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How Hard Is A-Level Maths Compared To GCSE Maths?

In A-Level by Think Student Editor3 Comments

A-Level Maths is quite a hard A-Level to study, but just how much of a step up is it from GCSE? In this article I’ll be going over the key information you need to know about both A-Level Maths and GCSE Maths. 

A-Level Maths is quite hard in comparison to GCSE, and so I don’t recommend taking the subject unless you achieved at least a 6 (or a B) overall in your GCSE Maths exams. However, the first year of A-Level Maths is a very similar difficulty to GCSE Maths. It’s really only in the second year of A-Level Maths when the difficulty steps up – that’s when your mathematical ability will really be tested. 

If you are just comparing the pass rates, A-Level Maths has a pass rate of 96.3%, whereas, GCSE Maths has a pass rate of 55.4%. I explain the reasons why the difference in pass rate between GCSE and A-Level Maths is so large later in the article.

How Much More Content Does A-Level Maths Have Compared to GCSE Maths? 

A-Level Maths Calculator
How many topics are there for GCSE Maths in comparison to A-Level Maths?

For this comparison, I have used examples from both the Edexcel GCSE Maths Specification and the Edexcel A-Level Maths Specification. 

GCSE Maths All Topics:

  • Number
  • Algebra
  • Ratio
  • Proportion
  • Rates of Change
  • Geometry
  • Measures
  • Probability
  • Statistics

The list above contains every topic you will cover during the Edexcel GCSE Maths course. As you can see, the grand total of topics is 9. It is worth mentioning that these topics are very big and do cover a lot of skills.

Instead of one huge list of A-Level Maths topics, we are going to split the list up into the A-Levels three very separate components: Pure Maths, Statistics and Mechanics.

A-Level Maths Pure Topics:

  • Proof
  • Algebra and Functions
  • Coordinate Geometry
  • Sequences and Series
  • Trigonometry
  • Exponentials and Logarithms
  • Differentiation
  • Integration
  • Numerical Methods
  • Vectors

A-Level Maths Statistics Topics:

  • Statistical Sampling
  • Data Presentation and Interpretation
  • Probability
  • Statistical Distributions
  • Statistical Hypothesis Testing

A-Level Maths Mechanics Topics:

  • Quantities and Units in Mechanics
  • Kinematics
  • Forces and Newton’s Laws
  • Moments

From the three separate topic lists above, we can see that there are 10 pure maths topics, 5 statistical maths topics and 4 mechanical maths topics. This means that there are 19 topics in total for the A-Level Maths course.

Therefore, we can now say that there is around twice the amount of content in A-Level Maths (19 topics) than GCSE Maths (10 topics).

This comparison was only done on a single exam board – Edexcel, however, I have done the same comparison using the AQA syllabus and my results were extremely similar.

How Much More Difficult Is A-Level Maths Content Compared To GCSE Maths Content?

How Hard Is A-Level Maths
A-Level Maths is quite the step up from GCSE, that’s a given. But just how hard is the syllabus of this revered A-Level?

The style of content you study in A-Level Maths will be very similar to GCSE in some respects – just the content can be a lot harder. That’s why I recommend a minimum GCSE grade of 6 (or a B) before even considering taking this course. 

Most of the work you do will be building on understanding you already have from GCSE (as I’ve previously mentioned).  

I myself am a student studying A-Level Maths at the time of writing this, and I can say that it is quite difficult if you’re not adept with the GCSE concepts already.

But trust me when I say, A-Level Maths is nothing compared to A-Level Further Maths! If you are wondering if A-Level Further Maths is for you or not, you should go and check out my article on how hard A-Level Further Maths is.

A-Level Maths is a lot more independent than GCSE Maths, and so you’ll have to teach yourself most of the content.  This in itself will make it harder, as there are not as many resources you can use to your advantage. You will have to learn more difficult content by yourself. 

So yes, in essence, A-Level Maths is more difficult than GCSE Maths. It’s a step up in independency as you’re expected to learn content on your own.  

It’s also just generally harder content! The syllabus builds on and challenges GCSE Maths, and so you’ll find that it ramps up in difficulty as you progress. 

In my experience with the A-Level so far, I feel that the content you cover during the first half of Year 12 is extremely similar to the content you will have studied at GCSE. Therefore, I think that almost everyone who has at least achieved a 6 in GCSE Maths will find the start of the A-Level very easy. However, after that first half it steps up and you start to get your teeth into much more challenging A-Level topics.

When you are passed the half way point in the first year of A-Level Maths, it is essential that you have the right mathematical equipment – otherwise you really do fall behind.

You must have the right calculator or you just won’t be able to compete with other students. I have written a whole article on what the best calculator is for A-Level Maths so I won’t go into it all now.

How Does The Style of Exam Questions Compare Between A-Level And GCSE? 

A-Level Maths Exam Style
The dreaded exams are back! GCSE Maths exams may be hell on earth, but how do A-Level exams compare? 

A-Level Maths questions tend to be more time consuming, less wordy and worth a lot more marks. 

For example, the highest mark question you might see in a GCSE Maths paper would most likely be 5 marks. In comparison, A-Level style questions can be up to 7 marks for a single segment question! The A-Level question will of course be much more challenging.

What do I mean by “less wordy”?

GCSE Maths questions very often have a lead up paragraph that leads you down the right path to complete the question. This explanation, that is given to you, means that you have a rough idea of what skills you should be applying to the question. Therefore, the only thing that would stop you getting the marks for the question is if you didn’t have the skills – it wouldn’t be that you applied the wrong skills.

In direct contrast, A-Level questions often do not lead you down the right path. In fact, to get the marks for an A-Level Maths question, not only do you need the actual maths skills but you also need the knowledge to know which skill you have to apply to get the marks.

This means that the way you approach a question in an A-Level Maths paper is completely different to how you would address a GCSE Maths question.

Furthermore, in a GCSE Maths paper mark scheme there is a lot more cases where “error carried forward” is applied.  In contrast, A-Level Maths papers have a surprising strictness on calculation mistakes and do not award as many marks for your method.

What this means, is that if you make a mistake on a multi-segment GCSE question and you use the answer (that is wrong) throughout the rest of the question, you will not lose more marks – providing your method is correct.

In conclusion, the style of A-Level Maths questions is very challenging compared to the style of a GCSE Maths question due to the above reasons.

How Do The Final Exams Compare Between A-Level Maths and GCSE Maths?

At the end of Year 11, GCSE students will take 3 maths papers (1 non-calculator, 2 calculator). Each of these papers are worth 80 marks. Therefore, the final GCSE Maths score is out of 240 marks. The content of each paper is almost the same and there are no major shifts in types of questions between papers.

Similarly, at the end of Year 13, A-Level students will also take 3 maths papers (all calculator). However, these papers will instead be worth 100 marks each. Therefore, the final A-Level Maths score is out of 300 marks. 

The first two A-Level Maths papers contain just pure maths content, whereas, the third A-Level Maths paper contains questions on just statistics and mechanics.

As mechanics (paper 3) is very similar to GCSE and A-Level Physics, it means that 17% of A-Level Maths is purely physics based. Therefore, if physics was a particularly weak subject of yours at GCSE, it will majorly affect your performance in the third A-Level Maths paper and consequently drag your whole grade down – this could make the A-Level really hard for some people.

What Is The Pass Rate Of A-Level Maths Compared To GCSE Maths?

A-Level Maths Pass Rate
Around 96.3% of A-Level Maths students achieve a passable grade (A-E) in their final exams. This is quite high, but remember that 3.7% of all students fail! You can see all the A-Level pass rates here.

Also bear in mind that for students to actually undertake the A-Level Maths course, they must achieve at least a 6 in GCSE Maths. This means that all the students taking the A-Level Maths papers are already mathematically adept to a semi-good level. On the contrary, at GCSE there is no such grade filter, therefore, the average standard is lowered significantly.

The pass rate of GCSE Maths is considerably lower than A-Level Maths (most likely due to the above reason). The pass rate of GCSE Maths stands at only 55.4%. You can see all the 9-1 GCSE pass rates here.

This could also be because it’s easier to pass A-Level Maths than it is to pass GCSE Maths. You can tell by looking at the minimum pass grade for both – E for A-Level, and 4 (C) for GCSE. 

These pass rates should not phase you, however. Choosing to take A-Level Maths as a subject is still a good idea, as long as you work hard.

A-Level Maths is extremely independent. The results I’ve mentioned therefore come from the hard work of talented individuals, and so your success depends on you. 

Maybe, through your hard work in A-Level Maths, you could change those statistics? 

Can You Use Your Old GCSE Calulator For A-Level Maths? (Spoiler: No You Can’t!)

A-Level Maths Equipment
A-Level Maths is one of the only subjects where if you do not have a certain type of a particular piece of a equipment you can really struggle on certain topics. This piece of equipment being the calculator.

If you do not have the right calculator during A-Level Maths, you are going to struggle to compete with the other students taking the A-Level Maths exams. At GCSE, you could get away with using any calculator you found on the street – but at A-Level it is not the same at all.

What is the right calculator for A-Level Maths?

Your GCSE calculator just won’t cut it at A-Level I’m afraid. You’re going to need something a little more heavy-duty if you want to succeed in your exams. 

The Casio Scientific Calculator FX83GT is the one you most likely used for your GCSEs. It’s great and all, but will only get you a little bit of the way into the A-Level Maths syllabus. 

I have written an entire article in depth about what calculator you should have for A-Level Maths – you should really go and check it out. However, I will give you the quick answer here.

For A-Level Maths, the minimum required calculator is the Casio FX-991EX-S-UH. This calculator will just about scrape you through the entire syllabus. However, the Casio FX-CG50 is what I recommend as it is a graphical calculator, therefore, you will be able to plot graphs digitally. In my opinion the Casio FX-CG50 is the best calculator you can have for both A-Level Maths and A-Level Further Maths – that is still allowed to be taken in to the exam hall.

Graphical calculators allow you to plot graphs and do other similar activities. It’s extremely useful for when you study trigonometry, geometry, and algebra – which is most of the Core Maths topics! 

It also has many functions that will be useful for differentiation and integration. It will put you head and shoulders above many other students with worse calculators. 

You can buy the Casio FX-991EX-S-UH from here. 

You can buy the Casio FX-CG50 from here.

What Textbooks Do You Need For A-Level Maths?

A-Level Maths Textbooks
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 highly recommend you get the ones above as they cover Year 1 and Year 2 A-Level Maths content, also, I have used them a lot and trust me when I say, they are an absolute life saver! (and they’re super cheap).

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 2 year learning period for A-Level Maths.

Once again, you have to 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 (Need Both):

Classroom Textbooks For AQA A-Level Maths (Need Both):

Classroom Textbooks For OCR A-Level Maths (Need Both):

Disclaimer: If you are trying to spend as little as possible, the classroom textbooks are not absolutely 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 Are The Minimum Requirements For You To Study A-Level Maths? 

A-Level Maths Library
A-Levels are a big step up from GCSEs, we know that. But how good do you have to be to study A-Level Maths? 

The minimum requirement to study A-Levels is 5 GCSEs at grades 9-4 (A*-C). These 5 GCSEs must include English language too. 

If you fail either Maths or English at GCSE, you will have to retake them alongside your studies at college. So make sure you do your revision! 

The minimum grade you need to get for A-Level Maths is a 6 (B). This is because A-Level Maths is one of the hardest A-Levels, and colleges need to check you’re able to keep up. 

If you’re going for A-Level Further Maths, then you need at least a 7 (A) in GCSE Maths! 

However, some colleges will take you into special consideration if you didn’t manage to get a 6 at GCSE. If your other grades look good, and Maths is something you want to do, then you could be accepted. 

I really would recommend against applying for A-Level Maths if you don’t have the right GCSE grades! Because if you can’t even get a 6 in GCSE Maths, you are going to crumble under A-Level Maths.

As I’ve said before, I’m a student currently studying A-Level Maths. I can tell you, if you don’t have a strong head for numbers, you will struggle. 

It can depend on your history as a student, too. The CV you write to apply for colleges details all your achievements and activity at school.  

Colleges can look at your CV and determine whether or not they think you’d be able to take the course. A-Level Maths requires hard work and determination, and if that’s what you’re good at, then who knows? 

You’d have to take A-Level Maths alongside two other A-Levels as well. Just make sure, as it’s such an intensive subject, that you choose other A-Levels that aren’t so hard! 

Take my minimum required grades with a pinch of salt as they can differ slightly from college to college – I have just found the most common grades for entry.

How Independent Is A-Level Maths Compared To GCSE Maths?

A Level Maths Work Independence
A-Level Maths is much more independent than GCSE Maths. It requires 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 have to 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. 

You may think that A-Level Maths is a bit too independent for you. Unfortunately, this is the same for most A-Levels. So unless you think you can handle the intensity of your independent studies, maybe A-Levels aren’t for you? 

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. 

However, there are still resources to help you! And using your teacher to your advantage by asking questions will help you to achieve in A-Level Maths. 

What Revision Materials Are Available For A-Level Maths? 

A-Level Maths Revision Book
So you’ve finished GCSEs, and now all your old textbooks are useless. What’s next in the world of revision for A-Level Maths? 

Firstly, you can buy an A-Level Maths textbook to help you with your independent study. 

No matter whether you are taking OCR, AQA, or Edexcel as an exam board, there are always textbooks available. 

The content you need to learn for your exams can be found in these textbooks. It may differ slightly between exam boards, but it remains pretty much the same. 

Which textbook you buy is not likely to make an impact on your grades. Just make sure you find one that is approved by an exam board. 

This way, you know that all the content in the book is what you need to know – and nothing has been left out. 

There is also a vast wealth of information right at your fingertips – the internet! It’s full of information you can use to your advantage when revising. 

There are a great number of websites that you can make use of, too. Sites such as integral maths and even college websites can provide useful information for your study. 

You can also find past exam papers from previous years online. These are great for practicing your exam techniques and getting used to the feeling of an A-Level Maths exam. 

If you don’t have access to the internet, try asking your college or maths tutor for some exam questions.  

Youtube tutorials are also available to help you out. Great creators such as examsolutions can provide you with the techniques of A-Level Maths, and help you understand difficult concepts. 

And if all else fails, use your notes! Going back over the work you’ve done in class will get you used to the thought processes involved in the questions. 

If you want to know what textbooks I recommend go and check out our Recommended Textbooks page.

What Other A-Levels Pair Well With A-Level Maths? 

A-Levels That Go 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! 

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 article.

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2 years ago

‘ This way, you know that all the content in the book is what you need to know – and nothing has been left out’

You’d think so, but AQA’s textbook doesn’t cover parametric integration, which is also not mentioned in the syllabus on their website and yet is actually in the syllabus. I only noticed the difference because I was procrastinating on TSR. I emailed the maths department and it ended up saving them a lot of bother.

Vigil Kamuche
Vigil Kamuche
2 years ago

At first when I wrote my mathematics I got a Uand I wrote again and got an A in mathematics and an A in accounts should I go and start A level Maths

1 year ago

Looks like you have the A level and GCSE pass rates transposed.