Want to Get Into Harvard? Ace Calculus.

Calculus, the gold standard of high school math courses, opens the door to prestigious colleges. Not all students get the chance to take it.

Updated March 1, 2022

Edited by Brenna Swanston
Want to Get Into Harvard? Ace Calculus.
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Photo by EDUARD MUZHEVSKYI / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

  • Elite colleges often filter applications by a single high school course: calculus.
  • Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT have lost importance, making calculus even more important for some admission officers.
  • Acing calculus gives your college app a competitive edge, but colleges' reliance on calc is problematic.

Calculus is often the highest-level course offered in high schools. Passing this class — or better yet, acing it — can set your transcript apart from other college applicants', signaling your academic chops to top schools.

Calculus, and particularly AP calculus, is considered a must-have for students aiming for competitive STEM colleges or majors. Strong performance in high school calculus demonstrates readiness for college mathematics. This can make any college application more competitive, no matter the learner's intended course of study.

Prestigious liberal arts institutions build their first-year classes out of applicants who took calculus in high school. For example, of students admitted to Wesleyan University in fall 2021, 86% had taken calculus. By contrast, just over 20% of U.S. high schoolers take calculus.

Different colleges and universities set different expectations for high school preparation in math. However, the most selective schools tend to reward students who completed calculus in high school.

Critics say this bias is problematic since high school calculus is more popular among wealthier students. Overall, some 20% of high school students take calculus. Broken down by socioeconomic status, however, 38% of learners in the top quartile take high school calculus, compared to 7% of those in the bottom quartile.

A recent report from Just Equations and the National Association for College Admission Counseling argues that emphasizing calculus in admissions limits college access. Calculus is less frequently available to Black, Latino/a, and rural students. These students are also more likely to lack the resources that enable wealthier students to succeed in calculus.

High School Calculus Matters Most for STEM Majors

The Just Equations report criticizes calculus as a generic benchmark for college preparedness.

According to Just Equations, “calculus is rarely required for university admission outside of specific majors, such as engineering, physical science, and math."

Students who plan to work in STEM may benefit from high school calculus, however. In majors like computer science, economics, engineering, math, and chemistry, the coursework is highly sequential. Incoming students who have already tackled calculus may have more classes open to them and more flexibility in their class schedule.

For some schools, high school calculus is required for admission. At STEM-focused schools like Caltech, for example, applicants who did not take calculus could be at a real disadvantage. The school seeks out students who show "proficient readiness to study math topics beyond calculus."

If you are STEM-bound but may not take calculus in high school, don't despair. Most STEM majors take calculus their first year of college, though over 75% of students enrolled in an introductory college calculus course took the subject in high school as well.

The pressure to succeed in calculus is even greater in college than in high school. Paul Tough, author of "The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us", called first-year college calculus "an important gatekeeper for college success… If you don’t do well in freshman calculus it’s very hard to go on to earn a STEM degree."

The Movement Away From Gatekeeping Leads to Another Gate

According to Just Equations, the "race to calculus" starts in middle school. Middle school math placement often determines which students will make it to calculus by 12th grade.

Otherwise, students who progress through high school math at a standard rate may never get a chance to take calculus. Most learners who want to take high school calculus must forge an accelerated pathway starting in seventh or eighth grade.

Calculus is not part of any state's high school math standards. Few colleges explicitly require calculus for admission. Even so, for busy admissions officers trying to narrow down a stack of applications, calculus is an easy benchmark to look for.

"Institutions are looking for a simple gatekeeper," the Just Equations report said. "We are looking for ways to determine excellent and extraordinary students.”

But critics say that unofficial math benchmarks carry the same problems as standardized tests: They serve as a marker of family income more than anything else. The SAT and ACT, standardized tests long relied upon to prove academic merit to colleges, have swiftly dropped from many schools' admission requirements amid criticism that the tests disadvantage low-income, Black, and Latino/a students.

Ironically, as standardized test scores lose importance, high school math accomplishments may become even more vital. Now that students no longer have to pay for and take the SAT or ACT, applications to Ivy League schools have spiked. Prestigious institutions like those in the Ivy League are particularly likely to admit applicants who have taken calculus.

Calculus as an Unspoken Standard Hurts Students

In the last two decades, the percentage of students taking calculus in high school has quickly increased. But this growth has been uneven, due to differences in school offerings and student enrollment rates.

According to the Just Equations report, about half of all high schools offer calculus, though just 38% of high schools with predominantly Black or Lation/a enrollment offer the course. Students in rural areas are also less likely to have access to calculus.

According to 2015-16 data from the Department of Education, the widest racial gaps in high school STEM course enrollment occur in calculus. Well over half (58%) of students enrolled in high school calculus were white, while just 8% were Black.

No matter where a student attends high school, they can demonstrate their merit to college admissions boards by taking the most challenging courses available. However, this may mean looking beyond the high school curriculum. Community college courses, for example, allow learners to challenge themselves academically while receiving dual credit and boosting their transcripts.