The Calculus Conundrum

Earlier this year, Insider Higher Education published an article entitled “Does calculus count for too much in College Admissions”. The answer was yes. There has been much research conducted lately showing most non-STEM and non-business majors don’t need calculus. Although research also shows taking four years of math better prepares you for college, especially college math courses. For some, statistics is a far more useful course–especially for majors like marketing to political science to education. But many colleges are still recommending (and many requiring) students have calculus or precalculus to be admitted.

While some middle school students have the ability to take high school math in 7th or 8th grade, most high school students start at Algebra I. They will take some combination of Algebra I, II and Geometry their first three years. Then senior year, they can take precalculus or calculus if they are academically prepared for the course. But many students don’t want to. They prefer to take another course like Finite Math or AP Statistics as a more relevant course (or to just avoid calculus). But colleges often don’t consider AP Statistics as rigorous as calculus.

This is an issue I have seen a lot the last two years, including with my own son. I have students who have worked very hard in high school, have strong grades but don’t want to take calculus. Or they may be ready for a normal level calculus class but their high school only offers AP Calculus AB and/or BC. Prospective engineering and computer science students who were not in advanced middle school classes are doubling up on math to be able to get to an AP level Calculus to be admissible to the competitive programs (because STEM students will need calculus to be admissible in most engineering or computer science programs).

In my son’s case, he is interested in applying to a college that states they want at least one semester of trig, precalculus or calculus. He is registered for AP Statistics for senior year. He decided to take summer school to get in one semester of precalculus. But given his career interests, statistics makes far more sense as a course for him. So what should your child do? Unfortunately, the answer is “that depends”. If you child is planning to apply to highly selective colleges or a rigorous STEM major, they should be taking advanced math–including calculus, and probably at the AP level. Also check with each college your child is considering to understand their requirements and preferred coursework (it can usually be found on their admissions webpage). If your child is not doing a STEM major, not applying to highly selective colleges or programs, or just won’t do well in the course–don’t take it–but again know the school’s requirements to ensure you aren’t preventing your admissibility by not taking a required class (you can always email admissions and ask if you don’t find it on a website).

If your child is considering a highly selective school or field, working with a college counselor can be helpful. We can review their course selection and build a four year plan that ensures they are meeting requirements. We can also identify activities that will support their career interest and preparation. Its great to do something you love and enjoy like theater but if you want to be an engineer, you should have some science related activities as well. If you can’t get those activities in during the school year, having strong summer experiences can also help.

Coffman Consulting is always here to answer questions you may have about the admissions process. You can schedule a free consultation here .

Published by Kate Coffman

Kate has worked in admissions, financial aid, college and career readiness for over twenty years. She most recently served as the Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Franklin College. Kate has also worked in admissions at Butler University and Indiana University. Kate has presented at numerous schools and conferences helping families, educators and those who work with youth understand how to be college and career ready, how to apply to college and how to afford their education.

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