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Is Higher Level Maths Worth The Effort?

So many students struggle when faced with the choice to do Higher Level

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I hear it week in, week out. Students are just not sure if they are able for Higher level Maths. And as a parent, how are you meant to help? How can you advise them?

In this blog, I’ll guide you through that decision.

In 2012, a bonus system was introduced. An additional 25 points are now awarded to those who pass HL (Higher Level) Maths with an H6 and above. It’s no surprise that this bonus entices more students to take HL Maths opposed to OL (Ordinary Level) Maths. But, is Higher Level Maths really worth it in the end? Will the extra 25 points give you an advantage when it comes to University acceptances? Or, will the pressure of HL Maths actually cause you to lose points in your other Leaving Cert subjects? It’s a tough call to make for many students, but a very important one nonetheless.

The Effect of The 25 Point Bonus

The new bonus system was introduced in 2012. Since then, there has been a growing number of students opting to take HL Maths. In 2022, 36% of Leaving Cert students took HL Maths, compared to 18% in 2012. That’s double the amount of students taking HL Maths now compared to in 2012.

You can see in this diagram the increase in students taking HL Maths from 2011 to 2016:

Screen Shot 2023 09 27 at 10.43.20 AM

But has this increase in students negatively affected the amount of people passing? No. The grading system for the Leaving Cert is based on a bell curve. Even if the number of students taking the exam increases, the percentage who pass remains relatively the same. In fact, only 0.5% of people failed Higher Level Maths in 2023. Odds are, if you are unsure about taking HL Maths, there is a 99.5% chance you will pass the exam.

Along with the extremely low percentage of people that fail, the most common results are H3-H5. So, most likely if you take Higher Level Maths you’ll get between 56 and 77 CAO points for it. Add the extra 25 points on top of that, and you’ll receive between 81 and 102 CAO points! Don’t believe me? Take a look at the results from 2017-2022, they always remain consistent with the bell curve:

Screen Shot 2023 09 27 at 10.44.11 AM

And if you’re wondering about the grading of the exam, here is a table that explains what each result means: 

Screen Shot 2023 09 27 at 10.44.52 AM

Higher Level vs. Ordinary level Maths

Now, if you’re debating between Higher Level and Ordinary Level Maths, you’re probably wondering, “What’s the difference between the two anyway?”.

Both courses actually cover the same topics, and have the same test structure. All Leaving Cert Maths courses teach 5 strands: Statistics and Probability, Geometry and Trigonometry, Number, Algebra, Functions. However, OL Maths is a lot less complex compared to HL Maths. So, while the topics may be the same, the difficulty level definitely is not.

Similarly, both exam structures are identical. Both have two examination papers. Both have 2.5 hours to complete each paper. And, both have two sections per paper. The two sections will test core concepts and skills, and context-based applications. If you’re interested in the structure of the exams in more depth, we’ve covered the breakdown here.

Although the structure may be the same, the difficulty of the questions is not. The HL Maths exam has much more challenging questions than the OL Maths exams does. We’ve seen people drop out of HL Maths on exam day because they didn’t feel ready, just to get an O1 (the highest result) on the OL exam. Clearly, if you are even a little bit prepared for HL Maths, you will be far above average in OL Maths. And if this is the case, it’s worth it to stay in HL instead of dropping down to OL. An O1 is worth the same amount of CAO points as an H5, except an H5 gives you 25 extra points. So, if you can score O1, or even an O2, it’s worth it to take the Higher Level exam just to get those 25 extra points.

Why NOT to take Higher Level maths

Despite the benefits that come with taking HL Maths, there are some reasons not to take it. HL Maths may not be required for your 3rd level course or career. You may not even use Maths as one of your six subjects for CAO points if you know you will get a low result. But the biggest reason of all is how time consuming it can be.

If you’ve taken your Junior Cert and know you struggle a lot with Maths, the 25 bonus points may not be worth it. Often, students spend so much time studying HL Maths, that they neglect other subjects. There may be other subjects that you are better at, but you don’t spend enough time studying them because you’re too focused on Maths. This could cause you to get a lower result in those subjects that cancels out the bonus 25 points altogether.

If you know that HL Maths is going to take up all your study time, it may be better to take OL Maths. Then you can give other subjects your main focus. If you get great scores in your other exams it’ll be better than a good Maths result at the expense of all your other subjects.


– TJ


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