Improving the Success of First-Year Students Utilizing Online Mathematics Admission Tests

The increasing relevance of mathematical knowledge and skills

Mathematics is becoming increasingly relevant in the admission process. Firstly, the UK Prime Minister recently announced a plan to make maths compulsory in schools until age 18, highlighting this subject’s importance in education and beyond.

Secondly, the significance of mathematics in higher education and work keeps growing. Skills like problem-solving, numeracy, and data analysis are crucial to tackling today’s, and indeed tomorrow’s, issues.

In response to this and due to international student demand, we see a growing number of universities offering new study programmes like data science. Therefore, it becomes more necessary to ensure applicants have the required mathematical skills to embark on such a study.

This presents a challenge. While English language requirements are well established, we need to ensure applicants have the required mathematical proficiency to succeed in their studies, particularly where equivalency is difficult to establish, while remaining an attractive option to international students in such a highly competitive sector.

In this blog post, we will discuss this situation with a focus on the UK. We’ll also look at a case study of the Netherlands. In response to this challenge, Dutch institutions have made significant and innovative steps in recent years. We will also share with you some research into outcomes following testing from a leading university.

This blog post summarises our presentation at the UK ENIC 22 conference, organised by our partner Ecctis in London. Here you can read a summary of the talk our colleague Adam Smallwood (Head of Partnerships) gave at this event.

Testing maths skills in a highly competitive international environment

The UK is the most popular destination for students in Europe and is well ahead of industry targets. However, a study by ICEF (2022) recently stated that:

“European destinations such as Germany, Spain, Italy, France, and the Netherlands are steadily claiming a greater share of the world’s international students – especially with China closed and Brexit having increased tuition costs for EU students thinking of going to the UK”.

This high level of competition isn’t new, of course, but it does put pressure on admissions to be ready to adapt.

What do international students study in the UK?

Business and STEM courses are the strong preference for students coming to the UK. According to HESA (2021), in the course 2020-21, international students accounted for 42.9% of business and management students and 39.5% of engineering and technology students.

Following the same source, computing and subjects related to medicine had the highest growth in international students in the last couple of years, rising by about 30% and 20%, respectively.

What links all of these programs is that they require solid mathematical proficiency (to varying degrees).

Where do international students in the UK come from?

Among the top senders of international students going to the UK, we can find diverse countries like China, India, and Nigeria. Regarding the EU, Italy, Romania, and Spain are the top ones (HESA, 2023).

The student body’s makeup continues to change, presenting a moving target for admissions teams.

Problems in recognising diverse qualifications

Recognising such a diverse range of international qualifications isn’t easy, and equivalency doesn’t allow students to make up for gaps in knowledge and skills. Admission offices, therefore, come up with their own approaches.

The most common solutions that we see institutions use are: 1) Reject applicants but miss out on the fees. 2) Redirect students to offline admissions tests and/or in-house summer courses or foundation years, but this risks putting applicants off. 3) Send students to travel to overseas campuses or vetted after-school facilities for extra training, but this may be unfeasible or too costly for students.

Some of these options culminate in a final exam at a test centre or through an admissions agent, increasing fraud risk (which a number of our existing partners have flagged as a previous concern of theirs).

In any case, all of these current solutions are time-consuming and expensive for both students and institutions. They also risk driving capable students to competitors on the continent.

We also see from our own partnerships that admission offices are working extremely hard and are under growing pressure to deal with challenges like the ones listed here.

So any solution has to address the following needs directly to best support the institution: 1) Check a wide and diverse range of qualifications. 2) Deal with a heavy workload. 3) Maintain the university’s credibility and integrity. 4) Ensure their decisions effectively support lower dropout rates. 5) Safeguard institutions’ income.

The Dutch case

The Netherlands is an especially innovative country with top universities and colleges that attract students worldwide. Since Dutch institutions deal with a very high and increasing volume of international applications, we want to explore their case with you and show how they’ve solved the challenges presented by mathematical requirements.

In 2021-22, 115,000 students came from abroad (CBS, 2022), making up more than a third of the student population in the Netherlands, compared with a quarter in the UK.

A staggering 40% of first-year students at Dutch universities are international (CBS, 2022). Like in the UK, universities in the Netherlands have come to rely on international fees as a significant part of their funding, so there is now an increased focus on dropout rates.

While 6% of Dutch students drop out in their first year, this number jumps to 17% for international students (Inspectorate of Education, 2022)

Given that international students are choosing study programmes that require mathematics, ensuring students have the appropriate skills has become an essential part of the process. The universities now do this at zero cost to the institution and without interrupting the application process. To solve these challenges, institutions are using OMPT.

OMPT: Online Maths Admission tests

OMPT is a service from SOWISO, the leading maths testing and learning tool in the Netherlands. It has an international presence in nearly 20 countries, including the UK.

In 2018, our team, composed of our in-house mathematicians, educational scientists, and software engineers, worked with leading Dutch institutions to co-create the OMPT tests to allow students to demonstrate their maths competency easily and safely from home.

These tests would provide an alternative means of admission where equivalency was insufficient. OMPT exams allow institutions to safeguard university revenues by ensuring students have the skills to succeed and increase applicants’ chances of enrolment through practice.

COVID-19 then made the challenges we discussed earlier even more pressing for institutions, who would need to factor in the varying effects of the pandemic on education globally into their processes.

Very quickly then, OMPT became a hugely significant partner for most Dutch universities because it’s an efficient tool to provide students with a safe and easy check of their maths competency.

For our partners, this means simplifying the admissions process, helping universities save time and providing applicants with a fairer chance of enrolment.

We support universities in making the right decisions and maximizing student success by lowering their dropout rates. Likewise, we put privacy and security first with integrated proctoring.

Additionally, our platform offers students high-quality practice materials and mock exams with unlimited practice. We even have some universities that provide this material for their applicants as part of the admissions process, contributing to a higher standard for enrollment.

So where are we now with OMPT? Well, in 2022, roughly 80% of Dutch universities used OMPT, with an increasing number of institutions from other European countries, like Belgium and Denmark, now joining.

Applicants from 128 countries took an online test with us, with around 3000 final exams taken overall. We also contributed to reducing the environmental impact of traditional admission processes, where in-person tests were used, with 979 metric tons of carbon emissions saved by remote testing.  

Research analysis

Now, we would like to share some analysis from one of our partners Over the last several years, this leading Dutch research university followed the path of its International Business Administration (IBA) applicants to understand if they had the required maths proficiency to succeed in the program.


The institution receives a high influx of students from diverse backgrounds and nationalities. So, evaluating their skill level is difficult and time-consuming. The university uses successful completion of the first year as a strong predictor of final graduation.

Therefore, at some cost, the university actually began its own in-house testing program in 2015. It was an in-person exam that could be done on campus, at school, or with a local agent. There was no practice material, and the process became an administrative burden. It ran for 3 years and, as we will see, was ultimately unsuccessful.

In 2020, they began using OMPT-A, which is our exam designed for Economics and Business programs, to test students who could not otherwise demonstrate mathematical equivalency.


Here, we can see the intake year on the top and, underneath that, the percentage of the student cohort that had taken the relevant admission exam and who were able to progress on to their second year.

As this visual displays, in 2015, only 38% of students who took the in-house maths admission exam passed their first year. This number then fluctuates significantly over the next 3 years, meaning the institution could not predict student success with this method of admission.

They subsequently dropped the test before forming part of the group of universities that worked with us on the development of OMPT, introducing it to this study programme in 2020.

We then see a dramatic change in outcome, with 90% of OMPT test takers from 2020 progressing to their second year of study. We can also dive into more detail for one year group. We can see the 2021 intake in the next visual.

The students in this cohort were all affected in some way or another by the COVID-19 pandemic. While most students were again expected to pass national secondary school exams, there was a real concern at the university about skills gaps.

There were 563 students admitted in this cohort. 46 of them failed to progress to their second year. The students who dropped out came from more than 12 different high-school curriculums from countries like Romania, Vietnam, and France.

We can see here that students who took the OMPT exam were slightly more likely to progress to their second year than those students admitted based solely on their high school certificate.

More importantly, this shows that success on OMPT is just as good a predictor or better of student progression as equivalency. Where students aren’t able to show that equivalency, they can now do so reliably and even make up for gaps in their knowledge.

So, what does this mean for institutions?

More students complete their studies and with higher predictability, giving more certainty on finances. Faculties benefit from a more consistent level of maths in their student cohorts.

Integrating OMPT into their existing processes has positively affected the demand for team resources and is easily extended to other study programmes for consistency.

Increasing student satisfaction with online maths admission testing

But students hate testing, right? Well, we also received great feedback from our 2021-2022 student satisfaction survey: More than 3/4 of the applicants are likely or very likely to recommend the OMPT exam to future university applicants. Besides, more than ‍80% of applicants affirm they are likely or very likely to recommend the practice material to future test-takers.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us. If you want to discuss your maths admission exam challenges and how to solve them, you can book a demo with one of our experts.


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