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How to prepare for Cambridge STEP

Table of Contents
How to prepare for Cambridge STEP
Table of Contents

Many students and parents do not know much about the Cambridge STEP exam, even they do not know how to plan the preparation time for Cambridge STEP exam and what way to prepare for the exam more effectively. If you have similar questions, this article will help you to prepare for Cambridge STEP.

I. Before you prepare for Cambridge STEP

Firstly, learning the basic information about the STEP exam is important, which may include:

  • Exam date
  • Which courses require the STEP exam
  • Exam format
  • Scoring method
  • Contents assessed in STEP exam

Secondly, download the latest preparation resources from the OCR official website, including:

  • The latest STEP specification
  • Past papers and solutions
  • Other sample materials, including sample questions and answer books, etc.
UE Oxbridge-Prep – STEP 2 Past Papers (1987-2023)
UE Oxbridge-Prep – STEP 3 Past Papers (1987-2023)

You may download our collections of past papers via the test prep page as follows.

What’s more, you need to know the STEP exam changes every few years, such as revising the specification and changing the number of questions. Therefore, it is necessary for you to know the latest exam policies before viewing or using previous exam questions to avoid misunderstanding of the exam format, scoring method and exam scope, so as to improve the efficiency when you prepare for Cambridge STEP.

For more information and further understanding about the Cambridge STEP exam, please refer to our blog “Cambridge STEP Exam: A Comprehensive Guide”.

II. What knowledge is required when I prepare for Cambridge STEP?

The STEP specification sets the scope of the exam clearly: STEP 2 requires AS Further Mathematics, and in addition to the content in STEP 2, STEP 3 requires A2 Further Maths in further.

However, not all students required to sit the STEP exam are studying A Level Maths and Further Maths courses, and many students do not complete Further Maths courses while they prepare for Cambridge STEP. So next, we will answer some questions from the students and parents in target.

1. Do I need to complete A Level Further Maths courses before preparing for Cambridge STEP?

No. And here are the reasons:

  • The preparation for Cambridge STEP usually takes half a year. Therefore, students may have a high probability of forgetting knowledge such as the Maclaurin series, second-order differential equations, and hyperbolic functions if they complete the Further Maths courses months in advance.
  • To catch up with the progress, some students do not have a solid grasp of Further Mathematics, which may lead to difficulty in solving the STEP questions.
  • Not all STEP questions require knowledge of AS and A2 Further Mathematics.

After more than a decade of teaching practice, I have summed up a mature set of strategies for students when they prepare for Cambridge STEP exam:

  • Start the preparation with topics that do not require Further Mathematics to lower the threshold.
  • Studying Further Mathematics and preparing for Cambridge STEP can be done simultaneously, which mutually reinforces and highly improves efficiency while matching the long cycle of the STEP preparation.
  • First, studying contents overlapping in STEP 2 and 3 and covering AS Further Maths. Then, the contents of A2 Further Maths that are covered in STEP 3. This allows plenty of time for studying Further Mathematics and preparing for STEP 3.

From my point of view, students do not have to complete A Level Further Maths but only A Level Maths before they prepare for Cambridge STEP. See below for a detailed timeline for Cambridge STEP preparation.

2. Can the AP curriculum system cover the scope of the STEP exams?

The three parts of the STEP exam cover pure numbers, mechanics and statistics:

  • AP Calculus BC can cover most content of pure numbers in STEP exam.
  • AP Physics C Mechanics can fully cover the mechanics in STEP exam.
  • The knowledge and focus of AP statistics are quite different from the content of the STEP statistics.

Therefore, for students studying the AP curriculum, it’s recommended to:

  • Take some time to supplement the knowledge of the pure number part in A Level Further Maths.
  • Fully practice STEP mechanics questions to reduce the pressure of selecting questions in the pure number part.
  • Students can choose whether to prepare for the STEP statistics part based on their situation. Studying statistics in Further Mathematics is required if you choose statistics questions in the STEP exam.

3. Can HL Mathematics in IB curriculum system cover the scope of the STEP exams?

No. According to past cases, students in IB curriculum system do not have an advantage when they prepare for Cambridge STEP exam. On the one hand, SL and HL Mathematics cannot fully cover the pure number part and statistics part of STEP, and Physics does not meet the mechanical knowledge requirements of STEP based on calculus. On the other hand, IB students usually have greater academic pressure and less time to prepare for Cambridge STEP. Therefore, students in IB curriculum system need to start preparing earlier than other curriculum students.

III. How to score high on Cambridge STEP exam?

The STEP exam comprehensively tests students’ mathematical literacy. Students who achieve high scores in STEP must have strong abilities in mathematical calculation , mathematical reasoning, knowledge transferring, and good writing habits.

1. Excellent mathematical calculation ability

The STEP exam does not allow calculators and requires a strong mathematical calculation ability, which may equal Gaokao’s maths calculation requirements.

Generally speaking, students from the domestic curriculum system can basically meet the requirements of the STEP exam. In contrast, many students under A Level, AP and IB curriculum systems cannot meet the requirements, affecting their problem-solving speed. Therefore, these students often need specialised training in calculation skills and speed.

2. Excellent mathematical reasoning ability

Most students do not undergo systematic training in logical reasoning and are unfamiliar with common mathematical proof methods. Therefore, they basically rely on intuition when solving STEP questions and can be easily stuck when the questions have complicated conditions and logic. To easily deal with STEP questions, students need to strengthen their mathematical reasoning ability, which usually includes but is not limited to:

  • Proficiency in proof methods commonly used in high school mathematics.
  • Familiarity with basic mathematical logical reasoning.
  • Have a strong awareness of classification discussion.
  • Make rigorous logical inferences about classification problems.

3. Ability to transfer knowledge in new situations

The key of getting a high score is to give a complete and right answer to the last question of the STEP exam. Therefore, some students have developed a more utilitarian training method: focus on practising the last question – the more they practice, the higher possibility of getting a high score. A little experimentation will reveal that this approach is not feasible, and there is no need to make any rebuttal in this blog.

In fact, the last question of most STEP difficult questions tests students’ ability to understand the mathematical proof methods involved in the previous questions and their inherent logic of proof, as well as their ability to transfer the core methods to new contexts to solve problems, which is also the main focus of the Cambridge STEP preparation.

After undergoing the training, in the late preparation stage, our UEIE students will be able to solve the last question easily and smoothly.

4. Good writing habits for mathematical proof

Writing mathematical proofs and reasoning processes is generally weak among Chinese students. In particular, many of my students with high IQs and extremely quick mathematical thinking are poor in writing reasoning processes. It is normal for these students not to get high scores or full marks on STEP exam. Therefore, for students who are not good at writing math proofs, I usually provide special guidance on writing in the early stages of the preparation to ensure not losing points that should not be lost.

IV. 5 steps to set a reasonable goal for STEP exam

Setting a reasonable goal is the first step towards success. It is recommended to follow the steps:

1. Understand the requirements of your target universities and courses

Different universities and courses have different requirements for STEP scores:

University of Cambridge

Maths courses in all colleges and engineering and economics courses in individual colleges in Cambridge generally require STEP above grade 1.

Computer science related courses at Imperial College London

Computer science related courses in 2023 and before usually require STEP to achieve grade 2 or above. From 2024, these courses require candidates to sit the TMUA test. Since Imperial College will take TMUA scores as the basis for admissions for the first time this year, the official has not yet released relevant information on TMUA score lines.

Mathematics related courses at Imperial College London

Students are usually required to submit Oxford MAT scores and will be required to achieve STEP grade 2 or above if they do not have MAT scores.

University of Warwick

Students applying for mathematics courses at the University of Warwick are usually required to achieve grade 2 or above or submit MAT or TMUA scores instead of STEP scores.

Other UK universities

Please refer to the admission requirements, which usually require STEP grade 2 or above.

2. Taking an assessment test

Considering that most students have yet to learn all mathematics knowledge before they prepare for Cambridge STEP exam, the assessment test is more about familiarising the difficulty of the questions and making a preliminary assessment of their mathematics ability. It is recommended to:

  • Use past papers from three years ago instead of the last three years, as these will be used for pre-exam practice and are extremely valuable.
  • Print the paper in advance with pens and other materials ready.
  • Simulate actual exam scenarios and have a time limit of 3 hours.
  • Score according to the answers and scoring criteria. If there are no scoring criteria or need clarification on the criteria, ask a professional teacher to make an evaluation.
  • Keep the assessment test papers well to facilitate the teacher’s evaluation.

3. Evaluate your assessment test scores

View the score lines of STEP exams in previous years through the link below and check which grade you achieved on the assessment test. It is important to remember that your assessment test scores do not indicate the scores you can achieve when taking the real STEP exam. By working hard to prepare for Cambridge STEP exam, you will be able to achieve a better score than the assessment test.

4. Understanding how difficult the exam is and it's changing trends

After taking the assessment test, you may have a rough idea about the STEP exam’s difficulty and your current mathematics level. At this time, you may also have a preliminary evaluation of how many scores you will achieve in the future.

But I still recommend you to have a further understanding of the difficulty of the STEP exam and the changing trend of exam difficulty in recent years before setting your goals. Please spend a few more minutes reading our blog, “Cambridge STEP Exam Difficulty Analysis”.

5. Improve your mindset and set a reasonable goal

I fully understand that many students look forward to obtaining grades 11 or even grade SS in the exam. We will also be proud of you if you can achieve such excellent results.

However, it’s recommended that you first understand the exam difficulty and the percentage of students who achieve grade 11 or higher, then take your situation, mathematics level, and the amount of time and energy you can spend on preparing for the exam into consideration, and finally set your goal.

When you prepare for Cambridge STEP exam, excessively high goals will increase your frustration. In serious cases, students may doubt themselves and give up halfway. Such cases are not rare among students I have taught in previous years.Reasonable goals can increase your fighting spirit and allow you to continuously make improvements in preparation until you finally achieve the goals.

V. What are the Cambridge STEP preparation strategies?

There are no more than three ways to prepare for the exam: systematic training, question practice , and mock exams. The usage scenarios and expected effects of these three methods are analyzed below.

1. Systematic training

This method is usually based on the requirements of the STEP specification and systematically comprehends each knowledge block in a reasonable order. This method takes the longest time, but it is also the most basic and effective method when students prepare for Cambridge STEP exam and is suitable for those with enough time and reasonable planning.

2. Question practising

The question practice training method is to prepare for Cambridge STEP exam by practicing past papers and questions. The advantages of this method are obvious: quick familiarity with the exam and saving preparation time. However, the results of using this method vary from person to person.
Several types of scenarios and expected effects using this method are as follows:

  • The exam is approaching, and the students only have a little time to prepare and practice, so they can only use this method. In this case, practicing questions can only help students familiarize themselves with the test format and question difficulty, but it will have little effect on improving their scores.
  • Some students who have participated in various international competitions and have considerable experience using this question practice training method may feel that mastering the core skills of the STEP exam can be easy by practicing past questions. For students with such point of view, rich experience in mathematics competitions, and excellent competition results, the problem-solving training method is perfectly suitable, and the training effect is often immediate. Otherwise, using this method to prepare for Cambridge STEP exam is generally not recommended.
  • According to the scientific Cambridge STEP preparation time plan, after completing the first stage of systematic training, the question practice training method should be used for the second stage of exam preparation. In this case, this training method can help you achieve the best preparation results.

3. Taking mock exams

Undoubtedly, the mock exams are most suitable when there are 3-4 weeks before the exam. It is generally recommended to arrange one mock exam every 1-2 weeks, and three exams in total. The mock exam must strictly simulate the actual exam scenario. Refrain from blindly pursuing high scores in the mock exam, and the main purpose is to find knowledge loopholes and adjust your mentality before the exam.

4. Which preparation strategy is better for you?

When planning the preparation for the Cambridge STEP exam, I will flexibly use a combination of the above methods according to the student’s preparation time:

  • For students with plenty of time to prepare for Cambridge STEP exam, using three methods of systematic training + question practice training + mock exams will lead to the best results.
  • However, most students have limited time but can also achieve good results by skipping the question practice part and using the methods of systematic training + mock exams.
  • For students with extremely limited time or high level of mathematics, it is advisable to use the methods of question practice training + mock exams.
  • There are still a few students who are crammed and have no choice but to use the question practice method and practice a few sets of past papers. As for the effect of such preparation, they can only leave it to fate.

5. Why is it not recommended to replace systematic training with question practice?

By this point, many students may still be confused – why can’t they prepare for Cambridge STEP exam by only practicing the STEP questions? It’s normal to have this question due to a lack of understanding of the STEP exam. Here, I will show why practicing STEP questions is more challenging than you think through comparative analysis in multiple dimensions.

International High School Maths Course

Comprehensive degree

Test knowledge points are relatively single and fixed, as long as you can do a few types of fixed questions can ensure that you get high scores.
Knowledge points, problem-solving methods, and skills tested in the exam are very comprehensive; without a long time of training, it is difficult to achieve higher proficiency and get a high score.

Scope of examination

The syllabus changes little, and the test points correspond to the questions one by one, so the effect of practicing past questions in recent years is very obvious.
Each set of past papers has only 12-13 questions in recent years, covering less than 10% of the specification. Even if students have practiced the past questions in the past ten years, they may be unable to cover the entire specification. Moreover, the 2019 specification has been significantly revised. It’s a waste of time to practice knowledge points that are not tested or to miss to practice new knowledge.

Analytic process

The process is detailed, and the scoring criteria are clear, which is helpful in providing feedback on question practicing.
The official analysis of some years is not detailed and does not provide images. There are even errors in the analysis of some questions (most of the mistakes found have been revised in my standard courses and materials), which will waste preparation time. Also, the scoring criteria are unclear or even missing.

Knowledge system

After systematically studying high school mathematics knowledge, the effect of the question practice will be obvious.
In addition to mastering high school mathematics knowledge, students also need to master number theory, mathematical proof methods, other skills, and some basic mathematical thinking.

VI. How to plan the time when you prepare for Cambridge STEP exam?

Cambridge officially recommends that the preparation time should be no less than six months. In general, the preparation time varies from person to person. However, the longer the preparation time, the better the preparation, and the higher the STEP score. According to my observation, students who have achieved grade 1 or above generally spend more than nine months preparing for the exam, and the cumulative training time is more than 400 hours.

1. Having more than two years for the preparation

Generally speaking, there is no need to start the preparation too early. Students should first participate in one or two international mathematics competitions, such as the American Mathematics Competition (AMC) and the British Mathematics Olympiad (BMO), to improve their mathematical thinking. After the competition, then start to prepare for Cambridge STEP exam with all your strength.

2. Having about 18 months for the preparation

These students usually have just participated in various maths competitions and have two opportunities to take the STEP exam. Students with excellent results in math competitions can take the latest STEP exam, using the method of question practicing and spend an average of 5-6 hours per week preparing. Students without such great results or any experience in maths competitions can take the STEP exam a year later and prepare for Cambridge STEP exam an average of 3-4 hours per week.

3. Having about 12 months for the preparation

These students must make good use of various holidays and weekends, taking 8-9 months for systematic training, and strive to enter the question practice training 2-3 months before the exam to reserve enough time for the mock exams.

4. Having about 6 months for the preparation

If students only expect to improve from grade 3 to grade 2, achieving this in such a short time is still possible. However, if students have no experience in intense training for maths competitions or have already reached the grade 2 level, it is not that easy to achieve grade 1 or above in about six months, which means they cannot get a score that meets Cambridge’s requirement.

VII. Conclusions

As a senior Oxbridge admission test preparation professor, I would like to emphasize that there are no shortcuts in preparing for the Cambridge STEP exam. In addition to long-term planning and scientific and efficient preparation strategies, getting a high score also requires persistence and hard work.

Still need more STEP preparation resources? In addition to the “Cambridge STEP Standard Courses” and “Cambridge STEP Question Practice” written and developed by me, our blog “Cambridge STEP Preparation Resources Recommendations and Usage Suggestions” (soon to be released) will also give a detailed introduction.

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