Prepare for College With High School Math

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

Students in a high school math class.

Pixabay/Pixabay/CCO

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

High School Preparation 

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. 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.

If you're going into a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and math) 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 enter an engineering program with weak math skills or poor preparation, they face an uphill battle to make it to graduation.

My High School Doesn't Offer Calculus

Options for classes in math vary widely from high school to high school. Many smaller, 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 your school offers AP calculus and you choose a remedial course on the mathematics of money instead, you clearly aren't challenging yourself. 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.

That said, students' interest in STEM fields (as well as fields such as business and architecture) will be strongest when they have taken calculus. Calculus may be an option, even if your high school doesn't offer it. Talk to your guidance counselor about your options, which 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, as 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 a 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.

    Do Colleges Like Advanced Math Topics?

    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 with the very fact that you've studied calculus. While the BC course is more impressive, you won't be hurting yourself with AB calculus. Note that far more college applicants take AB, rather 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. The second semester of calculus is multi-variable calculus, something not covered in the AP curriculum. The AB exam, in other words, covers 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 regarding 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 due to a lack of calculus classwork.

    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 that 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 your 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 for a range of colleges and universities.

    College Math Requirement
    Auburn 3 years required: Algebra I and II, and either geometry, trig, calc, or analysis
    Carleton Minimum 2 years algebra, one year geometry, 3 or more years math recommended
    Centre College 4 years recommended
    Harvard Be well-versed in algebra, functions, and graphing, calculus good but not required
    Johns Hopkins 4 years recommended
    MIT Math through calculus recommended
    NYU 3 years recommended
    Pomona 4 years expected, calculus highly recommended
    Smith College 3 years recommended
    UT Austin 3 years required, 4 years recommended