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AP Calculus: An Admissions Edge and Alternative Path to Advanced Math

3 Min Read
September 20, 2023

Are you considering taking calculus in high school? Wondering if it can give you an edge in college admissions? Well, you've come to the right place! In this blog post, we'll explore the topic of taking calculus in high school and its potential benefits for your college applications. Let’s find out what kind of benefits you can get for your application by choosing AP Calculus.

History of AP Calculus

Advanced Placement Calculus AB, one of the earliest AP exams introduced back in 1955, had the aim of better preparing American students for math and science careers. After all, mathematicians and scientists rely on calculus to create models and make predictions about various aspects, such as the growth rate of bacteria, or the strength of bridges.

During the 1980s, calculus was predominantly seen as a college-level subject, with only around 30,000 public high school students taking the course each year. However, today, that number has skyrocketed to approximately 800,000 students. Surprisingly, despite this significant increase, the number of students graduating with a bachelor's degree in engineering, the physical sciences, or mathematics has remained relatively consistent.

AP Calculus in Top University Admissions

Educators suggest that taking calculus in high school often does not lead to success in college math. A 2016 report examining the impact of calculus on the transition from high school to college highlighted that approximately 30% of students who passed high school calculus, whether through Advanced Placement or other options like dual enrollment, were placed into precalculus, algebra, or even remedial math courses in college. Additionally, 1 in 3 students who took calculus in high school received a C grade or lower in college calculus.

Another study involving over 6,000 college freshmen revealed that mastering the prerequisites of calculus, such as algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, was significantly more important for their later success in college calculus than simply having taken a calculus class in high school.

Despite this, experts note that hundreds of thousands of high school students still choose to take calculus each year. Often, they do so in hopes of gaining an advantage in college admissions, sometimes even before they are fully prepared.

How Does AP Calculus Help Your Top University Admission?

Even at specialized institutions like the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, where most students are focused on STEM careers, the motivation for taking AP calculus may not necessarily stem from a genuine interest in the subject.

Interestingly, except for a few STEM-oriented schools such as the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvey Mudd College, calculus is not a mandatory requirement for college admission.

In fact, prestigious universities like Harvard University and the University of Chicago explicitly state on their admissions websites that calculus is not a prerequisite for admission. They acknowledge that a rigorous high school math curriculum can include alternative courses like statistics, data science, and mathematical modeling. The University of California also made it clear in 2016 that calculus alone does not determine an admissions decision.

Despite these statements, admissions officers have conflicting views. According to a report by Just Equations, 53% of admissions officers believe that taking calculus can provide applicants with an advantage in the admissions process.

While taking calculus can potentially provide an admissions edge, it is not the sole determinant of your success in college math or your overall college application. Mastering the prerequisites of calculus, such as algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, is crucial for your future success in advanced math. So, even if calculus isn't available or the right fit for you, don't fret! There are other paths you can pursue to showcase your mathematical proficiency.