High School Preparation in Math

Learn How Much and What Level of Math You Need to Get Into College

math on blackboard
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Different colleges and universities have very different expectations for your high school preparation in math. An engineering school like MIT will expect more preparation than a predominantly liberal arts college like Smith. However, a difficulty arises because the recommendations for high school preparation in math are often unclear, especially when you're trying to distinguish between what is "required" and what is "recommended."

High School Preparation in Math 

If you're applying to highly selective colleges, schools will generally want to see three or more years of math that include algebra and geometry. Keep in mind that this is a minimum, and four years of math makes for a stronger college application.

The strongest applicants will have taken calculus, and at places like MIT and Caltech, you'll be at a significant disadvantage if you haven't taken calculus. This is also true when applying to engineering programs at comprehensive universities like Cornell or the University of California at Berkeley.

This makes sense: if you're going into a STEM field that's going to require math expertise, colleges want to see that you have both the college preparation and the aptitude to succeed in higher-level mathematics. When students enters an engineering program with weak math skills or poor preparation, they have an uphill battle to graduate.

My High School Doesn't Offer Calculus. What Now?

Options for classes in math vary widely from high school to high school. Many small rural schools simply don't have calculus as an option, and the same is true even for large schools in some regions. If you find that you're in a situation where calculus simply isn't an option, don't panic.

Colleges receive information on the course offerings at your school, and they will be looking to see that you have taken the most challenging courses available to you.

If you're school offers AP Calculus and you choose a remedial course on the mathematics of money instead, you clearly aren't challenging yourself, and this will be a strike against you in the admissions process. On the flip side, if a second year of algebra is the highest level math offered at your school and you complete the course successfully, colleges shouldn't penalize you for your lack of algebra.

That said, students interest in STEM fields (as well as fields such as business and architecture) will be strongest when they have taken calculus. Realize that calculus may be an option even if your high school doesn't offer it. Be sure to talk to your guidance counselor about your options, but they may include:

  • Taking calculus at a local college. You may even find that some community colleges and state universities offer evening or weekend courses that won't conflict with your high school classes. Your high school is likely to give you credit towards graduation for college calculus, and you'll also have college credits that are likely to transfer.
  • Taking AP Calculus  online. Here again, talk with your guidance counselor about options. You may find courses through your state university system, a private university, or even a for-profit educational company. Be sure to read reviews: online courses can range from excellent to terrible, and it's not worth your time and money to take a course that isn't likely to lead to success on the AP exam. Also keep in mind that online courses require lots of discipline and self-motivation. 
  • Self-study for the AP Calculus exam. If you're a motivated student with strong aptitude for math, it's possible to self-study for the AP exam. Taking an AP course isn't a requirement for taking an AP exam, and colleges will be impressed if you earn a 4 or 5 on the AP exam after self-study.

Does It Matter if I Take AP Calculus AB or BC?

Success on an AP Calculus course is one of the best ways to demonstrate your college readiness in mathematics.

There are, however, two AP Calculus courses: AB and BC.

According to the College Board, the AB course is equivalent to the first year of college calculus, and the BC course is equivalent to the first two semesters. The BC course introduces topics of sequences and series in addition to the general coverage of integral and differential calculus found on the AB exam.

For most colleges, the admissions folks will be happy by the very fact that you've studied calculus, and while the BC course is more impressive, you won't be hurting yourself with AB calculus (note that far more college applicants take AB than BC calculus).

At schools with strong engineering programs, however, you may find that BC calculus is strongly preferred, and that you won't earn calculus placement credit for the AB exam. This is because at a school like MIT, the content of the BC exam is covered in a single semester, and the second semester of calculus is multi-variable calculus, something not covered in the AP curriculum. That AB exam, in other words, is covering just a half semester of college calculus and isn't sufficient for placement credit. Taking AP Calculus AB is still a big plus in the application process, but you won't always earn course credit for a high score on the exam.

What Does This All Mean?

Very few colleges have a definite requirement of calculus or four years of math. A college doesn't want to be in a position where it has to reject an otherwise well-qualified applicant because of a lack of calculus.

That said, take the "strongly recommended" guidelines seriously. For most colleges, your high school record is the single most important component of your application. It should show you've taken the most challenging courses possible, and your success in upper-level math courses is a great indicator that you can succeed in college.

A 4 or 5 on one of the AP calculus exams is about the best evidence you can provide of math readiness, but most students don't have that score available at the time applications are due.

The table below sums up the math recommendations of a range of colleges and universities.

CollegeMath Requirement
Auburn3 years required - Algebra I and II, and either Geometry, Trig, Calc, or Analysis
Carletonminimum 2 years algebra one year geometry; 3 or more years math recommended
Centre College4 years recommended
Harvardbe well-versed in algebra, functions, and graphing; calculus good but not required
Johns Hopkins4 years recommended
MITmath through calculus recommended
NYU3 years recommended
Pomona4 years expected; calculus highly recommended
Smith College3 years recommended
UT Austin3 years required; 4 years recommended