Guest Blogger! The Scoop on Math And College Admissions

I asked Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University, to break down how colleges weigh math performance in the overall admissions package.

Here's what he said:

"As an admissions officer, I love hearing about all the SECRET WAYS TO GET INTO COLLEGE. There’s never any evidence that any of them work, other than a story about somebody who got in at some point by sending in their application some way, joining some club, or forking over a fortune to some company.

"The reality, unfortunately, is really boring. Here it is (you might want to sit down for this): It’s all about grades.

"That’s really about it…except that when I say 'grades' I really mean the whole academic record. To start with, colleges are much more interested in grades in core academic courses: math, science, English, social studies, and/or foreign language. Every time I say that someone asks, 'But what about band?' I usually say, 'Yeah, maybe, if you’re seeking admission to a music conservatory.' …But mostly it’s the core academic courses. Usually the same student (or more often, parent) jumps up and says, 'But it’s HONORS band!' Yes, I get it, and no I’m not picking on band, since the question is just as often about debate, art, or a few dozen other courses that I’m sure are very rewarding and interesting. What they aren’t, however, are your core academic courses, which is what admissions offices use.

"Admissions officers don’t even always treat the core subjects equally. Math grades get the most attention, as there’s a lot of evidence that performance in math courses, especially in Algebra II, are the best predictors of performance in college. So if Michael decides to apply for another undergraduate degree, she should be all set, if Ms. Colclaser gives her a good grade.

"To get an idea of overall academic potential, still generally focusing on those core subjects, we look at trends in your grades (up is better, although best of course is to have stayed up all the way through), the quality of your courses (looking for AP, IB, honors, etc.), where you rank, the quality of your high school, etc. etc. All of that is factored, to one degree or another, by admissions officers to get an idea of what kind of student you are, and likely will be in college. That evaluation accounts for the VAST majority of your admission decision, but, of course, not all. For more such incredibly insightful observations, check out my blog at and"

To follow up, I asked Flagel, specifically, how much math admissions officers want to see. Is calculus strongly preferred or is it bad to top off at Algebra II?

Here's his response:

"Most schools say a minimum of three years of math leading to Algebra II, but most really want at least Algebra II or pre-calc. And the reality is that for competitive institutions, pre-calc is really a bare minimum, with most of those looking for calculus and even beyond. (In Fairfax, for instance, students can take a higher level math course beyond AP Calculus through a partnership between Mason and FCPS). While Algebra II has shown a lot of predictive power (of college grades), colleges definitely weigh the strength of the total course schedule, so the stronger the math courses the stronger the candidate."

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  November 14, 2008; 12:11 PM ET  | Category:  Math for Parents
Previous: Review, More Review, Some Algebra II | Next: Lego Robots and Science After School


There was a story in the Post recently about parents at Fairfax schools wanting the GPA system overhauled to be more in line with other systems (90% = A, weights for honors and AP/IB courses, etc.) The argument on one side was that they didn't want to cause grade inflation, and the argument on the other was that everybody else inflates grades, which makes our kids look bad, particularly to out of the area schools that aren't familiar with Fairfax's high standards.

So, I'm wondering, since Dean Flagel mentioned that the quality of your high school factors into the admissions decision, what information do they have to base that evaluation on? Previous experience with graduates (which seems like it would be weighted toward local schools)? Average performance on standardized tests? Is there a database of school evaluations that a bunch of colleges and universities contribute to?

And all else being equal, how does a straight-A student at a poor school stack up against a straight-A student at a great school?

Posted by: tomsing | November 14, 2008 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Well, we've about dsicussed the grade inflation thing to death on Jay Matthews' blog here at the post, and I've also gone into detail on the policy on my blog,

In a nutshell:
1) Most competitive universities review students by school, and their reviewers are trained to understand different grading scales, but
2) there are exceptions, but
3) there's not a lot of evidence that changing grading scales would dramatically change GPA's, since there's some evidence that teachers normalize their grading to the scales (in other words, give out the same number of A's and B's), but
4) it's hard to imagine it wouldn't make ANY difference, but
5) the difference just won't be THAT dramatic, but
6) A different weighting scale MIGHT be THAT dramatic, but
7) it probably still won't change admissions much (see #1), but
8) it just might (MIGHT) make a bigger difference on scholarships and admission to honors programs, but
9) knowing that it's reasonable to change doesn't make it clear WHICH change should be made, and the only risk I see in changing is that it would make the school look bad to change annually, so we any change should be made prudently and based on review the vast range of options so
10) it may take a while for FCPS to make a change, and,
11) in the meantime it's probably not making THAT big a difference (except where I said "but" above).

Now, doesn't THAT clear things up? :-)

Posted by: aflagel1 | November 14, 2008 10:21 PM | Report abuse

Don't the SATs matter? I thought that schools at least assessed the quality of the GPA based on the GRE scores of the students. But also, what about assessment of the individual. For instance, what's the typical weighting for OK grades (say a B average) and a high score (1550 or above, verbal + math) on the SAT? How does it affect the assessent if we change the B to a C average or a D average?

Posted by: mathlete | November 16, 2008 12:35 PM | Report abuse

In terms of the relative importance of high school math grades to college performance, doesn't it matter what the student's proposed major is? I know plenty of people who were very successful in college who only got so-so grades in their high school math courses. Not everyone aspires to be an engineer, accountant, or other math-oriented profession...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 16, 2008 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Clear as mud!

I agree, I doubt that changing from a 94 = A scale to a 90 = A scale would change things much, given the practice of grading on a curve. GPA weights might, though. I'll have to browse your blog at some point, Dean.

Regardless, I think the people who are up in arms about this put way too much emphasis on getting into "top tier" colleges. A motivated, straight-A student is going to do fine going just about anywhere. Unless you've got your heart set on clerking for a Supreme Court judge, it's not that important to get into Harvard. And your odds of playing pro ball are better than clerking there.

Posted by: tomsing | November 17, 2008 8:55 AM | Report abuse

Do All Students Need Challenging Math in High School?

Not everyone aspires to be an engineer, accountant or in other math related professions, but is math important only in those professions?

Here is some information from Achieve, Inc.

How much math is really needed? What if students are not planning to go to college? Do all students really need Algebra II?

The research is clear. View the PowerPoint presentations and fact sheets on the site. Whether students are going on to a two- or four-year college or directly into the workplace, taking challenging mathematics in high school is the gatekeeper that either opens or shuts the door to opportunity.

Achieve, Inc. was created in 1996 by the nation's governors and corporate leaders, Achieve is an independent, bipartisan, non-profit education reform organization based in Washington, D.C. that helps states raise academic standards and graduation requirements, improve assessments and strengthen accountability. In 2006, Achieve was named by Education Week as one of the most influential education groups in the nation.

Posted by: MathEducator1 | November 17, 2008 12:14 PM | Report abuse

But isn't that confusing correlation with causation? Most bright students will have taken math beyond Algebra II in high school and most bright students will go on to graduate from college. But that doesn't mean that the former caused the latter. Or that students who have lackluster high school grades in math can't be very successful in college in a non-technical major.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 20, 2008 6:38 PM | Report abuse

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