Exam Technique Tips for the MAT


Rowan Wright

The best way to develop good exam technique is through diligent practice of timed mock exams. In this article, we share our 8 'golden rules' for timing and approach to answering questions.

1. Timing is key

One of the main causes of underperformance on the MAT is sinking too much time into one problem, and therefore not having enough time to attempt everything. You should expect to move on from some problems without completing them. Otherwise, you may miss low-hanging fruit, often found at the beginning of the long form questions. ‘Marks per minute’ are often much higher early on in each problem, as demonstrated by this example: in (i), we just need to compute the area of a trapezium (e.g. by splitting it up into a rectangle and a right-angled triangle), while in (iv), some very tricky work involving inequalities is involved.

2. No Part Left Behind

Even if you can’t do one part of a long form question (and especially if it’s earlier on in the question), you should still attempt the later parts. The idea you missing to complete the earlier part may be completely unrelated to the later sections of the question. It is very often the case that there are easy marks to earn in the middle of a problem, such as brute force computation, even if sandwiched between much harder parts.

If you are asked to ‘show that’ earlier in a problem, you are still allowed to assume and use the result in later parts of the question if relevant, even if you didn’t manage to complete that part.

3. Explain your Reasoning

In our experience, the average student loses around 3 marks per long form question solely due to issues with their presentation and explanation. Unlike in A level/IB Maths, you are not simply applying familiar rote methods, but inventing your own methods on the spot. Due to the greater subtlety and originality of logic, students are held to a much higher standard in terms of explaining their reasoning.

The more complicated your argument, the more frequently you should be leaving written comments explaining your thought process. You don’t need to write an essay for every problem, but it is helpful to briefly outline why you are performing certain calculations, or how you are inferring things. If your logic goes beyond basic algebraic manipulation, you should usually be justifying your logic!

Note also that while you are technically allowed to use ideas that aren’t on the syllabus when answering MAT questions (though we generally advise against this), if you do you will be held to an even higher standard in terms of clarity of explanation

Although there are no method marks for Q1 (multiple choice), it is also still sensible to set your work out clearly so that it’s easier to check at the end.

4. Elimination

In Q1 (multiple choice), it is often easier to eliminate the wrong answers rather than directly identifying the correct answer. For instance, this is particularly true for ‘identify the correct graph’ questions (example below). Even if you can’t eliminate all but one option, eliminating some answers improves your odds if you do have to guess.

5. Make Connections

You should expect parts of a long-form question to be tied together, and if you find yourself stuck, you should always try to look back to earlier parts for inspiration. Sometimes, it might be the case that a result which we obtained earlier in the question is going to be directly applicable. This is especially likely if the earlier part felt a bit ‘random’ or detached from the rest of the problem. Sometimes, rather than making use of a result from earlier, you will need to reapply an idea or technique from earlier in the question, often in amore difficult context.

6. Wishful Thinking

It is important to remember that MAT problems are designed to be solved by good Y13 students in a reasonable timeframe. If a problem looks far too complicated to be solvable using methods on the exam syllabus unless something miraculous happens, you can bet on the fact it probably will! This means you should often attempt algebraic simplifications and other calculations, even if they seem unlikely to succeed.

For instance, in the above example, students who have the courage to compute the first few terms in the sequence will quickly see that the terms start looping, thus saving us from having to apply the term-to-term rule 99 times!

7. Remaster Arithmetic

Your arithmetic skills will likely have atrophied since taking calculator-only courses, and you will have no calculator for the TMUA. It’s certainly worth reviewing:

  • Times tables up to 20
  • Methods for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing numbers with many digits
  • Square numbers up to 202
  • Cube numbers up to 103

8. Think Graphically

MAT examiners have a strong bias towards setting problems which use graphical reasoning. For instance, questions will often ask you to count the number of solutions to an equation which cannot be solved algebraically, but for which it is easy to count the solutions from a simple sketch. Even if graphical methods are not the only feasible approach, there are frequently questions which would be extremely laborious algebraically but almost immediate when using graphical methods.