The transition from GCSEs to A-Levels is a difficult one and can take some time to get used to. It can be especially difficult when you take a subject like Maths which is notoriously hard. Although it is not compulsory at A-Level, roughly 90,000 students each year take A-Level Maths. As a fellow student taking A-Level Maths, I can confirm that it can be exceptionally difficult sometimes. However as with all subjects, a good work ethic and preparation is all that’s needed to do well.
In this guide I’ll be discussing what you should expect in an A-Level Maths course and whether it is the right course for you. I currently do Edexcel Maths but hopefully this guide will help you no matter the exam board.
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Is A-Level Maths the right subject for you?
Before you take on the difficulties of A-Level Maths, you should first consider whether it is the right course for you to be taking.
My own decision to take A-Level Maths was due to the number of pathways it would open up to me after A-Level. Many employers will usually require a grade above C in GCSE Maths and will find an A-Level Maths qualification even more desirable.
This is because skills like problem-solving and critical thinking will be developed throughout the course. It will give you a large skill set that can be applied to many careers from financial handling at large banks to managing your own business.
If you are looking to study a STEM subject at university like myself, you will probably already be aware that A-Level Maths is usually a requirement. Maths is always an essential course for subjects like Engineering and Computer Science. Although not mandatory, courses like Medicine and Biology will often recommend A-Level Maths.
Depending on your school, it may even be compulsory for you to take A-Level Maths. If you are taking another A-Level subject that is heavily maths-based like Physics or Economics, it would be best to take A-Level Maths alongside.
One of the biggest perks of taking A-Level Maths is the chance for a higher salary. Figures taken from the government show that students who took A-Level Maths will earn an average starting salary of £22,500. This figure is even higher at £25,500 for students who took A-Level Further Maths. Have a look at this article from the Advanced Mathematics Support Programme for more information.
If you are interested in taking Further Maths, check out this article from Think Student.
What are the differences between A-Level Maths and GCSE Maths?
Maths is very different to the other subjects you will take at A-Level. This is primarily because it is not an essay-based subject where you will have to study set texts, or a content-based subject where you will have to memorise lots of information. All the topics you study at A-Level Maths will be somewhat linked to the topics you have previously studied at GCSE.
GCSE Maths exams are structured so there are three papers to complete. One will be a non-calculator maths paper and two calculator maths papers at either Foundation or Higher level.
Unlike GCSE, there is no Foundation or Higher set. Everyone doing A-Level Maths is expected to complete the same exam papers. The A-Level examinations are also made up of three papers. However, two papers will assess Pure Mathematics and one paper will assess Statistics and Mechanics.
You can find out more about the pass rates of these exams and more about what the course entails in this article by Think Student.
Unfortunately, enjoying Maths at GCSE level does not always guarantee that you will enjoy it or be naturally good at it at A-Level.
In general, when you reach A-Level, not everything will be explained to you. It is expected that you do a large amount of independent study to prepare you for life at university.
For example, if you have already covered a topic at GCSE, your teachers may assume you know it well. Any extra work you need to ensure your knowledge of that topic is up to scratch will usually have to be done in your own time, rather than in lessons.
If you choose to pursue A-Level Maths, you will also need to invest in a good calculator. Check out this article on Think Student for a list of the options you have.
What do you need to know from GCSE For A-Level Maths?
As mentioned above, A-Level Maths is linked to all the topics you have learned at GCSE. GCSE Further Maths is usually your first introduction to A-Level Maths content. If you have taken Further Maths at GCSE you will be more than ready for A-Level Maths. However, you will definitely not be disadvantaged if you did not take Further Maths.
If you have done some reading ahead or looked at the different A-Level Maths syllabuses, you may have realised that many topics are topics you are already familiar with. Topics like algebra and geometry form the foundation of the pure topics you will be taught and histograms and mean and mode will come up frequently in the statistics part of the course.
The key to succeeding at maths is to do as many questions as you can. Going over the different circle theorems and the types of graphs may seem unnecessary to you. However, these topics will not be taught again and your teachers will expect you to be familiar with them in order to learn harder topics.
Even if you did well at GCSE, it is very common for students to forget things over the summer holidays. Edexcel has created this transition work that helps you revise topics that are necessary to do well at A-Level. Even if your exam board is not Edexcel, doing these questions will help you recap.
Top Tips for A-Level Maths
Having a great teacher for A-Level Maths is a true blessing. However, given the independent nature of A-Levels, that is not enough. You will need to be able to revise and learn effectively outside of the classroom. Here are a few of some of my tips after completing a year of A-Level Maths.
1. Complete all the homework assigned
The structure of your A-Level Maths course will usually include lessons with teachers and in these lessons you will go through an exam board issued textbook and study topic by topic. However, many topics will need to be covered within a short timeframe. Quite often teachers will work through the content in lessons and assign homework questions to consolidate your learning.
Homework at A-Level can be intensive and you will have to complete Maths questions alongside all your essays and past paper questions from other subjects. You will most likely feel overwhelmed by the workload within the first few weeks. It can be tempting to skip a few questions and hope your teacher doesn’t notice or to just skip all homework completely. However, not doing homework can be one of the biggest mistakes students make.
The topics you learn will rarely be covered again. This includes AS topics as they won’t be taught again in the second year. You may think to yourself that you will cover those homework questions afterwards but by then it could be too late.
The purpose of doing those questions is so that you can understand what you know and don’t know about a topic. Discovering this early will put you in a good position when it comes to reviewing these topics again before the exams.
2. Learn the Large Data Set
If you know someone studying A-Level Maths, you may have heard them complain about the Large Data Set. Different exam boards have different Large Data Sets. I only have experience with the Edexcel Large Data Set but you can check out the OCR version here and the AQA version here on Save my Exams.
The Large Data Set refers to a data set with many values and is frequently mentioned in the statistics paper although you are not expected to memorise the entire data set. You will need to be familiar with variables and context as the data set will not be given to you during the exam.
For example, the Edexcel Large Data Set consists of data samples on the weather over two different time periods for five locations in the UK and three international locations. There are roughly ten variables and these include daily maximum gust and direction and cloud cover. It is important to remember the units of variables and an estimate for each location.
Questions regarding the Large Data Set are rarely for more than a maximum of three marks. However, each mark could make a difference to a grade. These are often the marks that students dismiss.
Remembering most of the information is a daunting task. I use this guide from Save my Exams to review the data set.
3. Complete questions from outside the syllabus
The biggest mistake that students make is to limit their resources from the start. Syllabuses do change throughout the years, but the biggest changes will be adding or removing different topics.
Just because a question you come across is from the old syllabus doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt it. The question format may be different, but the maths used to solve the question will remain the same.
To get the higher end of grades, you will need to complete questions that challenge you. Older questions will help you familiarise yourself with the different formats questions can come in. This is especially useful in modelling questions involving calculus where it may not be obvious what method needs to be used. This article on Think Student shows just how difficult A-Level Maths questions can get.
The jump from GCSE to A-Level has always been difficult. However, with the right preparation you should be able to do well. Good Luck!