Calculus at Community College or AP Calc at High School?

Question: My son is a high school sophomore and had been planning to take AP Calculus at his high school in the fall. However, he learned from a college advisor/family friend that taking the course at a community college might be more challenging and interesting for him. He is excited about doing this and we will enroll him in the local community college for the fall. Will taking Calculus at a community college do more for him in terms of college admissions than taking AP Calc in high school? AP Calc and AP Stats are the top math classes at our high school. He is interested in applying to a number of highly selective colleges and thinks he wants to be an engineer.

Admission officials do indeed like to see that students have challenged themselves, and this often includes taking college-level classes while still in high school. BUT … (and I bet you could tell that a “but” was coming 🙂 ), not all college classes are created equal. At some community colleges, the calculus class may not be as demanding as a high school AP course. Admission officials may, in fact, wonder why your son took this particular class outside of his high school. Was he fearful of the high school AP class? Was he not admitted to the high school AP class? So your plan to impress the admission folks may backfire unless it’s made clear to them that the college course was selected for its rigor.

Granted, plenty of high school students do take calculus at nearby two-year schools and even sometimes at four-year colleges, but usually it’s because they couldn’t fit the high school AP class into their schedule or there was some other reason why they were not able to take it at school. (And some high schools don’t offer calculus at all.)

Although your college advisor/family friend is correct when he (she?) says that your son may find more interesting and/or challenging classes at the local college, calculus may not be one of them. If he does want to try a college class, and if calculus fits readily into his high school schedule, I would suggest that he choose a different class at the college instead … e.g., something that interests him and that isn’t offered at his high school but would still qualify as a “liberal arts” field (e.g, “Introduction to Symbolic Logic,” “Archaeology and Prehistory,” “Cultural Anthropology,” or “Inorganic Chemistry, not “Advanced Document Processing,” “Ophthalmic Assisting,” or “Firefighter Fitness Training.”)

So, bottom line: If your son is excited about doing this class at a community college, I wouldn’t necessarily pull the plug on it. But I would urge you to first find out if the college class is as rigorous as the high school class and if it follows a similar curriculum. If your son is applying to highly selective colleges and, especially, to the top engineering schools, he will be “competing” with applicants who have taken the AP exams in Calculus AB and BC and who have earned 5’s on those tests. Thus, whether he studies calculus at his high school or at the college, he would be wise to take the AP exam. (You don’t have to be in an official AP course to take the test.)

If it looks like the college course won’t prepare your as well for the AP exam as the high school course will, then I recommend that he take AP Calc at his high school and try something else that interests him at the college.

Good luck with this, whatever you decide.