**What’s A level Mathematics about?**

A level Mathematics is often thought of as a subject of complicated calculations. However, calculations form only a small part of this rigorous discipline which requires clear thinking and the development of specific ideas into generalised solutions.

On one hand A level Mathematics deals with highly abstract topics which require considerable imagination combined with the discipline of 'proof'. On the other hand mathematics underpins virtually all the practical developments in science, IT and economics which have formed our modern world.

A level Mathematics gives you the opportunity to study topics such as geometry, calculus and trigonometry (pure mathematics) and to use these ideas within the 'applied' topics such as mechanics and statistics. Mechanics is strongly linked to physics and builds on ideas of motion and forces to work out how and why objects move. Statistics allows us to make sense of the complex and variable world around us via analytical methods in order to draw reliable conclusions from 'sets' of information.

You can develop a yet deeper and broader understanding of mathematical concepts by studying Further Mathematics as a separate A level qualification. There are a wide variety of topics and applications of mathematics which can be studied at this level, and there is usually scope for tailoring the topics covered to your particular interests.

**What sort of work is involved?**

Pure mathematics, which develops algebraic and geometrical reasoning, underpins the other disciplines. The work you do in and out of class will develop your ability to produce well-reasoned answers to extended questions. Although maths is highly logical, it also requires imagination and determination to work well on your own.

You need an enthusiasm for problem-solving, a willingness to try a variety of approaches and the tenacity to keep going in the hunt for possible solutions to awkward problems. Then you need to be disciplined in showing how you arrived at the problem's answer. Working on problems is the surest way to develop the knowledge and intuition required to do well.

You will also study aspects of 'applied maths': the disciplines of mechanics and statistics which require mathematical modelling to make sense of real-life problems. You will learn how to model real-life situations in mathematical terms, how models are refined and how to identify limitations within this process. You will be expected to use technology where appropriate; for example, the use of spreadsheets and graphical calculators to support statistical analysis. In addition, strong skills in algebraic manipulation are vital.

**What background do I need?**

Enjoyment of mathematics and problem-solving are essential in order to undertake A level Mathematics with confidence. If you get less than a grade 6 or 7 (grade B) at GCSE, A level Mathematics is likely to be beyond you, and even with a 7 you should ask for your teachers' advice on whether you have the general 'feel' for algebra which A level Mathematics requires. If you are considering Further Mathematics as well, a real enthusiasm and aptitude for mathematics is essential, and a grade 9 (A*) at GCSE would be advisable. For the strong mathematician, Further Maths can be the 'icing on the cake' of their A level programme. However, as with Maths, check that your teachers support your choice.

There's also the question of how your college teaches Further Maths. Some push Further Maths students through all of A level Mathematics in the first year (including the exam), and spend upper sixth on Further Maths. This is tough but enables you to do two non-Maths A levels alongside. If you study both Maths subjects for two years, and can therefore only take one non-Maths A level you need to consider whether this is over-narrowing your general academic development.

**Where can it lead?**

Mathematics is a highly respected A level and supports progression to a wide range of degree courses and careers. All science-based degrees require good maths skills, and so too do Engineering and many Computing and Economics-based and Social Science degrees.

Further Mathematics is excellent preparation for degrees involving a lot of maths work, and is actually required for some degree courses.

**One year course?**

Unless you already have covered a significant amount of post-GCSE Maths, a one year course in A level Mathematics is unlikely to succeed. You would need algebra skills of at least GCSE level 9 (A*) standard and a willingness to spend at least 2 hours a night on Maths work outside class. The same applies to Further Maths, only more so!

**Assessment**

Maths A level is now a linear specification, so all assessment from summer 2019 onwards will be via examination at the end of the course, with no separate coursework.

Each exam board has its own 'specification, but to take the example of Pearson/Edexcel, there are three equally weighted exams at the end of the whole course, as follows:

- Paper 1: 2 hours long, questions on pure maths topics, all questions compulsory
- Paper 2: 2 hours long, questions on pure maths topics, all questions compulsory
- Paper 3: 2 hours long, questions on mechanics and statistics, all compulsory

**This article was written by Helen Harris of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies**

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