates in the UK, each STEP paper costs £93 to register for. If you’re sitting the exam outside of the UK, the registration fee is £129. Some schools will cover these costs while others require candidates to cover the fees themselves, so make sure you check with your exams officer to find out if you are required to pay.

When can you find out your STEP results?

The results of your STEP exam will be passed directly to your chosen universities via UCAS so that they can use them as part of the admissions process. On A level results day (18th August 2022), you will then be able to view your results using Cambridge’s online results system. You will only be able to enquire about your results (including submit an appeal) for one week after the results day (until 25th August).

Can you appeal your STEP results?

If you think there has been a mistake in the processing or reporting of your test result and would like to submit an appeal, you’ll need to speak to the exams officer at the test centre you’re registered with (e.g. your school exams officer). They can then submit an online appeal form on your behalf. They can only do this for up to one week after the results are released, so it’s important that you raise any concerns as soon as possible.

Appeals for STEP cost £46 per paper, however this fee will be refunded if your appeal is upheld. Again, some schools cover the cost of appeals while others do not, so always check with your exams officer for more information.

6 tips on how to prepare for STEP

1. Complete the STEP support modules

Cambridge University provides a range of free resources to help you prepare for the STEP. These include a set of 10 STEP 2 modules and 11 STEP 3 modules that aim to give you a solid understanding of the key areas of AS and A Level Maths and Further Maths.

Depending on your pre-existing mathematical ability, you may also want to complete Cambridge’s STEP support foundation modules, which cover content from GCSEs and AS levels. Most of this content used to be examined in the STEP 1 paper (which has now been discontinued), however the later modules do also cover some content you might face in the STEP 2 paper.

Joe’s tip: The STEP support foundation modules come in particularly useful for international students who have not taken UK Maths qualifications. For instance, if you have not studied GCSEs or A levels, these modules will give you a great overview of the baseline of content you will need to be familiar with ahead of taking the STEP exam. If you need more support knowing what to revise and how to develop important mathematical skills for higher education in the UK, our tutors know just how to help. Get in touch with our undergraduate admissions team for more information.

2. Get to know your strengths (and your weaknesses!)

One benefit of the STEP exam is that you can choose six questions from any of the three sections (Pure Maths, Mechanics and Probability/Statistics). That means if your strengths lie in one area of Mathematics more than another, you can focus your energy on the questions that align with those strengths in the exam.

The key is knowing what those strengths are (they are not always the same as which areas of Maths you enjoy!) and what your weaknesses are, too. It is usually helpful to look at previous exams and classwork that have been marked and assess which areas you tend to do well in and where you tend to drop marks. Then, come up with a revision plan that allows you to focus on improving your weaknesses and continuing to develop your strengths to ensure you have every base covered when it comes to sitting the STEP.

Joe’s tip: Due to the structure of the exam, you will need to answer questions on Pure Maths regardless, as Mechanics and Probability/Statistics only make up 4 questions and all candidates are required to answer 6. Therefore, you should ensure you are covering all areas of AS and A level Pure Maths in your revision. The STEP 2 and STEP 3 support modules are a great place to start to ensure you’re covering all of the relevant topics.

3. Get to know the mark scheme

Knowing exactly what you’ll be marked on in the STEP will help you prepare to get as many marks as possible on exam day. Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing specifies that candidates can use any method they choose and receive full marks for it, as long as they show it clearly and reach the correct answer. Therefore, if there’s a method that you find works particularly well for you (whether it is taught on your school syllabus or not), you can use it to your advantage in the STEP.

It’s also helpful to know what your chosen university considers a ‘good’ score so that you can aim for that score in your past papers (see step 5). Ideally, you should be aiming for a grade 1 or above in both papers if you’re applying to Cambridge and a grade 2 if you’re applying to Warwick, Bath, Southampton or UCL. In 2021, candidates who scored 54/120 were awarded a grade 2 and candidates who scored 67/120 were awarded a grade 1.

4. Practise showing clear, logical and legible working out

Though you are able to use any method to reach a correct answer in STEP questions (unless a particular method is specified), whatever method you use must be shown in a clear, logical and legible way. Examiners will want to see evidence of your thought process and any innovative solutions you have used in order to reach your answer. Standard notational conventions should also be followed and final answers should be simplified.

If examiners are unable to follow or understand your working out (even if you have reached a correct final answer) you may lose marks, so it’s important to keep this in mind when you’re preparing.

5. Practise past papers under timed conditions

One of the best ways you can prepare for the STEP is to simulate the conditions you will face in the actual exam by practising real past papers under timed conditions. Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing provides a bank of free STEP past papers dating back to 1998 on their website, however we advise that you stick to using past papers with the new specifications (STEP 2 and STEP 3 papers from 2019 onwards) to ensure that you’re preparing for the most up to date version of the exam.

Joe’s tip: STEP support programme provides a bank of worked solutions to STEP 2 and 3 papers for students to use for free online. These include solutions to all of the questions from the 2019, 2020 and 2021 STEP past papers, as well as helpful commentaries and tips throughout.
We advise using these worked papers to help you assess your own past papers, comparing the methods used and working out how many marks you would score. You can then use these worked papers as inspiration and guidance for the next past paper you complete – hopefully, the more papers you complete, the more your score will improve!

6. Seek help from a STEP expert

How you perform in the STEP will impact which universities you can get into, so it’s really important that you are prepared to do as well as possible in the exam. Unfortunately, schools and colleges are oftentimes not equipped to provide specialist STEP preparation due to a lack of experience, expertise or resources. As a result, we advise seeking a professional STEP tutor to help you through the process.

The Profs’ STEP tutors have many years of experience preparing students for the STEP exam, with many having actual experience as exam and admissions officers as well. Over these years, they have built a bank of previous questions and developed in-depth knowledge of the mark scheme, so they know exactly what examiners will be looking for.

If you work with one of The Profs’ tutors, you are more than three times more likely to get into Cambridge, which is ranked the third best university in the world to study Mathematics and offers the highest quality educational experience. You’ll also gain invaluable independent study skills that will prepare you for higher education, as well as a deeper and broader understanding of a range of mathematical concepts.

Plus, you can trust us to guide you through every stage of the admissions process to ensure that you don’t just succeed in the STEP, but also achieve top A level or IB grades and perform well in your interview. Reach out to our friendly team today to get started.