10th February, 2017

A Parent's Guide to Maths University Applications

By Matt J

Guest post contributed by STEP Maths

The application process for Maths applicants at the top Universities can be confusing, with a plethora of different admissions tests, interviews and entry requirements.

This guide should help make sense of it.

Open Days

For an application to start University in September 2018, the admissions process will start in just a few months’ time. Maths specific Open Days at Cambridge start in April 2017 and many other universities are similar. These days are vital for getting a ‘feel’ of different universities, in addition to accessing all the important information about the course, accommodation, financial support, campus facilities etc. all in one place. For universities including Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, Open Days can be important for choosing a college, giving a chance to see the great variety in the size, age and location of different colleges.

The exams (AS levels or other exams) in May and June are also extremely important; for one, they can form the basis of any predicted grades for the final A Level exams.

UCAS Application

Over the Summer Holiday, there will be time to do two very important things in preparation for the new year: completing the UCAS form and preparing for any early Admissions Tests.

One of the major parts of the UCAS form is the personal statement. This is often very important, even for Maths applications. It gives an opportunity to show interest in Maths outside of the school curriculum, such as any books read or so-called ‘super-curricular’ activities. For me, this included things like taking part in Maths Challenges and attending my college’s Maths Society.

Contrary to expectations, It is also important to show that you can communicate clearly and efficiently as all Maths has to be communicated, often using words.

The deadline for the UCAS Application is some point in October 2017 for competitive courses including Oxford and Cambridge, although schools and colleges often require an earlier deadline to give them time to write their references. (The general deadline is in January.) By this point, then, it must have been decided which courses will be applied for and the personal statement must have been completed.

Most universities will offer either a four or three year course for Mathematics. It is commonly suggested that if there is any potential of doing the four year course, that is the one which should be applied for, since it is easier to change down rather than change up.

November Admissions Tests

Near the start of November some Universities require applicants to sit Admissions Tests. These include the MAT (Maths Admissions Test) and the TMUA (Test of Mathematics for University Admission). These are used to either decide which applicants to give offers to or to interview.

The MAT is used by both Oxford and Imperial College London. It is two and a half hours long and totals a maximum of 100 marks, made up of both multiple choice and long questions. The content is based only on the current Core 1 and Core 2 modules, so preparation can start quite early on. (This may vary with the new A-level coming in.) Oxford uses the MAT to cut down circa 2000 applicants to around 800, who are given interviews.

The TMUA is a relatively new admissions test, piloted in 2016, and is used primarily by Durham University to decide which applicants to give offers. Applicants to Lancaster and LSE can also receive a lower offer with a strong result in the TMUA. It is made up of two one hour long multiple choice papers, both on the same day in November, with content also mostly based on AS Level maths.


For Oxford and Cambridge, interviews begin in December. The process differs between the two (and between individual colleges) but the central idea is to help choose students suitable for supervision-style or tutorial-style learning and differentiate between those with similarly high grades.

At Cambridge, most applicants are invited to interview. The interviews are done by individual colleges, and thus different applicants will have different experiences. Most applicants will have around two interviews in one day. These interviews will be solely maths focused, and some of them will have a short test before. The interviews will form a significant but part of the decision of whether to make an applicant a university offer.

At Oxford, fewer applicants are invited to interview, due to the MAT exam which will have been taken beforehand. Applicants to Oxford will also have more interviews, with at least two different colleges. These interviews will take place over a number of days in mid-December, and students will stay in the college applied to for a couple of nights. The interviews themselves will have a similar format to those at Cambridge, mostly just working through a small number of Maths problems.

Winter Pool

Offers will be given out by Cambridge and Oxford in mid-January. Since applications are not always balanced between colleges, both Oxford and Cambridge have a ‘pool’ system which evens this out. If a college has too many applicants which they think are worthy of an offer, some applicants can be pooled. This means other colleges with too few accepted students can take students from this pool.

This means that in January some students can receive offers from a College which they did not apply to.

Firm and Insurance Decisions

By May all offers should have been decided and it is time to choose which offers to accept. The firm choice is simply the favourite university, and if that offer is met that will be the student’s university. The insurance choice is a backup in case the offer is not met for the firm choice. Because of this, it should have lower entry requirements. If neither offer is met, the student can enter Clearing on results day.


STEP is the final Maths Admissions Test, used by Cambridge, Warwick, Bath, UCL and increasingly many universities. Unlike other admissions tests, STEP is taken around June, at the same time as A Level exams. Because of this, offers from places like Cambridge or Warwick depend on getting certain grades in STEP.

There are three separate papers taken on three separate days; STEP 1 and 2 only require knowledge of A Level Maths while STEP 3 requires Further Maths. The papers are graded as S, 1, 2, 3, or U, with S being the highest grade.

A standard offer from Cambridge will require a grade 1 in STEP 2 and 3. The exams are three hours long with 13 questions marked out of 20. Only the best 6 answers are marked in STEP. Around four full solutions out of a maximum of six answers should earn a grade 1.

These exams are pretty tough. In 2016, 527 out of 1312 applicants got an offer. Of those 527, only 256 were accepted, as not everyone will meet their STEP offer. Finding a maths tutor to assist with preparing for these exams can hugely increase your chances of success.

Results Day

Results Day will be towards the end of August, and a lot of things can happen on that day.

What is different especially for maths applicants to Cambridge is the Summer Pool. This acts similarly to the Winter Pool, if you missed your offer to one college, another college can choose to accept you. Due to STEP, this is a relatively common occurrence, with 26 out of 256 people getting in through the Summer Pool.

Entry Requirements

These are the typical entry requirements for 2017 entry doing a 3 year maths course:


A*A*A (Mathematics, Further Mathematics + another subject) + 1,1 in STEP 2 and 3


A*A*A with the A*s in Mathematics and Further Mathematics (if taken)


Variations on A*A*A + 2 in STEP






Check University Website

These may change for 2018 entry and individual offers can be different from the standard offer.

STEP Maths provides training courses for students looking to study Mathematics and related subjects at university - with a particular focus on STEP, MAT, TMUA and interviews.

Preparing to apply to Oxbridge and similar institutions? Tutorful have you covered with tutors across the UK experienced in University application processes. Wherever you aim to study, our tutors can help you prepare.

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