A-level Maths is a popular subject but has a reputation for being very difficult and demanding. It’s a huge step-up from GCSE Maths but, due to its challenging nature, is highly regarded by universities and a necessity for many STEM courses. Although you may feel worried about getting the grades, with the right preparation, practice and patience it is possible to achieve As and A*s in A-Level Maths. There are three main periods through the two-year A-Level Maths course that are very important: when you first learn the content, revising the content and taking the exam itself. This article will break down each of these stages so you can work more efficiently and make the most of your revision time – resulting in you feeling that much more prepared for your A-Level exams.
The best way to get an A* in A-level maths is to practice as many exam questions as you can. Pair this with good revision methods, organisation and an understanding of the content and you’re sure to be successful.
Making the most of your lesson time and staying on top of the content as you learn is also vital when getting the best grades in A-Level Maths. If you put in the effort when first learning a new topic, you will save time when revising later and cut down how often you need to revisit a topic.
I’ll be discussing the importance of reviewing each lesson, asking for help and keeping up with previous topics later on in this article.
1. Review Each of Your A-Level Maths Lessons
Reviewing each of your A-Level Maths lessons is a key method for achieving an A* in the subject. This advice can apply to every A-Level but it’s especially vital when learning new content. Reviewing your maths lessons, even for 10 minutes, has been shown to dramatically improve recall when it finally gets to crunch time during the exam. Recapping what you learnt in the 24 hours following the lesson will solidify the new information and quickly highlight anything you struggled with.
There are multiple ways of reviewing the lesson and you need to find which method works best for you. Below is a list of ideal methods that you can utilise when going over an A-Level Maths lesson’s content:
- The most obvious example is to simply rewrite your notes. The advantage here being that you can quickly jot down as much as you want in a lesson without having to worry about whether your notes are neat and tidy – you can always make them more readable later on.
- Another fantastic method of recapping your A-Level Maths lessons is to create flashcards for important formulas or methods (not on everything!), here’s a helpful article on how to creatively use flashcards.
- If you did exam questions during your A-Level Maths lesson, I recommend that you redo the same questions and see if your mark improves and then revise accordingly.
- If you have a friend in your class, or a parent willing to learn about A-Level Maths, try teaching them about what you just learnt during your lesson. It’s been shown that teaching others is one of the best revision techniques as it can be very beneficial to answer questions you hadn’t thought of before.
- Some students like to make mind maps as these can be unbelievably useful for seeing an overview of a topic and testing your recall abilities. For example, you could make a mind map with all the formulas you need to memorise and which topics each formula relates to. Here’s a helpful article on the best way to make mind maps.
Overall, when reviewing a lesson, you want to gain a greater understanding of what you learn and build your confidence, therefore use any method that you feel will achieve this.
2. When Learning A-Level Maths Content, Ask For Help
One of the biggest mistakes that students make when studying A-Level Maths is not asking for help. Often, people feel worried about sounding stupid or making mistakes but, in reality, making mistakes and learning from them is the only way you can improve.
Firstly, your teachers are there to help you and they want you to succeed. If you’ve been doing A-Level Maths questions at home and don’t understand them, take them with you to one of your A-Level Maths lesson’s and ask your teacher if they can explain it. Your teachers will have a vast wealth of knowledge and experience and will be ready to answer any questions, no matter how silly they may seem.
It’s also valuable to ask your friends for help or you can sit and work through problems together. Sometimes, you’ll have a teacher that you don’t click with and their explanations don’t make sense. In this situation, look for other teachers in the department who can help you or find a tutor in your area, don’t just give up. Although tutors can be expensive, if you feel you really need the help, it might be worthwhile.
3. Don’t Ignore A-Level Maths Topics You Learnt in Year 1
It’s really important to keep up with past topics whilst you are learning new content. A lot of students focus solely on what they’re currently learning and don’t revisit other topics for months – this is bad practise. Alongside two or three other A-levels, it may seem impossible to learn new topics and keep revising at the same time but even 15 minutes a day on previous content will be enough to refresh your memory. If you want to know exactly how much you should revise for your A-Level a day, check out this article.
Testing yourself regularly runs parallel to this; if you give yourself small tests on past topics (even using the end of chapter textbook questions) you’ll keep the information at the front of your mind, be able to use your skills for various question styles and reduce the pressure of doing large chunks of revision before a mock or a real exam. Ultimately, being able to balance your A-Level Maths work relies on good organisation and time management. If you combine all of this, achieving an A* in A-Level Maths becomes much more manageable.
4. Don’t Just Learn Surface-Level Topic Knowledge
The most important part of A-Level maths that differentiates (pun intended) it from other A-Levels, is the need to truly understand the content and not just regurgitate the information. Although ‘understand the content’ may seem like very obvious advice, it’s harder than it seems. Many students will memorise every past paper question but be stumped when it comes to the real exams. The examiners will purposefully write questions that take an excellent understanding of the concept to achieve full marks.
Take the time to fully appreciate each and every A-Level Maths concept and understand why each step must be taken to solve a question. As your understanding improves, even the hardest questions will become intuitive. A large part of really understanding the content is having a genuine interest and wanting to learn how the maths works. This, of course, isn’t a necessity to succeeding, and getting your A* in A-level maths, but it will definitely make revision easier and less tiresome.
Eventually, you’ll be finished learning new content in your lessons and your main focus will be revision. Maths revision can be tiring and often takes a lot of motivation. Students will spend hours and hours revising but feel like their knowledge hasn’t improved. There are four main ways to revise effectively and efficiently: practice past papers, use the examiner’s report, use the specification and make the most out of all your resources. You can learn more about how to implement the most effective revision techniques here.
5. Use Past Papers to Achieve an A* in A-Level Maths
When it comes to achieving an A* in A-Level maths, this is the most common piece of advice – but for a good reason. Practising past questions in the actual style of the A-Level exam is essential for understanding the content and improving your exam technique. Although making notes from the textbook is useful when initially learning new topics, past paper questions give the greatest insight into what the exam will be like, how quickly you need to solve questions and where the marks come from.
Although it’s tempting, don’t look at the mark scheme until you’ve really tried to solve the problem. One technique with past papers is to complete a paper fully then, in a different colour pen, use the mark scheme to annotate your answer and ‘redo’ the question. This will clearly show where you missed marks and helps analyse each step to solving the problem.
Successful A-Level maths students often say they completed every past paper they could find – be like them. Start by making a list of every past paper on your exam board’s website and tick these off once you’ve completed them. Physics and Maths Tutor is a great website for finding whole past papers or topic-specific questions, if you’re having difficulty with a certain question style.
Once you’ve done all these questions, move on to other exam board’s past papers. Obviously, make sure you know what your course covers and don’t answer questions that you’ll never be tested on! A great benefit to doing other exam board’s past papers is the different styles of questions; if you become too familiar with your exam board’s style, you can be caught out in the real exam by a question that is phrased differently or a combination of techniques you haven’t tried before. By looking at other exam boards, you can feel more prepared for unusual question styles and you won’t panic in an exam.
Many students prefer to practice shorter questions or stick to topics they find easier. Force yourself to practice questions that are out of your comfort zone as you never know what topic the exam board could decide to focus on. Practice lots of long answer questions so you are comfortable with the layout and know what steps to take when answering.
Even if you can’t find the answer, if you know what “things” the exam board is willing to award marks for, you be able to gain a reasonable number of marks for a question that you don’t really know the answer to. If you really want some different questions, try making your own – this will greatly increase your understanding of a concept and make you think outside the box. When writing your own question, get a teacher to check it first in case you’ve made it impossible to solve! Ultimately, you can’t do enough practice questions with A-Level Maths, so make this a priority in your revision and the A* will be just around the corner!
6. Don’t Neglect Examiner’s Reports
Many students don’t read the examiners’ report and end up missing out on the top grades. The examiners’ report is included with all past papers on the exam board websites. In the report, every exam question is covered and written about. It explains how many students got the question right and goes in-depth into questions that most students got wrong. By reading the examiners’ report, you can not only correct your own mistakes but find out what the rest of the country struggled with. If you can gain marks that other students lose out on, you’ll be putting yourself ahead and making your way towards the top grades.
It also provides an insight into how the exam board thinks and reveals traps that many students fall into. Exam boards will often find something simple that students struggle with and include it in later papers to differentiate between high and low scoring students. By reading and understanding the examiners’ reports, you can be one of the high scoring students.
7. Always Refer Back to the A-Level Maths Specification
Using the specification will never not help you get the best possible grade in A-Level Maths. The specification is a simple guide to everything that could be on the exam and is objectively the most reliable source as it comes from the exam board themselves. The specification is found on the exam board website under their A-Level Maths section, it’s a downloadable document, around 70 pages long. It groups the course content into topics and breaks down each topic into the content you need to know. Some specifications feature an example question which demonstrates the content.
A great way to use the specification is as a checklist. Take the specification and mark off each content section as you revise it. Another method is to colour code each part depending on how confident you feel, this makes it easy to see what topics require more attention. The specification provides an easy way to stay organised and ensure you’ve covered everything you need to know for the exam. If you’ve thoroughly covered each point on the specification and understand the content, getting an A* will be much, much easier.
8. Use As Many A-Level Revision Sources as Possible
The best way to improve your A-Level Maths grade is to use all the resources you have available. Your textbook is helpful, but it can be limited. As I said previously, asking your teacher for help can be invaluable if you’re struggling to understand a concept.
That being said, YouTube videos are brilliant for improving your understanding, as many channels will practically teach a whole module in 20 minutes. Watching YouTube videos is a great way to see how a problem is solved, step by step. As aforementioned, really understanding the content is incredibly important and YouTube videos can help with this. The advantage that A-Level Maths has compared to other A-Level subjects is the main exam boards cover the same content (there are some variations and exceptions) therefore you can watch videos for different exam boards or from different countries and still improve your knowledge and understanding.
Some YouTube channels that students recommend are BlackPenRedPen and 3Blue1Brown. Similarly, there are some brilliant websites that clearly explain concepts and work through examples, such as Paul’s Online Math Notes.
Another useful resource can be the questions at the end of chapters in your textbooks. Although they aren’t 100% accurate to exam paper questions, they are good for testing your knowledge and seeing if you have actually grasped the topic. It may also be worth investigating other revision guides or topic-specific revision books, check with your teacher to see if they have any recommendations.
After all the learning and revision, your exams will soon be approaching. Many students can solve problems and know the content but still struggle in the actual exams as exam techniques can be very difficult to grasp.
9. Work on Your A-Level Maths Question Speed
One of the most daunting things about A-Level Maths is how little time you have in the exams. Across the three main exam boards, each paper is two hours long containing 100 marks per paper. That means that each mark should take approximately one minute, this would still allow 20 minutes for checking your work. Sometimes, you’ll spend the whole lesson on one exam question, so how can you increase your speed when answering questions? One tip is that for even the simplest maths questions, there are multiple ways to get the answer.
A basic example of this is calculating a percentage. Rather than multiplying a number by a percentage, multiply by a decimal which saves pressing one extra button. This may seem insignificant but when applied to a whole paper, the time saved will add up. Investigate methods for different techniques and find which is easiest and quickest for you. Across an entire paper, you will find yourself working faster. Another simple tip is to write your answers clearly and neatly, not long paragraphs or scrawling randomly across the page. If you decide to go back to a question, it’s much easier to see where you got to rather than wasting time not understanding your own working.
Although these techniques can help, the overall answer is to practice as much as you can. The more questions you do for a certain topic, the more familiar you become. Eventually, you will notice your speed increasing and the questions you once found impossible are now more intuitive. Go easy on yourself as generally practising questions can be difficult, especially considering the vast amount of content so continue reading for more specific tips.
10. Actually Time Yourself Doing A-Level Maths Questions
Don’t jump straight into timing yourself, it can be discouraging and cause unnecessary stress. Start with a certain topic, integration for example. Practice a few questions until you feel relatively comfortable with the ideas and have a basic understanding of the content. Then, keep practising the questions but time yourself each time and make a note. At this point, don’t try to rush yourself or panic. Keep familiarising yourself with the style of question and hopefully, you’ll see the average time per question begin to drop.
If you keep getting stuck on a particular part, it may be helpful to speak to a teacher and find out how to get over that specific hurdle. Now it’s time to set time limits. According to the minute per mark model, a four-mark question should take four minutes. This may be easily done for one topic, but very difficult for another. Use this number as a basic time limit for each question you practice but use your previous timings, own experience and initiative to see if that is a realistic goal.
Another benefit to timing yourself is being able to practice a paper in exam conditions without having to sit down for two straight hours. It may also help you if you feel anxious about exams or if you tend to panic as soon as a time limit is set. Not only are you getting familiar with the content but also the exam style and how it will feel in the real exams.
11. Pay Attention to Your A-Level Maths Exam Board
In order to achieve an A* in A-Level Maths, you really need to know your exam board. Start by seeing which topics come up in which paper, this information can be found in the specification. Although it seems simple, many students spend time revising the night before for topics that won’t even appear in the paper. Next, familiarise yourself with the way your exam board asks questions. Often, they will repeat certain techniques from previous papers so it’s great to recognise what skills the exam board desires from students. However, the exam board can always throw in a different style question. Don’t expect the obvious and you won’t get thrown off in the exam.
Your teachers have likely been teaching the same exam board for years so they are the best people to ask about common question styles or content. With higher mark questions, there will be certain calculation stages that exam boards always award a mark to. By knowing and recognising these, you can easily pick up marks that other students miss by not showing the correct working. If you follow this advice, as well as previous tips like reading the specification and examiners’ report, you’ll have all the knowledge of how the exam works. Having good exam technique is key to achieving the highest A-Level Maths grades.
12. Keep a Cool Head and be Organised
This last piece of advice should be practised across the entire two years of A-levels. Students who achieve the best grades are often the most organised. This means having a solid revision timetable and sticking to it, ensuring all the course content is covered and working through every practice paper. If you’re struggling to make a revision timetable, take a look at this great article.
Many students are capable of achieving an A* and they work incredibly hard but end up burning out before their exams. It is so important to work at a feasible pace and not let the stress get to you. This is, of course, is easier said than done. If you start revising early, you can avoid cramming and slowly build up your confidence across the two years. Leaving this to the last minute is what really causes unnecessary stress! Here’s a useful article if you want to read more about coping with stress during exam season.
Finally, if you feel you are struggling to keep up with A-Levels, talk to someone. Your teachers want you to succeed and if you feel like you aren’t keeping up, ensure that you talk to them. Many colleges have a school counsellor, use this service to your advantage! Just being able to vent can help alleviate stress and having a professional to discuss how you’re feeling can make getting through A-Levels a lot easier.
A lot has been discussed in this article so let’s recap. There are three main periods when you’re doing A-levels: learning the content, revision and sitting the exams. To get an A* in A-Level Maths, it’s important to review every lesson, do as many practice questions as you can, and learn to work within the time limit. To access the top grades you need to understand the content fully, use the examiners’ report and specification, and ask your teachers for help. A-Level Maths is seen as one of the most difficult A-Levels, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t let it put you off. Speak to your teachers and get their help whenever you can. Ensure you use all your resources, don’t just rely on the textbooks. If you reach a point where you understand the topics, can confidently attempt the most confusing questions and know where to gain marks, you’ll be ready for your exam and all set to get that A* in A-Level Maths.