Deciding what courses to take, especially in your junior and senior years of high school when a greater variety of classes and advanced levels are available to you, can be confusing. This may be especially true of math, since there are a number of directions in which you can take your studies: calculus, statistics, and more. Read on for advice on choosing the math courses that are right for you.

What Math Courses Are Available?

Most colleges will expect you to complete at minimum algebra, algebra II, and geometry. Some may also require trigonometry or pre-calculus. As covered in our posts on taking the ACT and SAT, you will need to have some knowledge of these subjects for the math sections on the standardized tests, so you should try to fulfill your basic math requirements by your junior year of high school to ensure that you are properly prepared.

After you have fulfilled your requirements, you may have a more extensive selection of math courses to take. Most high schools offer calculus, including AP courses at the AB or BC level. AP Calculus BC incorporates a condensed version the AB curriculum and covers more advanced material, so you don’t necessarily need to have completed AB to take BC, although some high schools may require that you do so anyway. Some schools also offer statistics, which has one AP option. There are also non-advanced math courses available, such as precalculus or regular-level calculus.

Calculus versus Statistics

If math is your strength, and you are planning on majoring in a math-related subjected or going into field that requires math, you will probably want to take both subjects, because colleges will want to see specialization in your high school curriculum. (For more advice on choosing the best advanced courses to fit your academic profile, check out CollegeVine’s post, “Can You Be an Engineer without Taking AP Physics: How the Classers You Take Affect Your Chances at Admission.”) However, if math is not your favorite or best subject, choosing one math course to take may be a better bet.

Keep in mind that not all high schools offer both statistics and calculus courses, or if they do, they may not both be available at the AP level. If you are looking to take more AP courses, you may decide to go with whichever one is available at that level. However, some high schools may require that you have been on an advanced track (i.e. you have taken algebra, geometry, and algebra II at the honors level) in order to take an AP math course, so make sure you look into and fulfill all the necessary requirements before you enroll. Also, it is important to remember that not all AP courses are considered equal. While both statistics and calculus are demanding courses, AP Calculus is generally considered the more challenging of the two options, and AP Calculus BC is especially rigorous.

Math Beyond High School and College: The Real World and Careers

Beyond impressing college admissions committees, it is a good idea to think about how the math options will benefit you in your high school and college careers as well as in the real world. How you will perform in these courses—as well as how they will challenge and stimulate you—depends on your skills and interests. In general, statistics has more real-world applications than calculus, since it is a part of everyday life. Calculus is more abstract, and incorporates more spatial and visual concepts from geometry; therefore, students who did not do well in or did not particularly like geometry may not like calculus either. On the other hand, statistics is very formula-based, so if memorizing or working with formulas is not your strong suit, it may not be the best option for you.

Some careers require a working knowledge of statistics, including medicine, psychology, government service, public policy, and many others. Any type of research-based career probably requires at least a basic knowledge of statistics. Other jobs require an understanding of calculus, such as all types of engineering, medicine, and many other science-related fields, as well as economics.

Some careers may require knowledge of both, and many major programs in these fields will require you to achieve more advanced proficiency than high school AP courses can offer, which means you should plan on taking higher levels of the subjects in college. Therefore, laying a solid groundwork now will help you later on. Additionally, if you achieve a qualifying score on your AP exam (usually a 4 or 5 depending on the college; often, colleges will accept a 3 on AP Calculus BC), you may receive college credit and begin at a higher level your freshman year, which will enable you to fulfill your requirements more quickly (and even save you money on tuition in some cases, as explored in CollegeVine’s article, “Can AP Tests Actually Save You Thousands of Dollars?”).

The Takeaway

In general, once you have met the requirements of your high school and the colleges to which you are planning on applying, you should take whichever math course(s) best complements your academic profile and personal and professional interests. You may not necessarily need to take an AP math course if you are replacing it with challenging courses in subjects more in line with your talents and career goals.

For more advice on choosing the high school courses that best fit your needs, check out CollegeVine’s posts below.

Can You Be an Engineer without Taking AP Physics: How the Classes You Take Affect Your Chances at Admission

Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?

How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take?

Can AP Tests Actually Save You Thousands of Dollars?

How Do I Decide to Drop a Course?

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine