The cynic’s guide to getting a C at GCSE

A reader, concerned for a friend sitting GCSE, asks:

A friend of mine needs to pass GCSE maths for his uni course and is struggling -- any tips on books/sites? He's just failed the Foundation so he's now going for the Higher as the score needed for a C is lower.

First up: way to go! Going back to study maths again is a big step, and a big obstacle - but deciding you need it and going for it is the way forward. So, good luck.

Here's how I'd plan to get the GCSE C you need in the summer.

1. Don't aim too high

This is a controversial one, but I'm currently dedicating my life to annoying Michael Gove, so bear with it. If you 'just' need a C to get into university, don't try to cram everything in at once - at least until you have the basics mastered. Trying to cover vectors without decent algebra skills is probably more than you want to bite off.

If you're doing a typical linear GCSE higher paper, the grade boundary for a C is usually about 20-30% overall. I'm not saying you should aim for 30%, that's a really risky strategy. Instead, aim to get half of the syllabus down perfectly and be familiar enough with the rest that you can pick up the odd mark. If you manage that, your C should be pretty much nailed on.

2. Eat from the Table of Joy

The Table of Joy is the single most useful tool for GCSE maths. You can use it for percentages, pie charts, proportion, ratios and histograms just off the top of my head; with a bit of work, you can do trigonometry, inverse proportion, even some algebraic rearrangement. It's a handy little badger.

When I first wrote about the Table of Joy, I looked through a GCSE paper and found you could use it for 22% of the marks. Think about that a moment: if you master the Table of Joy, you can pick up pretty much all of the points you need for your C.

But I'm not going to explain it here. You can read more about the Table of Joy in any of my For Dummies books...

3. Learn your formulas and factoids

There are quite a few formulas and mnemonics you need to be on top of to do well at GCSE: areas and perimeters of shapes, formulas for proportion, formula triangles for speed-distance-time and density-mass-volume, SOHCAHTOA, BODMAS((which is bollocks')) ... it gets overwhelming quite quickly.

The thing to do is to write down everything on cards as you learn it. Description on one side, answer on the other. Whenever you get a moment, flick through the cards and test yourself -- if you get the answer right, put the card to one side; if you get it wrong, put it to the back. See how quickly you can get through all the cards. If you get through them all without a mistake, treat yourself to a chocolate.

4. Celebrate your mistakes

This is an odd one, but hear me out. It's really easy, when you're studying, to get super-down on yourself and think "I can't do this sum therefore I can't do maths therefore I'm a worthless human being and I may as well go and sit in a ditch and wait for rain."

That's not a helpful attitude.

Instead, when you mess up, do an Andy Murray fist-pump and say "YES! I screwed up. Now I get to fix it."

Everyone makes mistakes. Some readers of Numeracy Tests For Dummies have been kind enough to point out that I've made mistakes in it. Hooray! I get to put them right for the next edition. Compared to drowning in a ditch, it's much healthier -- and makes the editing much less of a chore.

5. Practise relentlessly

If you want to get good at football, you play lots of football. If you want to get good at writing, you do lots of writing. And if you want to get good at maths... guess what? The easiest way is to do lots of maths.

Do a little every day. Push yourself a little further each time. Make sure you keep the basics in mind. You'll find that a little at a time soon adds up and you'll be flying through your GCSE in no time.

Good luck!

* Edited 2015-10-27 to fix a footnote.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


27 comments on “The cynic’s guide to getting a C at GCSE

  • FRUITiiLious

    Thank you this was really inspirational. As my exam is in less than two weeks I’m not gonna cram everything, but I’m going to master the basics *^____^*

    • Colin

      Cool – it’s smart to be realistic about what you can do! Good luck in your exam 🙂

  • Dela

    I teach in Plymouth and have been told in the last week before Christmas my current year 11s who are c to do borderliners will be doing a higher paper instead of the foundation they were always going to do. Panic has set in as I have prepared them so well for foundation. I am planning to select a few topics and focus on them. Are u able to advise which topics may be beneficial? I have a few ideas but will be lovely to share some ideas.. Thank you. Del. Xx

    • Colin

      Yikes! That’s one way to drop you in it, right enough.

      OK, first thing is, I think you need to sell it to the students as an opportunity, and a vote of confidence in their ability. “You’ve done so well with the Foundation material, we’ve decided to give you the chance of getting a B – or better – because we believe in you…” – make a positive out of the panic.

      The other big positive you can sell them is that a ‘C’ in the Higher tier is somewhere in the 30-40% range, rather than 70-80% – and there’s a crossover in the topics in the first quarter of the paper. For many borderline students, a C is easier to get in the Higher than at Foundation.

      I’d make a point of giving them a mock paper as early as possible – in a ‘someone bet me you couldn’t get a C in this paper, but I said you could – and some of you could get Bs’ sort of way. It’ll give you a good idea of what Higher topics are within grasp for them; you might want to leave the last third or so of the paper off.

      As for topics I think might be good to get them a few extra marks – I’d say the standard algebra questions (grouping, expanding, powers) are a good start, as well as anything proportional – obviously percentages, but also pie charts and histograms, ratios, speed-distance-time and so on. Lastly, make sure they’re hot on their rounding!

      Best of luck – and let me know how you get on!

  • kylie

    Hello, I have just been offered a place at uni (nursing) subject to getting a c in my higher linear paper, problem is, the moment I see any algebra, even the most basic, I simply panic and shut down, I don’t know how to overcome this, all I need to see is 2 a + 7y, I am stumped, any advice would be appreciated

    • Colin

      Hi, Kylie,

      Sorry, I thought I’d responded to this!

      My best advice is to picture letters as suitcases – if you think of $a$ as an amber suitcase and $b$ as a blue one, $2a + 7b$ is just the combined weight of two ambers and seven blues.

      Equations are balanced see-saws: if you’re told $3x + 4 = 10$, that’s telling you that three… er… xblack! yes, three xblack suitcases plus 4 kilograms weigh the same as 10 kilograms. The three suitcases together weigh six kilos, so they must each weigh 2 kg.

      Hope that’s at least slightly helpful… good luck!

  • Chloe

    Hi, I’m 15 and in year 10 at secondary school and I was wondering: what are the best strategies for maths revision? I’m quite hopeless at maths and will be sitting the Foundation paper in 2016; initially I was sitting the higher paper but I’ve a few practise exams in the past and have achieved grade D’s and occasionally E’s on the higher paper for maths. I know the foundation paper will be easier to achieve a grade C on because it includes some basic maths too but I’m worried I could slip up on a couple of the earlier questions since I haven’t done basic maths since primary school. I know it sounds stupid but I’m really worried for my maths exam next year. It’s not that I don’t understand the C grade work because I do, I just find that applying the method to the actual question is difficult sometimes. Thanks for your help:)

  • Dylan Stickland

    Hi there,
    I am currently in year 11 at a grammar school and am apparently predicted A* for maths, however I have an awful teacher so I have to cover some of the material on my own. Anyway, the problem is that the A* work seems far too easy to be grade A*… I know you might disregard this because there are people more in need of your help than myself, but I would much appreciate a response. I do AQA maths higher iGCSE and the A* work includes functions, algebraic fractions, trigonometry etc. It just seems like these topics are far too easy to be considered ‘A*’! All my other subjects are relatively challenging, and subsequently I am only on an A for some of them. It seems weird that I am achieving 95% in end of unit tests which contain only A* work when I find it a challenge to get an A* in some of my other subjects which contain work of all grades. Thank you very much,
    Dylan Stickland

    • Colin

      Hi, Dylan,

      I know a lot of students who’d kill to be in your shoes! There isn’t a single scale of easy-to-hard (I always found French vocab to be much easier to memorise than geography facts, for instance, but other people found the opposite), so it might just be that you’ve managed to arrange maths in your mind so it’s easier to learn than your other subjects.

      I’d recommend finding ways to challenge yourself, though: try doing a few Additional Maths/Further Maths papers just for the joy of it, or look ahead to A-level.

      Good luck — and long may it stay easy for you!

  • abdul hamid

    Do i need to get 70 in each paper for maths foundation to get an c? cal and non clal

    • Colin

      You’ll need to get a certain percentage overall — it’s your total that matters, not your score in each paper.

      The target percentage is usually around 70, but can be higher or lower depending on how difficult the paper is.

      • abdul hamid

        so i have to get 70% overall in both papers? and thank you this is really helpful

        • Colin

          As long as your total is over 70% (or whatever the boundary is), you’re fine — you don’t necessarily need to get 70% in one paper and 70% in the other.

          Don’t worry too much about the exact details of the system — focus on getting as many points as you possibly can!

          • abdul hamid

            have you got the 2015 maths foundation maths paper or do you know where i can get them from? and if you dont mind can you tell me what are the common questions in the foundation maths exam?

          • Colin

            Hi, Abdul,

            I’m afraid I don’t have the 2015 Foundation paper; if I needed it, I would google and see what came up. This would also be my strategy for finding common questions from previous exams — work through the previous exams!

            Good luck!

  • Sam Morgan

    I have taken Foundation maths 4 times and failed every time!!! What do I do?

  • Gemma Miller

    I’m self teaching GCSE maths as I need a C to do teacher training (I got a D at school and Level 2 Numeracy a few years ago) and I’m wondering if I should do the higher or foundation paper?

    • Colin

      It’s normally really hard to say, because it depends on whether you’re better at accurately doing “less-demanding” stuff or at picking up a few marks here and there — typically up ’til now, you’d need about 70% on the Foundation paper, or 30% on the Higher — bearing in mind that the Higher paper is obviously more demanding.

      However: I can’t really advise just now; the entire system is being shaken up, the grade system is changing to numbers rather than letters, and it’s not at all clear (to me) how it’s going to change things. Sorry I can’t help :o(

  • Joanne

    A little advice please, my daughter in june 2016 sat edexcel higher and got a D, College insisted that she resat in November AQA foundation and she got a D (4 marks off). They have now said as she has done mock paper of higher and getting C’s that she should sit higher, she was getting C’s on the foundation papers (mock) but still ended up with a D. She is worried as which to choose as this time is the last time for a legacy paper. Which way would you advise.

    • Colin

      It’s really hard to advise! I’d suggest doing several mock papers of both types, and seeing which ones generally give her safer Cs.

  • matthew razunguzwa

    Hi my name is Matthew Razunguzwa and my school has predicted me for getting a grade 3 in mathematics. Do you think all target grades are right and could I get a 4 if I revised.

    • Colin

      Hi, Matthew,

      Predicted grades are just that, predictions. If you knuckle down and put the work in, there’s no reason you can’t do better! (And you should definitely revise).

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