Why is question choice important?
The STEP exams might be the first ones in which you have to choose which questions you answer. This post will give you some guidelines for making those choices, but practice will also be vital for you to improve as you need to get to know yourself and your preferences.
There is no doubt that some STEP questions are harder than others. This is confirmed by the significant variations in average marks described by the Examiners’ Reports. Not only this, your personal strengths and weaknesses can seriously affect your chances of answering a question well. There is also the question of how many questions to attempt and whether to try the Mechanics or Statistics questions at the end of the paper.
Considering these things in advance will be very helpful when you get in the exam and have to start answering questions and making these difficult decisions under pressure.
How many questions are there to choose from?
STEP II and III exams now consist of 12 questions, eight on pure maths, two on mechanics, and two on probability and statistics. Only a maximum of six of these, however, earn marks.
Some papers in the past had 13 questions, with an additional Mechanics question.
How many questions do you need to answer?
To decide how many questions you need to answer, you have to know what your target grade is. Then, by looking at recent grade boundaries, you can approximate how many questions you will need to answer fully (or strongly) to meet your target. You should also keep note throughout the exams how well you think you are doing, and use that to decide whether to attempt new questions or work more on previous attempts. (See Exam Timing for more on this.)
It is generally accepted that if you are aiming for a Grade 1, you should try to fully answer four questions plus some partial answers. If you are aiming for an S, you should try to fully answer five questions, and for a 2, three questions. However this varies each year and between the different papers.
However, I would suggest choosing six questions at the start, as I would often start a question and quickly realise it was more difficult than I expected and have to move on.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Most STEP questions can be divided into a small number of categories, varying from geometry to logic to simple harmonic motion. Undoubtedly, some of these topics you will be better at than others. Also, in your preparation you may choose to focus on certain question areas. It is important to understand this, and know your strengths and weaknesses. During your preparation, it may be worth keeping track of the questions (and their topics) with which you had most success. This is important as you may feel like you are good at integration questions, while in fact you rarely complete them.
In the exams you can use this understanding of yourself to choose the best questions for you. The exam is definitely not the time to give a vectors question a go for the first time!
When should you decide on questions?
I would strongly recommend going through all the questions at the start to decide and note down which ones you are most likely to attempt. This stops you having to waste time repeatedly going through the questions deciding which question to do next. It also ensures you go through all the questions, and don’t miss the easy probability question at the end of the paper just because you didn’t get around to reading it in time.
However, it might be worth going back through the questions, say, halfway through, to see if there are any you may have overlooked the first time, especially if you are struggling with the questions you chose.
How in depth should I look at a question before attempting it?
There is definitely more to choosing questions than just looking at the overall topic. Looking for elements of questions you’ve seen before or types of questions you prefer (for instance proofs or graph sketches) can be very helpful when making your choices. It is especially important to look beyond the first part, which might be much easier or harder than the rest of the question.
Are the applied questions worth looking at?
Yes, definitely. Both the mechanics and statistics sections can have nice and accessible questions. However, I often found the mechanics questions quite time consuming. Of course, I would suggest trying lots of them before the exams themselves and seeing if they suit you.
Note that, even if you have not studied many A Level Statistics modules, there is often a probability question which doesn’t require much A Level knowledge.
This may well be one of your first exams where you are choosing from a list of questions, so it is definitely important to work on this skill. I hope this advice can be helpful to you in the exam, but it is important you think over it yourself and come up with a strategy that works best for you.