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Preparing for a College Major in STEM


As a math and physics dual major, I found my university level math and physics classes both challenging and rewarding. The challenge forced me to become a better version of myself and to continually strive to achieve a better understanding of the universe and the logical structures we use to describe it.

At many schools, the math and physics majors have a reputation for being some of the most difficult. As people gravitate towards STEM majors, the competition to get into and do well in these classes is intensifying. Many of these courses are graded on a curve, and this means competing against your fellow students. Moreover, the early classes set the foundation for understanding those that follow. As a prospective STEM major, it is worth evaluating how prepared you are to take these classes and the possibility of preparing additionally ahead of these tough classes.

Having a strong math background is critical for all prospective STEM majors. Mathematics is the language of science, and without a firm grip on the underlying mathematics, many classroom explanations can fall flat. Strong algebra skills are a must for all STEM disciplines, and strong pre-calculus and calculus skills are especially important for physics.  Simple algebraic mistakes are often punished just as severely as fundamental misunderstandings in university freshman level calculus and physics series. AJ Tutoring excels at helping students bolster key study skills including a refined approach to mathematics that can help minimize mistakes and maximize understanding.

The SAT Math II Subject Test provides a good assessment of how strong a student’s precalculus skills are.  If you are in the high 700’s, you can be relatively sure that you have a solid grounding in algebra and precalculus.  There are a couple topics that could warrant some extra review if you don’t feel super confident about them: specifically, vectors, polar and parametric functions.

The AP exams in Calculus and Physics are quite a bit more complicated. First, they may or may not be acceptable for credit at the school of your choice. Second, regardless of whether they are accepted for credit, they may or may not be a good substitute for the class itself. The AP curriculum for both calculus and physics tends to omit and deemphasize certain topics that will become important in following classes, and the AP tests themselves are often curved so that a 5 may represent an inadequate understanding (especially with cutoffs for that score typically in the 60% range.) Regardless of whether you are offered credit for these foundational classes, it may be best to retake the class at the university level. Many university professors have old finals available online. These can be a great tool in assessing whether or not it would be worthwhile to retake a specific class.

Freshman level calculus and physics classes tend to be considered ‘weeder’ classes for the engineering discipline (even if you aren’t on that track), and are often populated with very high level students. Even so, in my experience, I have seen failure and drop rates as high as 50%.  When confronted with these rather dire statistics, my professor’s comment was, “I need to make sure that if any of you actually wind up becoming engineers that you know your stuff. If my kids are driving over a bridge you designed and it collapses, it will be my fault.” My professors had a minimum level of competence they would accept, and they did not hesitate to fail anyone they did not perceive to be up to their standards.

Some advice: Attempt a final for any class you are thinking of skipping. Spend some time digging into any missing concepts. There are online lecture series, videos and books which are great resources. An experienced tutor can also provide guidance, structure and motivation.

One last piece of advice: A good general rule for any STEM major (outside of the biological sciences) is to always take at least one math class. If you are always taking a relevant math class, it should be relatively easy to stay on top. Also, don’t take classes you lack the math background for.  For instance, typical second semester physics curriculum (electromagnetism) relies heavily on vector calculus. At the very least be concurrently enrolled; though this doesn’t ensure you will have the math during the course, you should at least have it ahead of your final. Many universities also have mathematical methods for physical sciences classes which are a great way to start your upper division studies.

AJ tutoring is happy to provide additional advice for our graduating students, and to help ensure our students are well prepared to succeed as they transition to university. 

If you’d like to learn more about our approach, please contact us today!

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