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Preparing for College Math: Advice from a Professor

Updated on April 29, 2013

Every semester my heart breaks over so many students coming into college from high school and being required to study math that should have been already learned. It is unfortunate that most incoming students have to start learning math that should have been learned in high school or, in some cases, junior high. This article is devoted to explaining the process for going through college math and some tips to prepare for it.

The College Math Process

In many schools, the first step that a new student must take before even registering for classes is to take a placement exam. This placement exam will measure how much you know about math, English, and reading comprehension. Some schools may not require a placement exam but just place a student based on high school transcripts. But the number of schools doing this is becoming smaller and smaller. The major reason is that high school math education is not even comparable between high schools, sometimes even in the same area. One school's Algebra I class might be very rigorous while another school might have very lax standards. Thus, most colleges have adopted a placement test to place students in math classes.

The next step is to register the student into the math class where he or she placed. Depending on the score, the student might start in college level math. But more than likely, the student will have to start with developmental classes like Algebra I or II. There are some major problems with this that most students do not realize until too late. First, these developmental classes do not count for college credit so, with regard to a degree, nothing is being accomplished. Second, a student still has to pay for the classes that are meaningless for the degree. Third, if the developmental classes are low enough, the student may not be able to take some other classes outside math (for example computer science) because those classes require basic math. Fourth, by having to complete these developmental classes, the student will spend possibly a year or more just trying to learn high school material. This also assumes the student passes the classes on the first attempt. Many times students have to take a college class like Algebra I multiple times before passing.

Tips from the Professor

Here are some tips for prospective college students still in high school.

  1. Please do not say, "I will never need this." If you are going to college, you will need what you are learning in high school. You may not think math is important. But the people who set the education requirements do.
  2. Learn what you can in high school. This does not mean you have to take every math class and understand calculus before graduating from high school. But it does mean that if you learn it now, you can seriously cut down the time and amount of money needed in college. There are many students that are not good at math and still will need developmental classes. However, some work now in high school will reap rewards later in college.
  3. If you do not do well on the placement exam, try again. Sometimes colleges will allow a student to take a placement exam multiple times before the school semester begins. If this happens, study your weak areas prior to taking the placement exam. The deficiency that shows up on the original exam may not be that serious and can be overcome with a little work.
  4. Before taking the exam the first time, look at several math books and refresh your knowledge. Sometimes that is all it takes to avoid spending an extra year in math.
  5. Be realistic. Do not try to beat the system or fool the test. The placement tests are pretty accurate. Even if you manage to beat the system, you will be placed into a class you may not be able to handle. Failing a college level math class two or three times is not better than starting where you need to and learning the material.


The high school student should not shortcut math education. The student should learn everything possible in math subject to the fullest abilities of the student. Doing this will save a tremendous amount of time and money. The goal of college is to get the degree, not spend years in college.


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