A-Level Maths is a notoriously difficult subject. It’s a big step up from GCSE level and contains lots of concepts and rules that are hard to get your head around. Despite this, it is still one of the most popular A-Levels. It is useful in a range of careers, as well as being a required subject for many students wanting to go on to a science-related degree at university.
Getting top grades in A-Level Maths can seem like a daunting goal, but it is definitely possible. As with all exams, the A-Level Maths course requires hard work and organisation, and it can sometimes be difficult to know where to start.
Unfortunately, there is no magic answer to getting A’s and A*’s at A-Level. Still, this article has a collection of the very best tips and tricks to help you achieve the grades you want in A-Level Maths.
Top tips for an A* in A-Level Maths
There are lots of things to think about when it comes to any A-Level exam. First comes the course itself – learning and practising the content in lessons and as homework.
As the exam season nears, revision comes in, including recapping content you may not have covered for over a year. Finally, you sit the exam papers themselves.
Keep reading for plenty of tips to cover each stage of this process, specific to A-Level Maths.
1. Make sure you understand concepts in class
Surprisingly, there are not huge amounts of facts to learn for A-Level Maths. Instead, the course generally contains concepts that you need to understand thoroughly in order to be able to apply them to questions.
When you are first taught new ideas in lessons, it is really important you understand what the teacher is saying. You can always practise the topic by yourself at home, but you first need a good foundation of knowledge, and this happens in class.
From experience, the best tip I have for this is: don’t be afraid to ask for help! This is what your teachers are there for.
If you don’t understand something, ask them to go through it again, in a different way, or slower. If you are stuck with a question, even if it is one you have been doing at home, ask your teacher to guide you through it.
Having a teacher explain something to you is often a much better way of learning maths than, for example, trying to Google something you don’t understand. By doing this as you go along, it will make it much easier when you start revising for tests and exams.
You will just have to give yourself a refresher of all the topics you have covered, rather than learn them essentially from scratch.
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 Think Student 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.
2. Find an organisation method that works for you
A-Levels naturally come with a big workload, and really good organisational skills are needed to stay on top of everything. It is a good idea to try and start a system from the very beginning of your course.
In the short term, this will involve managing your homework, practising and recapping content from lessons, and organising your notes and revision resources. In the long term, you will be really glad when it comes to your final exams, and you don’t have to spend half an hour trying to find your notes for a certain topic!
3. Do lots of practice questions
Whether you are recapping classwork or revising for exams, doing plenty of practice questions is the number one way to get those top marks in Maths. You will likely have heard this advice before, and it is definitely worth taking!
Doing questions not only allows you to practise a topic, but it is really useful to make sure you fully understand the concepts, as well as for recapping topics and revising.
Fortunately, there are plenty of questions available. Your textbook will be full of them, organised by topic. It will include both questions to get yourself used to a certain method or idea, as well as exam-style problems.
If you are up for a challenge, here at Think Student we have provided 10 difficult A-Level Maths questions for you to try out.
There are also various online websites with questions, often arranged by exam board and topic. For instance, Dr Frost Maths is a really popular, free resource, which can be found here.
Equally, the number of questions available on the Internet can feel overwhelming. Don’t worry – you are not expected to complete them all! Just try to complete a range of questions styles for each topic until you feel confident answering the questions.
4. Use past papers to achieve an A* in A-Level Maths
Perhaps the most common source for practice questions is past exam papers. These are freely available on exam board websites – you can find them for AQA here, Edexcel here, and OCR here. These provide the most accurate representation of what actual exam questions are like.
They also allow you to practise in a timed setting, similar to the real exam. I would highly recommend trying to complete a few full exam papers before you sit the A-Level, acting as though it is a real exam.
This includes printing out the paper if possible and timing yourself – but also avoiding toilet and snack breaks! This means that when the actual exam comes, you are prepared, and nothing should come as a surprise.
Successful A-Level maths students often say they completed every past paper they could find. 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.
5. Always refer to the A-Level Maths specification
Additionally, past papers are not the only resources that the exam board provides. It is definitely worth looking at your A-Level Maths specification. It might not be fun to read, but it is a comprehensive list of everything you need to know for this A-Level.
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.
You can use the specification as a checklist, to tick off topics you are confident in and highlight the ones you are less sure of, ticking them off as you get further with your revision. Check out the specifications here for AQA, here for Edexcel, and here for OCR.
6. Don’t neglect the examiners’ reports
Examiners’ reports can also be found on exam board websites. These are really useful to look through after completing a past paper. You can compare the questions you struggled on with the students who actually sat that paper and read advice from the people who will be marking your exam paper.
Many students don’t read the examiners’ report and end up missing out on the top grades. 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. Use lots of revision methods
Using a range of different revision methods helps content to stick in your brain, as well as making revision that little bit more interesting! While practice questions are the best way to revise for maths, this is certainly not the only way.
Have a look at this article from Think Student for a variety of some of the best revision techniques. This can include making flashcards for key points or formulas, teaching a particular topic to a friend or sibling, or organising study groups so you can help each other out with the trickiest questions.
8. Practise time management
Time management is a key skill in any A-Level exam, and maths is no exception. As mentioned, doing timed past papers is a great way to make sure you are ready for the timing or the real exam.
There are lots of little tricks you can use to make sure you stay on track and don’t run out of time to answer everything. Have a look at this Think Student article to read more about these techniques.
Possibly the most important one, particularly for maths, is to simply move on if a question is taking too long. It is very easy to get stuck in the middle of a maths problem and spend a lot of time trying to work out where you have gone wrong, or what to do next.
Keep an eye on the clock, and if you find yourself spending too long on the same question, put a star next to it and move on. You can always come back to the questions you have starred at the end of the paper, if you have time.
9. Write down all your workings out
Showing your working out in maths is probably something your teachers have mentioned over and over again, but it’s easy to forget. However, it is really important in A-Level Maths. Often, you will not be able to get full marks in a question if all you have written down is the numerical answer, even if it is correct.
The examiners want to see that you have used a suitable method, not just made a lucky guess. Even if you have completed sums on your calculator, make it clear in your answer what you are actually working out, rather than just writing the number down.
Additionally, having your work laid out clearly is helpful for you to check your own answers. Checking your work in an exam is highly recommended, if you have time after completing the questions.
In maths, it is easy to make a small slip up such as getting positive and negative signs mixed up. It is much easier to spot these mistakes if you have each line of working written out, rather than having to do the whole calculation again.
Finally, having your method written down can mean you still get some ‘working out’ marks, even if you do not get the right answer in the end. There are almost always marks available if you show that you have attempted a correct method.
10. Don’t be afraid to 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 a great way to 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.
What are the best resources for getting an A* in A-Level Maths?
A few resources have already been mentioned, including your school textbook, exam board websites (for past papers, the specification, and examiners’ reports) and Dr Frost Maths. There are plenty more available.
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.
Physics and Maths Tutor is a great, free online resource. They have collated a huge bank of past exam questions, which can be found on their website here. Other websites dedicated to maths revision include Maths Genie, which is linked here and ALevelMathsRevision.com, which is linked here.
For even more practice, there are a range of additional textbooks and practice books available to buy. It is certainly not necessary to buy extra resources for top grades.
However, there is nothing wrong with doing so. If you want to buy extra books, the best thing to do would be to ask your maths teacher which ones they recommend.
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.
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.
You can also check out this Think Student article that has 10 hard A-Level Maths questions for you to practise.
What equipment do you need for A-Level Maths?
Having the right equipment is a must for A-Level Maths. The first and most obvious thing you need is a calculator.
You will likely have a scientific calculator from taking GCSE Maths, which you can continue to use at A-Level. However, it is probably not advanced enough to cover everything you need for the A-Level course. On top of this scientific calculator, having a graphical calculator is highly recommended for A-Level Maths.
Graphical calculators have much greater functionality than the calculators commonly used at GCSE. This includes drawing graphs (as suggested by the name!) and statistical distributions, to name a few.
Have a look at this article from Think Student for a guide to the best calculators for A-Level Maths (and A-Level Further Maths). It is also worth asking your maths teachers which calculator they recommend – it may even be that you can buy one through your school at a cheaper price.
There are other pieces of equipment you may need for your exam, but they are much easier to get – in fact, you probably have most of them already, from GCSE Maths. This includes a 30cm ruler, a protractor and a compass.
Make sure to check what your individual exam board expects you to have for the exam. Some may just require a calculator and ruler, whereas others expect you to have this extra equipment.