A-level maths: What's it really like?

Everything current students wish they had known before starting

If you love maths and are prepared to put the required effort into it, it's a rewarding and stimulating A-level subject.

As well as core units covering algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus, you can choose which applied maths modules (decision, mechanics or statistics) to study based on your interests and strengths.

We asked A-level maths students about their experiences of the course and advice for students who are just starting out. Here's what they told us:

What did you do in the first few weeks?

You're bound to be nervous and excited starting sixth form or college, but it should be a fairly easy ride at the beginning with plenty of GCSE recaps.

We started off with the topics that overlapped with GCSE maths (that everyone did), before moving on to a couple of things that overlapped with GCSE further maths (which all but one of us did).

In our very first lesson we actually did one of those cut-out jigsaw things, it didn't feel like an A-level lesson to me at all!


We covered graph transformations and completing the square at the beginning of the term, so starting from GCSE A* topics and going up from there.

I was also introduced to co-ordinate geometry at the beginning of the term.


In the first week we just did GCSE stuff.


What was hardest about the step up from GCSE?

For some current maths A-level students, parts of the course barely felt like a big jump from GCSE at all. But others found that there were new concepts that didn't make sense at first and a faster pace of learning.

My further maths GCSE really bridged the gap very nicely so it wasn't for a few months until we covered new content. The hardest part about the step up for me was the first time I didn't understand something at all, as I was fairly used to getting things straight away. I’ve now learnt to accept that this isn't always the case though now.


There was a whole load of new mathematical concepts like roots of a function and how to determine the minimum and maximum point of an equation, which I had to grasp quickly, especially as we were moving from one topic to the next rapidly.


Nothing, didn't really feel like a step up to be honest.


The hardest was C2/S1 as C1 has links with GCSE maths but C2 and S1 were totally different.


What surprised you most about A-level maths?

Here's some more good news: the students we asked expected it to be harder, and were pleasantly surprised at how much enjoyment they found in the syllabus.

That I knew a lot of the first module's content already! That was definitely a pleasant surprise.


The subject was very intellectually stimulating. The feeling when you spend ages and ages on a question and finally reach the correct final answer is just incredibly rewarding.


How much I enjoyed all the topics! There was no topic in all the maths I did that I genuinely could not stand. It was all stuff I enjoyed at GCSE.


I'm surprised I could actually do it. I really struggled at GCSE but at A-level you build each topic gradually.


What advice would you give to someone starting A-level maths in September?

In a nutshell, practising questions and making sure you understand everything is the key to success in maths.

Do NOT get complacent just because it's not as hard as your other subjects! Also, mechanics takes a lot of work to get right but once you do you'll be flying!


Be prepared for new challenges, never be afraid to ask for help and and remember that maths will appear progressively easier with practice.


Do all the past papers, learn from your mistakes and thou shalt succeed!


My main advice is to make sure that you understand everything fully. If you don't understand something ask the teacher or use some free online resources.


Just make sure you devote like half and hour a day to practising maths questions. Exam questions and the questions in your textbook.

The questions you will get in the exam are very similar to what you practice in class and at home, except that the values you have to work with will be different.

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Share your own experiences and advice or ask questions in the maths forum.