Calculus in Elite College Admissions

As we’ve said for many years, if you’re applying to an elite university and you haven’t taken Calculus, you’ve put yourself in quite the pickle. No matter what an admissions officer at an elite university may tell you to the contrary, each and every one of them wants to see Calculus on your transcript. In fact, many of our students at Ivy Coach over the years have gone above and beyond taking BC Calculus by taking Multivariable Calculus, Differential Equations, Linear Algebra, etc. So when we came across a recent piece by Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Ed entitled “Does Calculus Count Too Much in Admissions?,” we read it with great interest.

A piece up on Inside Higher Ed focuses on Calculus and the importance of this course in elite college admissions.

As Jaschik writes, “Consider two scenarios: – You are a high school student who lives in the suburbs and excels in mathematics, acing two years of algebra and geometry. When you take Advanced Placement calculus as a senior, you find that all those A’s don’t get you anything. You struggle with calculus and give up on mathematics. – You are a high school senior at an urban high school that doesn’t have much money. You earn A’s in every mathematics course available, but your school doesn’t offer calculus. Needless to say, there is a third scenario, in which a student excels in mathematics and also in calculus. Taking calculus in high school gives her a head start on her STEM education in college. The problem is that hundreds of thousands of students believe they will benefit from calculus, and relatively few of them are in that third scenario. The first two scenarios describe far more students, according to a new report released by Just Equations and the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The report is not anticalculus; it acknowledges that, for some students…taking calculus in high school makes sense. But for many other students, calculus isn’t the math course that will most help them—the right course often is statistics. But most admissions counselors have favored calculus (in many cases informally), the report says, and that hurts students.”

We don’t disagree that the high school math curriculum in America needs to change. In fact, world renowned economist and author of Freakonomics Steven Levitt has long been pushing to modernize America’s math curriculum for our data-driven world. We wholeheartedly support our friend’s efforts to revamp how our country’s young people learn math — and what math they learn. But, for the most part, that change hasn’t happened yet in our schools and, until it does, applicants to America’s elite universities should have Calculus on their high school transcripts because if they don’t have Calculus they’ll be at a major disadvantage in the admissions process. So does Calculus count too much in admissions? Maybe. But these are the rules of the game. If you want to beat the game, take Calculus — the earlier in high school the better!


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