Maths is widely acknowledged to be one of the hardest subjects you study at school. Each year, thousands of students struggle to get their heads around equations, graphs and algebra. However, maths is incredibly useful in a range of careers, and it is compulsory in England for all students to take this subject until they are at least 16.
Many employers ask for students to have a GCSE Maths qualification, even if it isn’t directly related to the job. Beyond this, plenty of students choose to take A-Level Maths, which is a useful subject to have for many university courses. However, you may be wondering about the difference between these two qualifications. Having taken both GCSE and A-Level Maths, I know there are various different challenges involved in both stages. Maths as a whole is known to be difficult, but how do the GCSE and A-Level qualifications compare?
Of course, everyone will have a different opinion about how hard a certain subject is, as we all have different strengths. Have your say in the poll below – do you think GCSE or A-Level Maths is harder?
Overall, it is generally thought that A-Level Maths is considerably harder than the GCSE qualification. There is more content to learn and harder concepts to get your head around. If you are considering taking A-Level Maths, you will likely have been warned about how much of a step up it is from GCSE. However, this definitely doesn’t mean GCSE Maths is easy. You are studying lots of other subjects alongside GCSE Maths, and it is probably the first set of important exams you study for. In fact, the pass rates are generally lower for GCSE than A-Level Maths.
There are clearly lots of things to consider when talking about how hard GCSE and A-Level Maths are. Whether you are thinking of taking the A-Level, or are just curious, keep reading to find out more about how these two qualifications compare, in terms of content, lessons, exams and more.
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Is GCSE Maths or A-Level Maths harder?
Generally speaking, A-Level Maths is considered to be the harder qualification. There is more content to learn, and much of it involves difficult new concepts. The exams themselves are also longer, with questions that require you to apply your knowledge in more abstract ways than at GCSE level.
However, this topic isn’t quite that black and white. For example, although the content is harder at A-Level, students are also older and have more mathematical experience.
The transition from GCSE to A-Level Maths is arguably a similar step up in difficulty as when you first start learning GCSE content. Although GCSE Maths may be easier, it may not seem that way when you first start the course!
Both GCSE and A-Level qualifications are designed to be harder than previous maths studies, so could be considered equally difficult.
Additionally, at GCSE level, students have far more other subjects to focus on. Many students take 9 or 10 GCSEs, while it is rare to study more than 3 A-Levels. This can mean you have less time to learn and revise maths, making it more difficult.
Check out this Think Student article to find out how many A-Levels you should take.
What are the pass rates for GCSE and A-Level Maths?
Perhaps surprisingly, the pass rates are actually lower for GCSE Maths than for the A-Level. Have a look at the table below for the exact statistics from 2022, taken from Ofqual’s website and the JCQ examination results page.
|Subject||Pass rates (%)||% of A* (% 8 & 9s for GCSE)|
Most likely the main reason for this lower GCSE pass rate is that GCSE Maths is a compulsory subject. At A-Level, everyone there has chosen to do the subject. If a student has really struggled with it at GCSE and doesn’t intend to follow a career path that needs maths, they are very unlikely to take the A-Level.
This means that the people taking A-Level Maths are largely good at the subject, or need it for their next steps, in which case there is more incentive to work hard and achieve a pass grade. At GCSE, on the other hand, there is a wider range of abilities, as every student has to take it. Overall, this can lower the pass rate.
Additionally, many schools and colleges have a minimum GCSE Maths grade requirement if you want to continue studying the subject at A-Level. Most will require a pass grade at GCSE (grade 4), but others will need you to have achieved at least a grade 6 or even higher.
This is to ensure everyone taking it has the base level of understanding needed to succeed at A-Level. Although a good GCSE grade doesn’t necessarily guarantee you will pass the A-Level, it still increases the A-Level pass rate.
What are the exam board pass rates for GCSE and A-Level Maths?
Edexcel is by far the most popular exam board for GCSE and A-Level Maths qualifications. AQA is another relatively common exam board for this subject. While other boards offer these exams, such as OCR and WJEC, pass rates are shown below for the two main exam boards.
|Exam board||GCSE pass rate (% with grade 4 or higher)||GCSE % of 8 & 9s||A-Level pass rate (% with grade C or higher)||A-Level % of A*|
This data has been taken from official exam board reports on results statistics from summer 2022. To have a look at the full reports, click here for AQA GCSEs, here for AQA A-Levels, here for Edexcel GCSEs, and here for Edexcel A-Levels.
As you can see from these statistics, Edexcel consistently has slightly higher pass rates than AQA. However, the difference is very small. This is because the content of these standardised exams has to be similar between exam boards.
Usually, you do not get a choice as to which exam board you do. Your school or college should choose this for you. This isn’t something to worry about – a particular exam board should not affect your chances of getting the grades you want.
What are the grade boundaries for GCSE and A-Level Maths?
Have a look at the table below to compare grade boundaries for GCSE and A-Level Maths from summer 2022, from the two most common exam boards, AQA and Edexcel.
|Exam board||Subject||% needed to pass (C for A-Level, 4 for GCSE)||% needed for an A* (8/9 for GCSE)|
These numbers might look confusing, but essentially, Edexcel grade boundaries are slightly lower than AQA, and GCSE grade boundaries are lower than A-Level in order to pass, but similar in order to get the highest grades.
Overall, this data should be used along with pass rates to get a sense of how difficult something is. Even if a grade boundary is low, it doesn’t mean it’s easier to pass – it could be that the test was very difficult, so the same proportion of people passed despite the lower boundaries.
How hard is the content for GCSE and A-Level Maths?
The content of maths exams is undoubtedly difficult. While A-Level content is naturally harder, and there is more of it, it is not necessarily as difficult a jump as it may sound.
Although there is more content to cover at A-Level, you will also have far more lessons dedicated to this content, as well as fewer other subjects to focus on. Unfortunately, though, this doesn’t make the work any easier! It just means you have more time to spend to make sure you understand the concepts and apply them to questions.
Actually, one of the main changes you will have to deal with at A-Level is this independent study time. It is up to you to organise your time wisely, and get the necessary work done to get the grades you want. Have a look at this article from Think Student for plenty of tips about time management.
With this in mind, the qualifications are designed to align with your level of study. A-Level content is harder than GCSE, to match the fact that you are an older student, with more mathematical knowledge, and more time dedicated to this qualification.
Keep reading for more detail about how the content of GCSE and A-Level maths compares.
What content is covered in GCSE Maths?
The GCSE Maths specification can be split into 6 main topics. Although the content required may differ slightly by exam board, there is actually very little variation.
As mentioned, this is because content for these national exams is mostly standardised, to make it fair for all students regardless of the exam board they do.
These 6 topics are:
- Number – for example, indices, fractions and prime numbers.
- Algebra – for example, rearranging equations, straight line graphs and sequences.
- Ratio, proportion and rates of change – for example, percentages and compound units.
- Geometry and measures – for example, angle properties, circles and vectors.
- Probability – for example, frequency trees and Venn diagrams.
- Statistics – for example, bar charts and correlation.
This is just a brief overview of the topics – for a more complete guide, have a look at this article from exampapersplus.co.uk, or check out the specific syllabus on your exam board’s website.
Some of the content listed in GCSE specifications is knowledge that students already have, but there is a lot of new content as well. Most students notice an increase in difficulty when they move from Key Stage 3 content to the GCSE course.
Not only is there new, harder content, but you have to get more familiar with things like exam technique and specific question styles. As these are likely the first major, national exams students prepare for, this adds another layer of difficulty to the qualification.
What content is covered in A-Level Maths?
As you may expect, there is far more content to cover at A-Level, and specifications split this into considerably more than 6 topics. For the full list, have a look at the official specifications – click here for AQA, and here for Edexcel.
A lot of the topics build on existing knowledge, for example, you use and expand on the trigonometry knowledge you have from GCSE. However, this can make it difficult if you are not confident with GCSE content.
As mentioned, many schools and colleges have a minimum grade requirement for GCSE Maths if you want to take A-Level. This makes sure your background knowledge is at a suitable level, so you are ready to build further on these topics.
As well as this, new concepts and topics are introduced at A-Level, for example, calculus (involving differentiation and integration). These can be really tricky at first, and it can take a lot of time and hard work to get your head around the new ideas.
One thing many people don’t realise is that there is also a step up in difficulty from Year 12 to Year 13, when you finish learning the AS content (year 1 of the course) and move on to A2 (year 2 of the course). However, this can be a good thing – the harder content is learnt when you are older, rather than near the start of the course.
How are exams structured for GCSE and A-Level Maths?
For both GCSE and A-Level Maths, you are working towards a set of final exams at the end of the course. The set up for these is similar at GCSE and A-Level, and the two main exam boards typically use the same structure, but it’s useful to be aware of the differences.
At GCSE, you will sit three exams that make up your grade. Each of them can include questions about any part of the specification and lasts for an hour and a half. Check out this page of the AQA website for more information about exam structure.
The first exam will be non-calculator, while for the other two, you will need a suitable calculator to be able to answer many of the questions. Have a look at this Think Student article for advice on getting the best calculator for GCSE Maths. Spoilers the best is the Casio FX-991EX.
A-Level Maths also involves three exams, but these are longer, at two hours each. This makes each exam more strenuous as you have to focus for longer.
However, you are able to use your calculator for all three exams. The best calculator for A-Level Maths is the Casio FX-991EX advanced. Check out this Think Student article for more about calculators for A-Level Maths.
The content is also organised slightly differently at A-Level. The main course is split into two sections: pure maths, and applied maths (mechanics and statistics).
For AQA, one paper is all about pure maths, one is pure maths plus statistics, and one is pure maths plus mechanics. For more information, check out their website here.
For Edexcel, two of the papers are just about pure maths, and all the applied maths content is tested on the third exam. For more on this, have a look at the specification here.
How different are GCSE and A-Level Maths exam question styles?
Another thing that increases in difficulty at A-Level is the styles of questions you get in the exam. All the exam skills that you have learned at GCSE will still be needed, but there are extra layers of difficulty.
For example, the actual numbers involved in the question tend to be less easy to work with at A-Level. Be prepared for your answer to be surds or long fractions or decimals, rather than just integers.
Additionally, there are more individual questions worth a lot of marks. Rather than guiding you through each stage of a question, at A-Level, you are more likely to have to come up with the methods and steps to reach an answer yourself.
How independent is A-Level Maths compared to GCSE Maths?
A-Level Maths is much more independent than GCSE Maths. It requires a lot more solo study, hours of tests, and you have fewer available resources than GCSE Maths.
But just how independent do you have to be?
It’s recommended that you do an hour of revision for every hour and a half spent in class. This is so you can keep up with the intense content that the course provides.
It also prepares you for university – where you must be almost completely independent with your studies.
This is quite an increase in the amount of independence compared to GCSE. You halve the time spent in class, and instead use that time to study on your own.
The best way to make sure you’re taking in all the information is by testing yourself. Again, this means that you the work you do will mostly be independent.
You’re not completely on your own, though! Having said that the resource materials for A-Level compared to GCSE are scarce, the ones you do have are very useful.
The revision you need to do for your A-Levels compared to your GCSEs is much higher. However, it’s the same level of independency, whereby you can talk to your peers for help.
In conclusion, A-Level Maths is a lot more independent than GCSE Maths. Most of your learning comes through independent study, and so you can see that this differs from GCSE.
How should you revise for GCSE and A-Level Maths?
Hopefully, this article has given you a good idea of how GCSE and A-Level Maths compare, and the aspects of both qualifications which may make them difficult. Ultimately, maths has never been an easy subject – but there are lots of revision tips and exam advice to help you along the way.
The main tip for maths in particular is to do plenty of practice questions. Of course, learning the content itself, including any formulas and methods you need to know, is an important first step.
However, the bulk of your revision is likely to be practising questions. This lets you put the mathematical skills you have been learning into context, as well as being closest to the real exam.
Full practice papers are easily available on exam board websites. Additionally, many textbooks and free online resources have additional questions and revision guides, often organised by topic. Have a look at this Think Student article for some of the best websites for maths revision.
If you are looking for general revision advice, have a look at this helpful guide. For more specific tips on acing your maths exams, check out this article for GCSE and this article for A-Level, all from Think Student.
Which textbooks do you need for A-Level Maths?
I don’t think I need to tell you that you can’t use your GCSE Maths textbooks, when studying A-Level Maths… With that being said, what A-Level Maths textbooks should you use?
Firstly, there are two types of A-Level textbooks you should get if you want the best chances of doing well in A-Level Maths. These two types are: revision guides and classroom textbooks.
Revision guides don’t really explain concepts in detail, they are more used for recapping content you already know. Hence the name, revision guides – they are used for revision, not for learning.
When you start revising for A-Level Maths your revision guide will be your revision bible. Providing you get the right one, your revision guide can help you so much. So, which revision guide should you get for A-Level Maths?
You have to make sure that your revision guide is written for your exam board! So below are my revision guide recommendations for each exam board:
I recommend you get the ones above as they cover both Year 1 and Year 2 A-Level Maths content.
In direct contrast, class textbooks do explain concepts in massive detail. Class textbooks are normally used for learning concepts that you didn’t understand in class. Therefore, they can also be extremely helpful during the 2nd year learning period for A-Level Maths.
Once again, you must make sure that you get the right class textbook for your exam board. Below are three lists (for each exam board) and you need to get every textbook under your exam board list. Unless of course you are happy going without classroom textbooks, but they really do help.
Classroom textbooks for Edexcel A-Level Maths:
Classroom textbooks for AQA A-Level Maths:
Disclaimer: If you are trying to spend as little as possible, the classroom textbooks are not essential, they’re just really helpful. So, if you are on a budget, just get the revision guides as they are the most helpful out of the two types of textbook by far.
What other A-Levels pair well with A-Level Maths?
So, you’ve decided that A-Level Maths is the right A-Level for you. Now the only problem is, what other A-Levels can you choose to accompany it?
It mostly depends on what you want to do after college. For potential university students, it’s best to choose A-Levels that will get you onto the course you want.
For example, an A-Level Maths student who wants to go into accounting might take maths, accounting, and business studies.
A-Level Maths also pairs up quite well with the sciences – e.g., biology, chemistry, and physics. Taking maths with these other A-Levels works if you plan to work in an area of science after college.
A-Level Maths also works with another science, too – Computer Science. These two A-Levels go well together if you want to go into programming and web development.
Just make sure, as I’ve said before, that you choose A-Levels you’re comfortable with. A-Level Maths is one of the hardest A-Levels, and so it’s essential that you pick other A-Levels that will make your life easier. For a list of the hardest A-Levels check out this Think Student article.
At the end of the day, it’s your choice on what A-Levels you pick. If you decide to pair it with drama and dance, or art and architecture, then that’s up to you!
If you want to see an extensive list of great A-Level combinations, check out this Think Student article.