What is the STEP Exam?

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UPDATE: From 2024, OCR will be replacing CAAT as the official testing body for STEP. The STEP 2 and 3 test papers will not be changing dramatically. For more information on scoring and important dates, please see the OCR website.

Oxbridge Cambridge STEP exam
The STEP exam is notoriously challenging Read on to better prepare yourself for the upcoming STEP exam

The Sixth Term Examination Paper, or STEP for short, is a maths exam set by Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing and takes place in mid to late June in Year 13. Universities such as Cambridge, Warwick and Imperial usually include certain grades in STEP as a part of a conditional offer to study Mathematics.

There are two kinds of STEP papers: STEP 2 and STEP 3. You will also see STEP 1 papers prior to 2020 but those have been discontinued. These are 3 hours papers consisting of 12 questions each: 8 pure maths, 2 mechanics and 2 statistics. Each question is marked out of 20 and your final score takes into account the six highest scoring questions only. There is no restriction on which questions you choose.

How is the STEP scored?

There are five grades: U, 3, 2, 1, S in increasing order. Cambridge usually requires you to get a grade 1 in both papers (in addition to the A-level requirements) whereas some other universities require a grade 2. A typical Cambridge gap year offer is an S and a 1. Oxford University does not base conditional offers on STEP grades; they instead use the MAT as part of their shortlisting process. Read more about the MAT in our article ‘MAT: A Guide for Maths Applicants’.

The papers are scored out of 120 and the grade boundaries vary year to year. Roughly for STEP 2 you’ll need 60 for a 2, 80 for a 1 and 100 for an S grade. And for STEP 3, usually you’ll need 50 for a 2, 70 for a 1 and 90 for an S. Click here for more grade boundary information.

What is the format of the STEP Exam?

The specifications for STEP 2 and STEP 3 are broad. STEP 2 features all of A-level Maths and AS-level Further Maths, whereas STEP 3 is based on all of both A-level Maths and Further Maths. Both specifications have some modifications and additions, which you can see on the detailed specification document. There is no formula booklet, so read the specifications to ensure you memorise everything that you need for the exams.

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What are some common STEP Questions?

Here is a list of common question topics that cover most of the content in STEP 2 and STEP 3:

  • Integration techniques, including
    • By Parts
    • By substitution
    • Using reduction formulas
  • Matrices and vectors
    • This includes vector geometry
  • Inequality manipulation and bounding
  • Vieta’s Formulas and equating coefficients
  • Using trigonometric identities to prove more complicated trigonometric identities and solve equations
  • Sequences defined recursively and proof by induction
  • Differential equations
  • Polynomials
  • Complex numbers
  • Curve sketching
  • Euclidean Geometry
  • Coordinate Geometry in Cartesian and Polar coordinates
  • Elementary number theory and divisibility
  • Circular motion
  • Simple Harmonic motion
  • Equilibrium and Friction
  • Pulleys
  • Projectile motion
  • Collisions
  • Elementary Probability
  • Coin tosses
  • Continuous random variables

If you’d like STEP practice questions, check out our free STEP past papers to help you with your exam preparation!

How does the University of Cambridge use your STEP scores?

Cambridge colleges make offers involving the STEP for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons is that questions mimic undergraduate maths problems. They are much tougher than A-level questions and this makes the STEP a much better predictor of success than A-levels. The broad syllabuses mean that STEP questions are less standard, testing the applicant’s ability to adapt to and perform well in unfamiliar mathematical environments.

Another reason is that the examiners get to see your written answers and give you marks for correct workings and understanding of methods. This means applicants can be rewarded for correct conceptual understanding even if they get the wrong final answer.  

Many universities including Cambridge recommend that their applicants practice STEP papers as preparation for undergraduate maths. The problem-solving skills required for STEP questions can help you bridge the gap between A-level and undergraduate mathematics. STEP questions are targeted at the top 5% of candidates and are supposed to be very difficult. So don’t worry if you’re struggling initially with STEP questions. With more and more practice you will get a better idea of the ways that the problems progress.

What does the STEP exam cost?

The STEP costs for 2023 are as follows:

£93Registration fee per STEP paper (UK only)
£129/$177Registration fee per STEP paper (outside UK)
£46Application for Results Enquiries (per paper)
£46Application for appeal (per paper)

Ask your school if they can cover the registration costs.

You can take the STEP at any centre that administers it. Normally you can do this at your school, just check with your Exams Officer. If you’re unable to sit the exams at school then you will have to find an alternative authorised test centre, however these charge administration fees in addition to the registration fee. 

What are the STEP exam dates 2023?

The key STEP exam dates are as follows:

8 June 2023STEP 2 exam date
21 June 2023STEP 3 exam date
17 August 2023 at 09:00 (BST)STEP results released
23 August 2023 at 17:00 (BST)Last date for results enquiries

Keep a note of these and allocate revision time accordingly since these will be around the same time as your A-level final exams.

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