Want to Major in Math at an Elite University? Getting A’s in High School Math is Not Good Enough

by Justin Skycak on

If all the knowledge you show up with is high school math and AP Calculus, then you're going to get your ass handed to you.

Prospective math majors often graduate high school with A’s in their math classes, leading up to AP Calculus BC senior year, thinking that they are prepared for their university’s math program.

That may be true for typical universities. But if you’re going to an elite university that is known worldwide for its math program or general STEM prowess (MIT, Caltech, Princeton, UChicago, etc), and all the knowledge you show up with is high school math and AP Calculus, then you’re going to get your ass handed to you.

The problem is that high school math – even the “honors” track – doesn’t accurately depict the level of background knowledge that successful math majors at these universities typically obtain before being admitted.

We’re talking about the kids who graduate high school having already taken Linear Algebra, Multivariable Calculus, and Introduction to Proofs, and have probably already seen inklings of Real Analysis (e.g., epsilon-delta limit proofs) and Abstract Algebra (e.g., arithmetic within the additive group of integers).

This is such a tiny slice of the population that you’re not going to see them in high school. But they exist, and they’re going to show up in the math-major math classes at these universities.

When the professor is writing furiously at the chalkboard assuming that their students are absorbing the information in real time, these students actually are. Or, at least, they give the appearance of it, because so much of the content (or, at least, the way of thinking about it) is familiar to them.

Regardless, they’re able to keep up, and if you’re not able to do the same (which you probably aren’t if you haven’t been exposed to as much math as they have), then the class is not going to slow down just for you. Not to mention, you’re going to feel dumb, which is going to severely impact your motivation even if you manage to find help outside of class.