College Pete

The ONE Course That All Competitive Colleges Want You To Take in High School

The ONE Course That All Competitive Colleges Want You To Take in High School

I have, for several years now, been tracking and recording a considerable amount of data (both anecdotal and empirical) on college admissions and financial aid decisions. And yes, I do know that I’m a bit of a geek! That notwithstanding, I do use this information to help inform my opinions and how I advise my students and their families.

For about a decade now, I’ve noticed a new pattern emerge with respect to high school students who are seeking admission to relatively competitive colleges and universities: those students who take calculus, and especially AP calculus, are better positioned for admissions success than those who do not. Period.

It used to be that Calculus was a baseline need for students interested in STEM pursuits. Increasingly, calculus has become a minimum requirement for all students seeking admission at highly selective universities. Academically, I’m truly torn on this issue; but nonetheless, when counseling my students in course selection, I’ve always paid very close attention (starting in middle school) to their math track and performance – so as to give them an option to take calculus in 12th grade.

Inclination aside, the reality is that not all students have the opportunity to take calculus in high school due to a variety of factors. For many it’s a matter of inadvertent choices made for them well before most students are thinking about college (as in 6th or 7th grade).

That’s right – decisions made in middle school, in particular whether the student completes Algebra 1 before entering high school, can theoretically (actually empirically – see study below) have a major impact on a student’s success in gaining admission to a most selective college. You may find this to be ridiculous, or unfair, or both. But it remains true. Taking Algebra 1 in middle school opens up the opportunity for Geometry and Algebra 2 completion by 10th grade, which offers the student the chance at pre-calculus and then calculus (possibly AP calculus) by 12th grade.

For the record, evidence-backed data now supports the trends and anecdotal conclusions I’ve reached – a recent joint study from NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) and Just Equations highlights the importance that admissions counselors place on calculus in their decisions to admit or deny applicants. As one admissions dean from a selective, private university noted in the study, “Calculus is the gold standard that people in this business use as a shortcut,” whether the student chooses a STEM major or not.

Clearly, if a student is pursuing a major in engineering, chemistry, physics or math, then calculus is an important measure of a student’s ability to succeed, and admissions officers should look at calculus when making such admissions decisions. But calculus is considered by highly selective schools in their admissions decisions even if a student is pursuing other subjects like English, humanities, or political science. For me this raises an academic dilemma. Why continue this emphasis on calculus if it will have little impact on a student’s educational or career path?

For years I’ve been torn on this issue when advising students. Taking calculus will boost one’s chances of admission, even if taking statistics is likely the more relevant course for most careers, and for life. Should I offer advice for a specific end – getting in? Or should I offer advice based on which class will be more useful over their lifetimes? The reality is, students want to get admitted – in fact, in a 2017 study cited in the report, 81% of student respondents chose to take AP Calculus not because of a love for math, but because “AP Calculus looks good on college applications”.

I’ve always hated that expression, “looks good”, because I find that it trivializes the entire high school experience as well as the college application process. I prefer that students follow a passion and do what they love (or like), rather than subscribe to set of high school activities based on a packaged formula. Still, there is a certain reality. Course selection is a real contributor to admissions success. The transcript – both grades and course selection – is the single most important factor in admissions (it’s really not even close!), and calculus remains at the center of a student’s course selection process.

But herein lies an opportunity for change. Admissions officers don’t necessarily like change – for example, many of the more selective schools resisted the test-optional momentum until COVID-19 forced them to change their practices. Today, calculus remains a pivotal high school course, unless admissions offices decide to de-emphasize its importance for non-STEM students. Besides, not all students have the opportunity to take calculus simply because it’s not offered at their schools. According to the study, 50% of high schools offer calculus, but only 38% of schools with predominantly Black or Latinx students offer calculus. Requiring a course that is not even offered by thousands of high schools prevents millions of students from having a fair shot at admissions.

When it comes to advising students, I like to start with a student’s goals. Do you want the Ivy League? Northwestern, Duke, Vanderbilt or Stanford? Year after year, these schools look at their applicant pool and the vast majority take calculus, or even AP calculus, in high school regardless of their proposed college major. That’s the reality, so if you want in then that’s part of the formula.

But those schools aren’t for everybody. The “best school” is not necessarily the highest ranked school. I believe in finding the right fit for students. Indeed, sometimes the right fit is a top ranked school. Sometimes it’s a school that you or your child never heard of before coming to my office. Either way, it’s the journey getting there, and what you do there, that is often the most exciting, the most challenging, and the most rewarding.

If you agree in starting with your child’s goals, and then creating a customized approach to best help him or her in meeting those goals, then let’s chat. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain.

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