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When should a student start serious preparation for challenging university admissions tests such as STEP?

I was prompted to think about this question at the weekend. I received several lovely emails from a student who had attended two recent online courses that I wrote and delivered for the AMSP: a Year 12 course for MAT, TMUA and STEP preparation, and a Year 13 course exclusively for STEP preparation.

The student wrote in a very eloquent way about his experience of developing his ability to tackle STEP questions, and I’d like to quote at length from his emails. First, he began by thanking me for the help I gave him and letting me know how his recent STEP exams had gone:

Thank you so much for the support you have given me. I really appreciate everything you have done to help me, from lending me some of your time to do a mock interview with me to helping me with questions even after the course has ended.

My STEP 2 went really well – definitely enough for a band 2 and possibly enough for a band 1. I underperformed a little in my STEP 3 but it was a tough paper and I think I still did enough for a band 2 so I should still be okay for my offer.

Over a year ago when I started your MAT/TMUA/STEP course I had never even attempted an admissions test question and now I have come leaps and bounds thanks to your help. I will keep learning maths and I’m sure the things you have taught me will help me at my computing course and for my career ahead.

He then went on to reflect on the long process of building up the set of skills and confidence to be in a position to tackle STEP exams:

Initially in Year 12 I was actually quite scared to attempt STEP questions due to their difficulty, but looking back I wish I would have done more STEP questions early on. The inclusion of STEP questions in the Year 12 course has definitely helped and even if a question perhaps takes 2 hours to complete early on, it goes miles to build confidence that they are completely doable. I [think] that preparing for STEP takes a year, maybe even more and the structure of the course to introduce these questions early on is definitely beneficial.

The ‘MAT/TMUA/STEP’ course that the student referred took place in his Year 12 – it’s very similar to the 16-week AMSP course that over 50 students in the East Midlands region have been engaged with since March. The follow-up to this course begins in early October.

The imminent STEP course will comprise 18 weeks of online lessons (of two hours each), which will be as interactive as possible, followed by a face-to-face day or half-day event at the University of Nottingham in the spring (if circumstances allow). The course will be a very comprehensive guide to tacking questions from all areas of the STEP papers.

I agree with my former student that building up the skills to tackle STEP takes a long time. Too often I hear of students who in January have received offers to read Mathematics at Cambridge and who ‘now need to prepare for STEP’, and I think that they should have started months earlier. This impression is strengthened by looking at the admissions statistics for Mathematics at Cambridge. Referring to the graph below, we can see that of the roughly 1500 applications the university gets to read Mathematics every year, about 500 offers are made. But of these 500 offers, only about half (250) are finally accepted. This situation is quite different from every other course at the university, and it’s a measure of how challenging the final STEP hurdle is.

Therefore, if you have any students who you think are really serious about applying to Cambridge to read Mathematics (or Computer Science, in some cases), please tell them about the AMSP’s upcoming STEP preparation course.

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