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Updated on Dec 22, 2010

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.

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