With record numbers of high school students applying for fewer spaces at top universities, presenting a strong transcript is more important than ever. By choosing the right classes, students build a case for their academic ability. But which classes are these? It can be a confusing issue, especially when it comes to math, because of the multiple levels and courses offered today. So which math classes are essential for getting into a good college?

There’s no doubt about the preliminary math classes that college-bound students need to take. Both public schools such as the University of California Berkeley and private schools such as Notre Dame list the following courses as requirements for eligibility:

  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Algebra II

But how much more math do students really need? One thing is for sure: top colleges are looking for students who take math all the way through their senior year. Beyond that, requirements get hazy, and college admissions websites can be vague. For instance, Princeton University’s website states that applicants should have “four years of mathematics (including calculus for students interested in engineering.)” While this is clear for future engineers, it leaves everyone else wondering if they need calculus, too.  

To find out more about what colleges are looking for, we spoke to Tom Abeyta, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Oberlin College. Oberlin is a highly selective liberal arts school in Oberlin, Ohio. The college aims for a well-rounded class by drawing on a holistic review process of each applicant, but the high school transcript is still the piece in which they invest the most time. Abeyta says that academics are 'huge'. The admissions office looks closely at the degree of rigor in a schedule. Most of the students who are admitted have completed four years of math in high school, through a minimum of Pre-Calculus. The majority completed Calculus.

Based on these facts, a student who plans to apply to a selective college should try to include the following classes in her schedule:

  • Pre-Calculus
  • AP Calculus (AB or BC)

Math teacher and SAT expert Gregg Whitnah explains why it’s important to aim for calculus: “Students keep the admissions door open when they take as much math as possible.” The best way to fit these classes in is to start Algebra in the 8th grade. Alternatively, some high schools allow concurrent enrollment of Geometry and Algebra or Geometry and Algebra II. In addition, there’s always summer school and community college.

What if your child plans to continue in math or engineering?

Students who are interested in engineering or science often finish Calculus during their junior year. In that case, they should enroll in a senior-year course like AP Statistics, AP Computer Science, or Multi-Variable Calculus. According to Whitnah, “It’s important to paint a picture of yourself, separate yourself.” And if you love math and science, it’s vital to demonstrate that through the classes you choose.

What if your child isn’t math-oriented? 

Will not taking Calculus sabotage a student’s chances to get into college? This is where the picture gets murkier. It’s true that the more academic a student appears to be, the better chance he has of getting into a college. But what if math is difficult for a child, and he thrives on English and History?

Oberlin’s Abeyta gives parents this advice: “It’s best for students to take challenging courses that they prefer to take. No selective college likes to see a ‘C’ on a transcript.” So if you suspect that your child will really struggle with Calculus, it might be better to find a different path. In that case, where is there to go after Algebra II? 

Pre-Calculus or its Alternative

If an honors level of Pre-Calculus is offered, students can be assured that the regular level is still a strong course. And some schools offer a Pre-Calculus equivalent, called Trigonometry or Analytic Geometry. As long as it meets the A-G requirements for the UC system, it’s a good class to take.

Statistics is a form of math that appeals to people who like writing and explaining. AP Statistics is considered to be a strong math course by most colleges. An outstanding grade in AP Statistics would look better on a transcript than a weak grade in AP Calculus.

It’s important to have some AP courses on your transcript if your high school offers them. Therefore, students should balance a less-rigorous math class with liberal arts courses like AP History, AP English, AP Spanish, or AP Psychology.

All colleges are looking for a high school transcript that presents a student who took advantage of the best courses offered at his school. Therefore, a child should take as many academic classes as he can handle with aplomb. But it’s also important to remember that undue amounts of stress are destructive, and that there will always be a good-fit college for a student as long as he meets the basic eligibility requirements by taking Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra II.