Exam Technique Tips for STEP


Rowan Wright

STEP is a notoriously challenging admissions test: developing an effective strategy for the exam is crucial in achieving a high mark, in addition to cultivating a sharp instinct for solving difficult problems. Frequent, diligent use of past papers is the best way to develop good exam technique. This article outlines our general advice on timing, question choice, and written presentation.


You may attempt up to six questions. Although common guidance is to aim to do ‘four questions well’, it is generally more effective to aim to do ‘six questions decently’. It is often much easier to gain marks in the earlier parts of the questions, and there is no special advantage given to students who complete a question fully over students who complete three quarters of the question. Don’t fixate on getting the very last part of the problem, and be prepared to move on, even if you haven’t completed every part of a question.

Question Choice

  • Question choice is extremely important for STEP because you will only attempt (at most) half of the questions on the paper. It is worth allocating a certain amount of time – perhaps 5-10 minutes – to read through all of the questions carefully and make your choice.
  • In addition to prioritising topics that you tend to prefer, or questions where you have a good idea of what to do, an important criterion that might motivate your question choice is if they are similar to past paper questions you have completed.
  • Question 1 is designed to be more accessible, which, in practice, means it is easier. Therefore, you should plan to attempt Q1, unless it turns out to be on a topic that you very strongly dislike. Q2 is also typically a little more straightforward than the other problems, so it is worth serious consideration. Otherwise, the questions do not get more difficult as the paper progresses, so the question number should not be taken into account when you choose your questions.
  • Don’t be fooled into thinking that a question that looks very long or has many parts is going to be longer or more difficult. In fact, such questions are often more straightforward because the question is guiding you through the solution step by step. Often, questions that look briefer on the page are more challenging.
  • Pay attention to terminology used in the questions. ’Deduce’ means that you need to use the result you have just found or proved. ‘Write down’ or ‘state’ means that no substantial workings should be needed. ’Hence’ means that you must use the result you have just proved in order to gain the marks.

Written Presentation

  • STEP examiners are particularly strict when it comes to clarity of written presentation and explanation. If you are doing anything more complicated than algebraic rearrangement, you should include written remarks explaining your logic and any required justifications. (For instance, if you divide an equation through by something, explain why you know it’s non-zero and therefore legitimate to do so.) Examiners will be especially strict in the case of ‘show that’ questions because candidates may bluff.
  • If you have learned any off-syllabus ideas, such as L’Hôpital’s Rule, take extra care in your presentation. For example, if using L’Hôpital’s Rule for:

you must manually verify that f(c) = 0 and g(c) = 0. The examiners’ attitude is that if students are trying to be clever by going off-piste ,they had better do it right!

  • As a result of the increased mathematical maturity you are expected to show in STEP problems, it can very often be helpful to reason graphically, geometrically or pictorially rather than solely algebraically. As such, drawing a quick sketch or diagram- whether of a function or something else pertaining to the problem - can often be very helpful, even if the question doesn’t specifically ask you to.

Getting Unstuck

When stuck, one of the best strategies is to look back at earlier parts of a question. Sometimes, a result you proved earlier is now applicable, or it might be a matter of reapplying a method which you used earlier. Very often, a question will first guide you through applying a new method step by step, then expect you to apply it independently to another problem later on.

If you can’t solve one part of a problem, it doesn’t mean you can’t move onto the next part. It is not uncommon for students to be unable to solve the middle section of a question then find the remainder straightforward. Note that, even if you have been unable to prove a ‘show that’ result, you are still allowed to assume the result in your work for the later parts.


For more advice on your STEP preparation, please see our article 'How to Prepare for STEP' or book a free consultation with Vantage founding director and STEP expert, Rowan Wright.