Why Calculus Matters For Admissions — And Why It Maybe Shouldn’t

Why Calculus Matters for Admissions, and Why It

Maybe Shouldn’t

Having a calculus course on your high school transcript is often believed to give college applicants a competitive edge in the admissions process. But experts are now questioning the relevancy of the mathematics course in today’s society and whether or not calculus holds unfair and even dangerous weight in college admissions.

A new report recently explored college admissions’ preference for calculus and the effects it has on how high school applicants are preparing for higher education.

“For decades, the course has been the highest math course offered at many high schools, reinforcing perceptions that calculus is a must-have for those seeking admission to competitive colleges and universities,” the report by Just Equations and the National Association for College Admission Counseling reads. “Not all high schools even offer calculus, and access to the course is stratified by race and income. Few colleges and universities stipulate calculus as a universal requirement for admission and it is not included among any state’s high school math standards. Still, conventional wisdom says that applicants with calculus on their transcripts have an advantage.”


It’s important to note that calculus isn’t actually required by admissions at many colleges and universities. Yet the favoritism of calculus completion by college admissions is real. At Wesleyan University, 79% of the incoming fall 2021 class had completed math through calculus.

“In conversations with admissions officers, private colleges and universities were more likely to recommend calculus for all applicants than their public counterparts,” the report finds.

Research has shown that high school calculus completion is less an indicator high college preparation level and more a signal of family income. According to the Just Equations report, 37% of applicants in the highest quintile of socioeconomic level took calculus, while only 9% of those in the lowest quintile took it.


Calculus is still seen as relevant to a number of undergraduate studies. But experts worry that the favoritism of it by college admissions may be closing doors to other applicable math courses, such as data science.

“Data science itself, a discipline that employs statistical methods and programming to answer questions using real-world data, is not just a new course but a flourishing new college discipline and profession,” the report reads. “Its relevance to modern work and life has students voting with their feet.”

Technologies and careers are constantly being innovating and evolving. And while academic departments and undergraduate curricula adapt to these new realities, college admission offices have been slow to keep to up.

“The awareness by many departments in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities of the value of new types of quantitative analysis skills has not yet permeated many admissions offices, particularly at many elite private institutions whose practices have outsize influence over the field,” the report reads. “As long as colleges and high schools still view calculus as a singular sign of academic status, students and families seeking entry to the most competitive campuses will continue to view the course as a down payment on their ticket to get in.”


While calculus is still widely favored in college admissions, experts say the future may look different if admission policies focus more on other, more relevant advanced math courses, such as data science or statistics.

The University of California is one institution that is spearheading that change. In 2020, the UC system revised its admission policy to include data science among courses that would be accepted towards its admissions criteria for math. Still, a majority of colleges tend to have a preference for calculus. Substantial change, experts say, will only come when higher education institutions want it.

“Prestigious universities (public or private) have outsize influence over perceptions of rigor and quality, so changes they make can help shift admissions perceptions and practices far beyond their own applicant pool,” the report reads. “New admissions practices will depend on admissions professionals becoming more familiar with emerging courses and pathways, as has begun to happen in a few states. Exactly how that occurs and who leads the process will depend on specific contexts.”

Sources: Just Equations, Inside Higher Ed, EdSource

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