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Guide to High School Math Classes: Which Do You Need to Take?

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For some high school students, math is the bane of their existence. Others love numbers, logic, and how they can apply mathematical concepts to the real world. 


But no matter which category you fall into, you’ll have to deal with math classes in high school. That said, not everyone has to take all the math classes available or reach the same levels.


Which math classes are common in high school curricula? And which ones do you actually need to take? Keep reading to find out.


Order of Math Classes in High School


Algebra I


Some students take Algebra I in middle school, although it’s more commonly taken in ninth grade. Either way, this is the first math class you’ll complete in the sequence. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “math person,” you may find that you do well in this class because algebra is, in some ways, a language. You’ll learn about equations, polynomials, functions, and more, dealing with both linear problems and graphs. 


This is almost always the first in the sequence of math courses you’ll take.




Geometry usually follows Algebra I, although that’s not always the case. At its core, this topic is about shapes and how they relate to the world. Students grapple with proofs, logic and reason, formulae, and real-world geometric applications.


This course follows Algebra I because you’ll need a basis in equations and concepts you’ll learn in this earlier course in order to understand Geometry.


Algebra II/Trigonometry


Algebra II continues the material you learned in Algebra I. The concepts become more advanced and challenging as you learn how to write and solve more complex equations. You’ll also work with concepts like inequalities, graphs, quadratics, probability, polynomials, and much more.


Trigonometry often accompanies Algebra II, sometimes within the same class (it can also be taught alongside other courses, such as Precalculus). This discipline deals with angles, specifically those found in triangles.




As indicated by its name, Precalculus is meant to introduce you to Calculus. You’ll cover concepts like series and sequences, limits, probability, derivatives, vectors, functions, and more. This course integrates material you’ve learned in your previous math courses — Algebra I and II, Geometry, and Trigonometry. Ultimately, it serves as preparation for more advanced math courses, particularly Calculus.


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In a nutshell, Calculus is about measuring quantities and values that are difficult to measure. It’s a highly complex branch of math, one that you may not need to take in some cases — if you started with Algebra I in grade 9, for example, you won’t reach this course by senior year, unless you get ahead in your curriculum. 


In this course, you’ll continue the knowledge you’ve gained in Precalculus, studying curves, differentiation, limits, and functions. This course synthesizes material from all the previous math courses you’ve taken. Some schools offer both AP Calculus AB and BC, the latter of which is one of the most challenging courses you can complete in high school.


There is some variation in both content and order. The Common Core mixes the earlier topics, such that students complete Math 1-3 first, Precalculus second, and Calculus third. 


If you’re in an accelerated math program in middle school or have an otherwise advanced curriculum, you will usually complete Algebra I in eighth grade (or possibly even earlier) and reach Calculus by senior year. Some students also end up skipping certain courses, such as Precalculus, and heading straight into Calculus.


The order can vary a bit, too. For example, at some schools, you may complete Algebra II right after Algebra I and before Geometry. Trigonometry, meanwhile, might be separated into a full-credit or partial-credit course.


How Many Math Classes Are Required? 


The number and type of math classes required varies from high school to high school and college to college. 


For example, New York State requires six math credits (six semesters), which must include at least two credits beyond Algebra I, for graduation. Meanwhile, California mandates two years of math, including Algebra I. In Florida, students must complete four math credits (translating to four year-long courses), including Algebra I and Geometry. Certifications that lead to college credit or computer science may substitute for up to two credits, other than Algebra I and Geometry.


Many colleges require a specific number of math courses for admission, while others recommend them. At Cornell, for example, four years of math are required for all schools other than Arts & Sciences and Architecture, Art, and Planning (although the Architecture program requires four as well), which require three years.


The University of Virginia (UVA), on the other hand, stipulates three years of math, including Algebra I and II and one course to be chosen from Geometry, Advanced Algebra & Trigonometry, Calculus, or a related course.


Colgate University, meanwhile, doesn’t have any math requirements for admission. However, according to the liberal arts school, most accepted students have completed four years of math. 


What is the Hardest Math Class in High School?


In most cases, you’ll find that AP Calculus BC or IB Math HL is the most difficult math course your school offers. Note that AP Calculus BC covers the material in AP Calculus AB but also continues the curriculum, addressing more challenging and advanced concepts. 


You may also be able to take college courses through dual enrollment programs if your state and school offer one. If this is possible, you’ll likely find even more challenging courses, which you may be eligible to take if you’ve exhausted your high school’s math curriculum. You will need to complete prerequisites for these courses, as well as the AP and IB courses discussed above.


How Does Your Course Rigor Impact Your College Chances?


The short answer is yes, your course rigor absolutely impacts your college chances. Admissions officers want to see students taking the most challenging course load available to them because it means they are both willing and prepared to meet the demands of a rigorous college curriculum.


That said, you don’t necessarily need to take the hardest math classes at your school if they’re not relevant to your intended major, for instance, English. Still, you should have a challenging course load, full of other AP, IB, and/or honors classes in your stronger subject areas that align with your program of interest. You should also make sure you’ve met the requirements or recommendations for admission to given colleges.


Keep in mind that many selective schools use the Academic Index to weed out applicants who don’t meet their academic minimum requirements. This figure takes into account your GPA and standardized tests scores. While it doesn’t factor in the rigor of your courses or specific courses themselves, if you do take advanced courses, you’ll usually receive “extra credit” in terms of points on your GPA. This will improve your AI.


Curious how your course load, GPA, and other factors influence your chances of admission to top schools? Use CollegeVine’s chancing engine to find out. This free tool will estimate your real odds of getting into top schools across the country using your information, plus give you tips on how to improve your profile.



Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.