STEP in the Right Direction: Start Your Prep Early
Looking at the 2017 entry requirements for maths, they’ve put a few more different ways to get in as a standard offer, so people no longer necessarily have to do STEP. In my year, all standard offers included STEP (or an AEA equivalent): either A*AA + 1 or A*A*A + 2. I, and most other people I know, did STEP but not AEA – many maths applicants in the coming years will likely do the same.
For those not familiar with it, STEP stands for Sixth Term Examination Paper, and refers to a series of three three-hour-long maths papers taken at the end of Year 13 (or equivalent). STEP I and STEP II focus on A-level Maths content plus proof by induction, and STEP III has a much wider curriculum, including topics covered in Further Maths. Each paper contains 13 questions, but only your best 6 answers contribute to your mark, and the general advice is to attempt at most 6 questions. The questions are much longer to work through than A-level questions, and the way to approach the question is often not immediately obvious. There’s also a taste of proving things in STEP, that doesn’t otherwise come up much at A-level. Warwick doesn’t currently specify which STEP paper the grade needs to be got in, although other universities may specify a paper – check specific entry requirements pages for more information.
Some good resources for beginning STEP preparation are the Advanced Problems in Mathematics and Advanced Problems in Core Mathematics booklets by Stephen Siklos. They’re easier than real STEP questions, but they’re a good way of easing into the idea of it. The booklets include hints and solutions to each question, which helps to build up the way you think. I’d recommend not reading these bits until you’ve struggled with a question for an hour or so first – it’s very easy to give up after five minutes, look at a solution and say “oh yeah, that’s obvious”, but in the grand scheme of things, that won’t do you very well in terms of learning. For what it’s worth, Siklos also seems really nice – I went on a Cambridge when I was in Year 12, and found my dad having an enthusiastic conversation with him about tennis. All I could think to say was that I was a big fan of Q13 in Advanced Problems in Mathematics…
I also liked the NRICH resources for learning extra content that isn’t picked up on at A-level. It’s organised into modules by topic, and you can work through at your own pace. I found the stuff on sketching particularly useful, and if you don’t cover proof by induction in your A-levels, that section is also particularly relevant to you.
The best practice for doing STEP questions is doing STEP questions, though. There’s a lot of them available here. I found the pre-2011 or so exams to be easier than more recent papers, but that all comes down to personal preference, I suppose. MAT questions can also be useful towards the beginning – they’re generally shorter and only require content from AS, so are helpful if you haven’t completed A2 modules yet.
If you’re taking STEP or similar papers, start your preparation for it as early as possible – it’s very different to A-level style, and practice will help. Also, exposing yourself to a wide variety of questions will help you to spot “nice” questions, because when you only have to answer six questions out of thirteen, the questions you choose can make a real difference. Don’t be discouraged if you find it difficult – you’ll find it comes more naturally the more often you practice, and it’s challenging by design.