The Best High School Math Classes to Take
Einstein said, “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” Whether you’re a student who loves math or loathes it, it’s essential to recognize that mathematics is about more than rote memorization of formulas—it’s a way of looking at and patterning the world. All U.S. high schools require students to take at least two years of mathematics. In this article, we’ll cover any questions you might have about high school math classes, from which courses to take to how to properly prepare for tests. We’ll talk about what math courses colleges look for on a high school transcript. Finally, we’ll go in-depth on the various courses your school might offer, and what they entail.
States organize their high school mathematics curricula according to three ways. These ways are by course, by grade, or by grade band (i.e., grades 9-12). Course-based learning is subject-specific. States that adopt this model require that students complete certain courses, such as algebra and geometry, in order to earn their high school diploma. The grade and grade-based approaches, on the other hand, organize their expectations by grade.
The state of California requires students to complete only two years of mathematics coursework to receive a high school diploma, though the University of California system requires at least three. (For more information on the high school course recommendations for specific colleges, consult our helpful chart.) The states of Florida and Texas both require residents to complete four years of mathematics. The rules for your specific state requirements may be found on your state’s Education Department website.
The Structure of High School Math Classes
Most colleges typically require at least three years of high school mathematics, though many require four. No matter your school curriculum, math courses are always taught sequentially. This means that the knowledge taught in each course builds on that gained in the previous one. Here is a common high school math sequence:
1) Algebra I
Algebra is your jumping-off point from the concrete to the abstract. In this course, you will use reasoning skills to solve equations using letters and symbols to represent numbers.
There’s much more to geometry than simple shapes! In this high school math course, students learn about the relationships between angles, points, lines, and planes in space. Furthermore, this course may introduce students to deductive proofs and other problem-solving techniques.
3) Algebra II
Building on the knowledge gained in Algebra I, Algebra II helps students to develop their understanding of linear equations. Algebra II includes a study of logarithms, functions, and matrices.
In this course, algebra and geometry come together. Trigonometry is an integrated study of triangles and their properties. This subject is often taught in Algebra II, Geometry, or Precalculus.
This course builds on the functions studied in Algebra II and/or Trigonometry. Appropriately, precalculus prepares students for calculus. Some mathematical advanced-level concepts covered in this course include parametric equations, exponential and logarithmic functions, sequences and series, and vectors.
If you’ve seen Mean Girls, odds are you’ve heard the phrase, “The limit does not exist.” Limits play a pivotal role in calculus, which is the study of rates of change and accumulation. In this course, students learn to apply the techniques of differentiation and integration to solve various rate-related problems.
Statistics (or “Stats,” as you may hear it called) introduces students to techniques involved in gathering and interpreting data. In Statistics, students explore themes like data collection and analytics, probability, and inferential statistics, with an eye toward real-world application.
High School Math Classes – To AP or Not to AP?
Many high schools provide opportunities for advanced learning in mathematics, including AP, IB, and honors courses. You may be wondering which of these high school math courses is right for you. Typically, you want to take courses that challenge you but do not overwhelm you. If you’re a student who flourishes in the literary arts, don’t worry about overloading your schedule with APs in mathematics and physics. Colleges are not looking to see that you’re a jack-of-all-trades; instead, they want to see your strengths and passions. Now, if you’re a student looking to go into STEM, you’ll want to push yourself to enroll in advanced math courses. This choice will demonstrate to admissions officers your inclination toward analytics and your preparedness for college-level coursework.
Be mindful to consider your overall course load and after-school activities. You want to ensure that you have the time necessary to study each subject and give it the attention it deserves. If you’re still unsure what to take, we recommend speaking to your current math teacher or guidance counselor. They should have a good sense of your academic ability and the options available.
High School Math Classes and College Admission
One of the key components of your college application is your transcript. This includes both your grades and the rigorousness of the courses in which those grades were earned. Colleges want to see that you’ve pushed yourself and are ready to undertake university-level work. Your high school math classes may be especially important if you’re looking at majors that involve math, such as finance, engineering, or computer science. However, your transcript is just one metric that colleges use when evaluating your application. For more information on colleges’ holistic approach to admissions and how admissions officers evaluate your academic profile, check out this article.
What if Math Isn’t My Jam?
A joke: Why did the math book look so sad? Because it had too many problems!
If math isn’t your strongest subject, you’re not alone! Plenty struggle with grasping mathematical concepts for one reason or another. Here are some tips to help you embrace your logical side and ace that next exam.
First, see if you can discover ways to interest yourself in math. Interest often leads to motivation, which fuels better work and higher grades. Try to find real-world applications for the math you’re learning in school. If you enjoy writing music, try putting equations into song lyrics to help you memorize them. Soon enough, you’ll be putting the “fun” in functions! (We’ll be here all week, folks.)
Next, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Your teacher is a great resource, as are tutors both online and in person. The more practice you can do, the better. As you’ve probably seen by now, mathematics is a subject that builds on itself. It’s necessary to have a firm grasp of the foundational concepts before moving on to more complex ones. Review notes, create study guides, and seek out additional practice problems.
Finally, consider how you approach math. Are you someone who believes you’re inherently bad at it? If so, what if you switched your mindset? Rather than viewing mathematical skill as an innate ability some possess and others don’t, see if you can view it as a practice that can be honed through hard work and effort. Mistakes are merely learning opportunities. Prioritize growth over grades, and embrace the beginner’s mindset.
How to Study for a Math Test
While you know your study habits best, we recommend studying a little bit every day. This will keep you up-to-date on the concepts, and prevent you from getting overwhelmed before that next exam. Here are some basic tips to help you prepare for exams in your high school math class.
First, review your notes. If there’s any concept you don’t understand, seek out help before the day of the test. This isn’t the time to learn everything fresh! Next, review the practice problems in your textbook or handout. See if you can solve them without glancing at the answer. If you’ve already solved them once in the past, get out a fresh sheet of paper and see if you can solve them again. Third, use your resources wisely. In this day and age, there’s no limit to how many YouTube videos you can watch to help you gain a better understanding of each mathematical concept.
The day before the exam, get a good night’s rest so that you wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go! And of course, double-check that you have your calculator and number 2 pencils at the ready.
High School Math Extracurriculars
Whether you love math or hate it, you might consider joining a math-related extracurricular to help you improve your skills. Such programs can be a great way to further your interests and connect to like-minded individuals. Additionally, math-related extracurriculars serve as a nice addition to your college application. Win-win!
We’ve compiled a list of top academic summer programs for you. Many of these are low or no-cost options that will challenge you and enrich your learning experience. You can also see if your school has a math club or math Olympiad team, and if it doesn’t, consider starting one yourself. Lastly, keep your eye out for local math competitions. Often, these competitions come with an award prize in the form of scholarship money.
Conclusion – Best Math Classes in High School
Mathematics is a language spoken around the world. No matter what subject you choose to major in, the critical-thinking skills you learn in your high school math class will be invaluable in your future academic pursuits.
When selecting which high school math classes to take, try to challenge yourself, but keep within your ability level. Look at your course schedule to determine how much time you’ll have to dedicate to each subject. Ask your teachers and your guidance counselor for assistance. And if you need a little extra support, don’t be afraid to reach out. There are myriad resources, both online and in person, that can assist you. Embrace mistakes and cultivate a growth mindset. And finally, remember to stay positive! Negativity can multiply quickly. J
With a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia University and an MFA in Fiction from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, Lauren has been a professional writer for over a decade. She is the author of the chapbook A Great Dark House (Poetry Society of America, 2023) and the forthcoming novel The World After Alice (Viking/Penguin).
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