10 Tips for Whipping the Math Requirement

You have to do it to graduate; here's how to make it easier on yourself.

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For many college students, the math requirement is the single biggest obstacle standing between them and their cap and gown. Believe it or not, some students take the same math course two or three times and by the end of their ordeal have just barely passed. It doesn't have to be this way. College math is easily manageable and might even turn out to be fun if you follow our 10 tips for acing the math requirement:

1. Get in—and stay in—the right level. Colleges often have several levels of calculus and up to five versions of algebra. Select carefully to avoid taking classes that are too hard (or too easy) for your level of ability and training. Double-check after the first test, and switch classes then if necessary. Why torture yourself if you're never going to able to master delta-epsilon proofs?

2. Take the credit. If you have AP math credits, use 'em. Your first-year adviser or a representative from the math department can tell you what college credit(s) you've earned and what course you should enroll in if you want to continue your study of math.

Extra Pointer: Be sure to figure out if you've taken the Calculus AB or the Calculus BC course. And if you're lucky enough to have taken the new Statistics AP course, be sure to put in a claim for that, too.

3. Do every single homework problem. In other subjects, homework might not be so critical: If you do it, that's great, and if you blow it off, well that's OK, too. But in math, it's supercritical. Doing the homework problems is the way you learn math. Not to mention, the way you learn how to do the various kinds of problems that will be on the tests. And you'll understand the lecture better if you do the problems when they're assigned.

4. Always have a strategy. Never go at math problems with a sledgehammer. Start by figuring out what type of problem you're dealing with, and consider various strategies for solving this sort of problem. Then select the strategy you think is most appropriate or promising. Never wildly lunge at a strategy that's totally inappropriate for the task at hand. You can waste tremendous amounts of time going down blind alleys if you don't think before you do.

5. Be ultra neat. In all your math work—be it your class notes, homework, or tests—be obsessive about neatness. A 5 that looks like a 6 or an x that looks like a y will mess you up like you can't believe.

6. Get down the intermediate steps. Some instructors are careful to write down every step of a problem as they are doing it in class. Other professors (like the ones who are teaching this course for the hundred-and-eighth time) aren't so fastidious. In either case, you should be sure to write into your notes all the steps, because later on—when you're doing your homework or studying for tests—it's likely you won't remember the missing steps if they're not already in your notes.

In Our Humble Opinion: Many students complain that they can't understand what their non-native-speaking TA is saying. Many of these complaints are unfounded. But if you really can't understand your TA's or professor's English, we recommend you go to an office hour and engage him or her in basic conversation (not technical math talk). Often, once you've had an ordinary conversation, you'll get used to your teacher's accent, which will make the classes go a whole lot easier.

5-Star Tip: If you still can't understand your TA's English, change to another section. Can't learn if you can't understand.

7. Pinpoint your sticking points. When you get stuck on a problem, don't just throw up your hands in disgust and announce you're clueless. Figure out exactly where you got stuck—and for what reason (Was there a theorem you didn't know? Were you missing a concept? Did you fail to consider an alternative?). Then go for help (more on that soon). The help will be much more effective, and your helper will be much more motivated, if you can locate your exact problem rather than just reporting your veil of confusion.

8. Join a group. Study groups are especially valuable in problem-solving courses like math. We recommend you join a study group that meets on the days between class meetings, say three times a week—or at least once a week. Even if you're a math whiz, you can benefit from teaching your less gifted friends how to do the problems or proofs: Making challenging material clear to others is one of the best ways of getting your mind around difficult concepts and strategies.

Extra Pointer: If your TA is holding a group office hour or review session before a test, be absolutely, positively, 100 percent sure to go. When TAs have the test-questions in mind, they are most likely to drop hints about what's going to be asked.

9. Test yourself. In every math course, there inevitably comes the time when you're tested on how well you've taken in the stuff. By far, the best way to study for math tests is to prepare a test for yourself and take it under test conditions. No looking at the book. No looking at the answers. Under strict time limits. You'll see very quickly what you know—and what you don't.

4-Star Tip: Most textbooks have extra problems in the back, with answers provided for at least half of them, usually the odd-numbered ones. These would make great choices for your practice tests. Also, some professors give sample problems or copies of previous tests before the exam: Don't squander this important resource by "looking over" the problems before your self-test.

10. Think about tutoring. If you're really having difficulty in your math class, you might want to find a tutor. Sometimes a TA who has previously taught the course is available; sometimes an upperclassperson can help you out; and sometimes the on-campus learning center or math lab has trained people to help you. Just be sure the tutor is both good at math and familiar with the particular course (and in the best case, instructor) you're taking. And be sure to bring the textbook, your class notes, the problems you've done, and most important, any info about the tests, to each of the meetings with your tutor.

Bonus Tip: Adopt a "can do" attitude.

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