How to score A for A-level H2 Math

The A-level exams is marked on a bell-curve. For an extremely competitive subject like math, a forte of many students in Singapore, this bell-curve is extremely steep. There are about 10000-12000 students who sit for the H2 Mathematics paper annually. Of this, the MOE has afforded that about 50% of these students will get an A.

And while the figure of 50% may seem encouraging, but the statistic is heavily swayed by top JCs where a huge proportion of students get As in H2 Math such as RI and HCI where at least 70% of the cohort score distinctions in H2 Math. The better measurement is where one measures against peers in the same school by looking at the school statistics for Math distinction rates and comparing that with one’s school exam performance percentiles. For example, if one’s school traditionally has 50% of the students scoring an A in H2 math exams, and in school examinations one always rank in the top 50% of the cohort, it would be highly likely that one would get an A for the A-levels exam in the end. However, through experience, a good benchmark to secure an A is an average of 80 in both papers.

Tackling the paper and examination tips
H2 math in A-levels is a total of 6 hours split into two papers of 3 hours each. Paper 1 is pure math while paper 2 is 40% pure math and 60% statistics. Both papers consist of 12 questions each, meaning there are approximately 17 pure math questions and 7 questions on statistics. In an examination with a definite syllabus, one can expect all the topics in the exam to be tested in the final exam. This would mean that one topic would be one question on its own and the questions often follows the syllabus progressions. There are a few tips one should definitely follow to score an A in the exam.

Manage the clock
In a 3 hours paper of 12 questions, one should only spend 15 minutes on each question approximately. It is an age old adage to ‘skip if you don’t know how to do the question’. As easy as this sounds, it is extremely difficult in practise to know when is the moment you should skip especially when you feel so close to finally answering the question. As the age old adage goes ‘Practise makes perfect’, the only way to master this technique is to do as many papers as possible, which would be covered later in the article.

The calculator is your buddy
Many questions in the exam consist of the phrase ‘using algebraic method’ or ‘without the use of the calculator’. Many students blindly follow the instructions given to actually not use the calculator when solving such questions. Yet, what the question actually means is ‘show your workings so that you don’t look like you are using your calculator to solve’ which can be circumvented by using the calculator to merely check your answers and to ensure that your answer from the algebraic method is correct. It applies to many questions from inequalities, graphs, calculus and even statistics questions, making a proportion of 20%-30% of the papers. Even when the question does not explicitly say ‘without using the calculator’, you can still use the GC to check your answer. This is an extremely important technique as you can always ensure that you have arrived at the correct answer for these questions and no longer have to check the answers when you do check your answers after the paper. It brings peace of mind and builds confidence as you proceed with the paper, a helpful state of mind in any exam.

Work backwards for ‘show questions’
Students are often stumped at show questions as they find it difficult to arrive at the answer that the one shown in the question. It is often difficult to proceed with the ‘showing’ when the light at the end seems so far. The trick here is to bring the light nearer to you by working backwards from the ‘shown result’. When presenting your answers, you have to show the forward method of solving but nothing stops you from rearranging the answer in the question to suit your own needs and working backwards from the answer. This trick makes solving such questions 20% easier and faster as you are able to spot the patterns between the end result and your own answer faster.

How to prepare
As many people would have known already, the A is secured mainly through hard work. Yet, there is a significant piece of the jigsaw puzzle that most people miss out. The key to scoring the ‘A’ and effective time management towards your study budget is planning. To effectively prepare for the exam, you need to work backwards from the end goal. Ask yourself the series of questions.

What is your desired grade?
For example, if my desired grade is an A, my target for both papers would be at least 80 marks and above in the A-levels as mentioned earlier. The grading system for our education is A-levels is really flawed as it is 100% based on the final exams. This fact could however, can be abused. Since only the grade is entirely dependent on what occurs during each of the 3 hour papers, we can channel 100% of our time into preparing for the final exam and work backwards from the final exam questions. Instead of wandering aimlessly in the H2 math syllabus, we have now a light at the end of the tunnel to work towards.

What is the level of preparedness I need to get to the required grade?
To get an A, one would require therefore to reach a theoretical state of preparedness before entering the exam hall. The minimum preparedness level that is required is to know all the general question types and know how to do them, spanning all the topics that would be tested in the exam. While this may sound counter-intuitive, the fact is that the question types in the exam is exhaustive and not infinite and one could be prepared for the questions that would appear in the exam by preparing for them.

What are the resources I need to get to the level of preparation to sit for the final exam?
To be prepared for all the question types, one would be required to attempt as many papers as possible and nothing else. This is the most productive method of studying for most exams of this kind. The principle can be found in this book ‘The 80/20 Principle’ which can be found here. This need not be all the papers that one could find but minimally the 10-year series papers for A-levels.

How should I go about doing past year papers?
Instead of attempting the questions blindly, one should always have a solution set available (not answer key) to check your answers immediately after attempting the papers. For a question that one does not know how to do, look at the solutions to figure out how they managed to solve the question and remember the steps to solving the question. This is the most important step to getting to the level of preparedness as one would want to know how to solve every question that could possibly come out is the definition of the word ‘improvement’ itself. Only when one does not understand the workings on the solution sheet do one refer to the school notes for the certain topic to clarify any doubts or misunderstanding in concepts. The school notes should be irrelevant at this point of time.

In taking every practice exam, make the environment as similar to that of the exam as possible. This obviously extends to the important factors like time limit and the amount of material you can bring into the exam hall. The subtler differences in environment are like temperature of the room, noise level of the room and even size of the table. All these factors build muscle memory such as knowing when to skip a question and the level of familiarity of all the exam techniques which have been discussed before, which is the most important determining factor of your grades.

What papers should i do?
A more controversial issue would be the level of the difficulty of the papers attempted. Most schools set their prelim papers way above the A-levels requirement. Here, it can be emphasized that the objective is not to score an A in the prelim but an A in the A-levels. Therefore, the prelim paper is irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things, contrary to what the school would tell people. The prelim is neither a good indicator of grades in the A-levels nor a good preparatory tool due to the vast differences in standard. One could merely bypass preparing for the prelim by preparing for the A-levels instead. Yet, if one has more time one could definitely try all the prelim papers from other JCs. However, that is an issue of time allocation and study budget which differs from everyone. The article however employs a ‘minimum input, maximum output’ strategy which focusses on tackling papers that are similar to that of the final exam.

In conclusion, the best strategy to tackle the exam is to prepare for the exam directly by working backwards and finding out what is the required level of preparation you need. This has benefitted many students tremendously over the course of my teaching career and is highly applicable beyond the A-levels even in university examinations.

Isaiah Zhao
Isaiah is an education technology writer, currently serving as the head of content at Yodaa. In his free time, he researches on online marketing and education tips.