How to Prepare for the MAT


Rowan Wright

The MAT is a challenging exam, presenting a fiendish combination of question difficulty and time pressure. With focused and diligent practice, students can reliably improve their score. The optimal time to begin preparation is at the start of the summer holiday between Y12 and Y13, though many students don’t start until much later and still achieve acceptable results. If you are serious about the exam, we advise spending around 10 hours per week on preparation over the summer holiday. You should decide exactly how much time you intend to spend studying each week and make a plan, detailing which resources and past papers you will be using. If you haven't started preparing for the 2023 exam yet, start today!

Things to Memorise

Since there is no formula booklet for the MAT, it is essential that you commit standard formulae to memory, and you should begin this straight away. The MAT specification published by Oxford is very brief and a little vague, but you can find amore detailed syllabus at the back of our free MAT Handbook, which details everything you need to know. Some common pitfalls are:

  • Formulae for the n’th term, or sum of first n terms of, an arithmetic or geometric sequence (including sum to infinity for geometric!)
  • Circle theorems as covered at GCSE (or equivalent) level
  • Sine and cosine rules
  • Standard graph transformations
  • The trapezium rule

You must also memorise the standard trig values. Even if you can deduce them using a triangle, there will be no time in the exam!

1. Taught Material

Although the MAT syllabus is essentially first year A level content (see the Appendix of our MAT Handbook for our more detailed version, including examples), there is a ‘shadow syllabus’ of exam-specific ideas that prominently feature, year after year. You can gain a rough working understanding of these ideas through past paper practice, but it’s ideal to encounter them in an abstract context first, if possible. Encountering new ideas in relation to a specific problem can lock your perspective on the situation in which the idea can be applied, which is why it is best to engage with it in taught material first, to give a broader perspective. We recommend the following resources:

  • The Oxford MAT Livestream, hosted by Dr James Munro, is a good resource for MAT students. It doesn’t cover the topics in great depth because it’s designed to be accessible to students regardless of the amount of time they spend studying for the exam. The worksheet sections of the livestreams are particularly good, but we advise against watching the section of the videos which go through past paper questions. Past papers are a valuable resource and you will lose some of the benefit if you have seen the question before attempting it as part of a past paper.
  • The Vantage MAT Primer Course is by far the most comprehensive taught resource available, recommended for the most serious students. It consists of 10 lessons, each approximately 90 minutes, and provides a complete introduction to the key themes which frequently form the basis of MAT questions. Each lesson is accompanied by a carefully crafted worksheet, designed to ensure students have seen all the quirks and tricks the examiners and likely to use. To learn more about the MAT Primer Course, please see the MAT page of our website or book a free consultation.

2. Past Papers

MAT past papers are available from 1996-2022, and they are the best resource available for acquainting yourself with the style of questioning used in the MAT. You should aim to complete as many as possible in strict timed conditions, starting with the earliest you have time to complete, working towards the 2022 paper. The legacy papers (1996-2006) had a slightly different syllabus, so a small number of questions aren’t relevant to the current exam. We recommend using the ‘relevance checkers’ on the MAT resources page of our website which specify whether the questions whether the questions are entirely relevant or require off-syllabus techniques.

It is very important to work through the papers year by year, rather than finding the questions arranged by topic. This is because a significant part of the challenge is working out which ‘topic’ the question is on! It should take approximately 4 hours to study a full past paper in order to extract the maximum benefit. We recommend the following process:

  • Timed mock exam. You should complete as many past papers as possible in strict timed conditions. Regular timed practice will allow you to evolve the timing and exam technique strategy that works best for you. It will also help you to build stamina and track progress.
  • Second attempt. Set your timed work aside and, on separate paper or with a different colour pen, spend as long as you need trying to answer the questions you didn’t finish. Resist the temptation to move on too quickly: every minute spent struggling on a difficult question is sharpening your mathematical problem-solving instinct. Make sure you don’t look at the mark scheme or solutions!
  • Mark work. When you have done all you can, mark your work, keeping a separate score for the work completed in timed conditions. Oxford provides MAT mark schemes for 2007-2022 which give the number of marks per question, but not much detail on how they’re distributed. We provide free answer keys for Q1 of the legacy papers. In our experience, students generally lose around 3 marks per long form question solely due to poor quality of presentation and explanation. There is much to be gained by having your work marked by a real examiner, which is a service we offer at Vantage.
  • Review. You should then carefully review your second attempt to ensure a complete understanding of every question. You can use the Oxford worked solutions for this, and ask a teacher, friend, or online forum for help if you’re stuck. Vantage MAT preparation courses provide complete solution videos and booklets for all MAT papers, 1996-2022. They teach you how to ‘come up with’ ideas, thinking as trained mathematicians. View a sample of our MAT 2007 solutions on our MAT page.

3. Individual Tuition

Many students opt to have individual tuition as part of their admissions test preparation. It provides an opportunity to smooth out any issues that were unresolvable with the available resources and ask questions. Tuition can be extremely beneficial, but students who do not receive tuition can still achieve high marks through diligent preparation.