Calculus a must for Elite Universities?

This article by Inside Higher Education shows survey data that top universities want to see Calculus on your transcripts and will weigh this heavily even if the don’t say so officially.


Note the data is based on only 137 responses…not nearly enough to draw any conclusions. There has been quite a twitter discussion going on about this study with many AOs jumping in to disagree.

Here is the study:


The page does not mention whether admission readers consider lack of calculus differently depending on the situation:

  1. High school does not offer calculus.
  2. Student cannot take calculus in high school because of middle school math placement or seat rationing for the calculus class.
  3. Student chose not to take calculus after completing precalculus in 11th grade (or earlier).

I have edited the header and the first post to lessen the clickbaity aspect.


Read more like an indictment on our current education system and a few other things. Let’s just keep lowering standards. My cynical side says it’s just another argument to open seats and admit anyone to college given the demographic cliff in 2026 for colleges.

Personally, I like that the engineers that build our bridges and design our planes are good at calculus. Considering grade inflation at colleges I’ll take any way I can to find out who and who isn’t calculus ready for college.

Let’s not forget that calculus is also a big help for people in the trades who don’t go to college.


I agree, but it seems like Liberal Arts majors or biology/chemistry majors don’t need calculus to succeed in college and their professions, so why bias the admissions process against them by insisting—as it were—on having calculus.

Calculus readiness does not require taking calculus in high school, but it does require a good knowledge of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry (i.e. completion of high school math through precalculus, at least in traditionally organized high school math curricula).

However, it has long been the case that colleges generally did not have reliable ways of determining calculus readiness before the student enters college (other than those who have already taken calculus in high school and done well on the AP exam, or done well in a college calculus course while in high school). That is why colleges commonly have advisory or mandatory math placement tests for students to take before their first math course.

Note also that merely having calculus in high school but not showing a good AP score is not itself an indicator of calculus readiness, since some such students end up placing in a precalculus course.

Biology and chemistry majors do often have to take calculus for their majors, although they may not need as much math as (for example) math majors. However, plenty of colleges do not require calculus in high school even for math (or physics or engineering etc.) majors, much less biology majors.

Calculus or AP Calculus?

I had the same thought. My HS did not offer AP classes but I took “Calculus”. It was a poor, rural school. At my first college calculus class I quickly realized how unprepared I was compared to other kids. They went to better high schools that probably offered AP classes.


Or offered better preparatory math courses (algebra 1 and 2, geometry, precalculus) so that their students were more ready for whatever calculus course they took, whether they took it in high school or college.


I doubt a calc bias in admissions except insofar as most bright kids are just naturally going to end up in calculus at some point if it’s offered and if they’re properly placed earlier in school. I’ve seen bright kids opt out of calc and do fine with admissions because they were strong in other areas.

Whether or not the most challenging HS math pathway should culminate with calculus is an endless argument. I’m fine with a holistic but challenging approach similar to what the IB does, although that isn’t a great option for the stronger math kids. I do think top students benefit from having calc exposure before entering college, especially if they’ll pursue a stem subject. Engineering in particular does not have a long runway to make up for math deficiencies.

One thing that always strikes me about these discussions is how far from the realities of HS administration they veer. Most schools have very few teachers who can teach calculus (or any other advanced math course) and a relatively small percentage of students taking it. The idea that a school could staff another rigorous pathway is fanciful, and the scheduling challenges for students would multiply (it’s the same cohort for the most part taking advanced science, math, and lit classes so schools can’t schedule them all at the same time). So rather than the calculus and options that are often talked about, it would more often be a calculus or option at most schools, with the or being discrete math or something else. Then we’d start the discussion all over again.

Most of the schools I know offering AP stats do not view it as a rigorous option, and that’s by design. I’ve had multiple teachers and administrators describe it as part of a scaffolding system. So if adcoms sense this and see other signs of avoiding rigor, they’re probably right.

It’d be interesting to replace “calculus” with “3-4 years of a foreign language” and see where that discussion goes. Probably more adcoms would consider it a requirement and more students say they’re taking those last few years for college admissions. Why isn’t that as big a problem for equity and relevance as a tiny percentage of students taking calc each year who might not end up as engineers?


Yes, AP statistics is often offered as an “off ramp” from math for students who are less interested in math after algebra 2 (in this case, the choice is often between AP statistics and precalculus, not between AP statistics and AP calculus). In college, the introductory statistics course that AP statistics emulates is often recommended as a general education course for students who do not want to take any more difficult math course to fulfill a math or quantitative reasoning requirement.

One difference is that calculus is nominally the fifth year of high school math, taken by students who start high school math (algebra 1) while in middle school. So calculus may not be accessible to some students based on their middle school math placement. In contrast, if the high school offers a foreign language to level 4, then a student starting level 1 in high school (i.e. no head start in middle school) can complete level 4 while in high school.

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S24 is shooting to be a business or Econ major at a T100 Forbes school and a Div III recruited athlete for his sport. He is not taking any APs this year as he had a mediocre first semester of freshman year but he is on track to be at 3.5UW by the end of this year. He is taking pre-calc and has an A+ in it this semester. He has tested in the 99th percentile for logical reasoning. He thinks he wants to go into finance and/or business. His school won’t allow him to do AP calc unless he finishes with an A- (for which he would need to keep the A+ for this semester). We have been told that it is already unusual for a recruited athlete to finish high school above precalc, but we are not sure that is the case for Div III selective schools or that he will successfully be recruited.

Should he take regular calculus, AP Calc AB or AP Stats junior year? We were already planning on his taking AP Micro and Macro and AP Enviro. English and Spanish are mandatory and no elective for junior year. We are concerned AP Calc might be too much for junior year so we were thinking he should take regular calc (school does not offer honors courses beyond AP or post AP electives like org chemistry or linear algebra), and then AP Stats (together with AP Spanish and perhaps AP American Gov) senior year, in view of his career plans to date.

As a prospective economics or business major, continuing to calculus is a good idea, and getting subject credit from a high enough AP score can allow for more elective space in college. Statistics is also needed, but some colleges require calculus-based statistics for economics and/or business. Note that AP calculus AB in high school covers material at a slower pace than calculus in college will.

Also, as a student two grade levels ahead in math with an A+ in precalculus, it seems unlikely that he should have anything to fear from any high school math course including any AP calculus.


You’re right to be skeptical—calc is not at all rare for recruited athletes at top schools. And I think planning as if recruiting won’t work out is always wise. In terms of what to do I’d look more to what other students in this position at your school have done and figure out what’ll work best for your son. Unless you’re targeting a school like MIT I doubt his choice from here on is going to be a deal breaker. Having said that, if he’s doing that well in pre calc then calc AB should be a cakewalk. I think the tougher decision will be to do stats as a senior or seek out calc BC or other options more challenging than stats.


There are plenty of really smart recruited athletes, and many have taken AP classes and calculus. I don’t think it is unusual for recruited athletes to have taken calc. I don’t think it is unusual for recruited athletes NOT to have taken it either.

I think it is more likely for recruited athletes at MIT, Cal Tech, Georgia Tech, Colorado school of Mines to have taken calc because many of those recruits are going into engineering.


I disagree with the premise of the original post. Elite colleges offer calculus classes. Unless the student plans to study a field in which calc is expected, I don’t think it makes a difference.

The most elite colleges are largely still focused on the Liberal Arts. College don’t just want engineering and computer science majors. They do not expect that every talented student who might be planning to major in Biology or English or History has taken calculus.

Did you read the posted article? I don’t think you can say as a blanket statement that it doesn’t make a difference. At a minimum, there is plenty of evidence and studies to suggest there was a real bias toward those students who have not taken Calculus. That does not mean that those students don’t get accepted, but if you compared students with similar profiles aside from Student A taking AP Calc and Student B taking AP Stats you would see a significant advantage to student A in acceptance rate.

The article did mention that schools such as Stanford and the UC system have recognized this unconscious bias and are adjusting their outlook. With the avalanche of data that embeds practically every type of career, having a strong background in data science and statistics becomes more critical for students entering the workforce.


However, skill and knowledge of statistics that is more advanced than the introductory level (like AP statistics) typically requires calculus based statistics. So someone going into a statistics heavy field may choose calculus over statistics in high school.

But someone not needing more advanced statistics or math may find statistics more generally useful than calculus.

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I think it’s super important if you are interested in doing business or engineering. Some undergrad business programs won’t admit you unless you have done calculus or it is “very strongly recommended.” Villanova, Penn…really need calculus if your school offers it.

The applicant pool for elite universities’ business programs are usually fairly competitive, and the vast majority of the admits have taken some form of calculus. So maybe it isn’t a “must,” but I would reason it makes one more competitive. Otherwise these schools wouldn’t explicitly state on their websites that it’s recommended you take it.