Preparing for College

Algebra for 7th Grader?

Question: I have a son entering the 7th grade. There are some students who are starting Algebra I this year. This will put them on a track to take higher level mathematics in high school. We are considering this for our son. Do colleges place a lot of weight on classes beyond calculus? Is it better to push ahead or take Algebra I in the 8th grade, which would probably give the student a better understanding of the subject? Our son is motivated and an A student. We don't know how important the math track is to top-college admission.

The hardest decision I've encountered as a parent is knowing when to push my son and when to step back. Granted, my son is only 11, so nothing has been all that hard so far (no drivers' license yet!) and the teen years still lie in wait. But, still, I do sometimes struggle when deciding how much to push (or nag!).

Colleges--especially the more competitive ones--are always eager to see that students have challenged themselves, and if your son's high school transcript shows classes beyond calculus, that should be a plus---assuming, of course, that he also does well in them.

Another plus of being in the "fast track" in math in 7th grade is that, perhaps, this will also put your son in other classes with the same group of bright students who are in algebra with him. (This may not be the case at your son's school, but often, in order to make schedules work, all of the algebra kids are together for English, social studies, etc., too, even if there aren't official accelerated classes in those subjects.)

However, there are also down sides to starting algebra so early. Some colleges that give credit for 8th-grade algebra may not offer it for a class taken in grade 7. If your son continues math throughout high school, this will not be a problem. But, should he decide--for whatever reasons--not to continue in math, you may find that starting algebra so early could be a liability.

Also, if your son is an athlete and may play a sport in college, at the moment the NCAA does not recognize any classes taken in 7th or 8th grade. Again, if your son continues with math, then no problem. But should he wish to drop it after a couple years in high school, then he won't have met the NCAA requirements (assuming that this controversial rule doesn't change). It's not likely, of course, that an elite-college prospect will bail on math in grade 10, but do consider yourself warned.

Since most of the stronger college applicants don't start algebra until 8th grade--or even 9th--there's no significant college-related reason to push your son ahead. However, if he's chomping at the bit to get going with algebra, and if you think he can handle this extra challenge, then you just have to go into it with an awareness of the couple potential drawbacks listed above.

Good luck to you as you wrestle with this decision.