How much math?

How much math does it take to major in computer science in college? Here’s Lineman’s advice to high school students.

There is one thing you want to focus on before all else: algebra. If you can go into college knowing algebra forwards and backwards, you will be ready to take on everything else. Don’t just focus on how it is done but why each technique works and when it is allowed. Taking pre-calculus or trigonometry in high school may look and sound very impressive, but a strong algebra base is going to be much more useful.

College students typically struggle with computer science because of weak math skills, says Lineman, a math teacher.

About Joanne


  1. I tend to agree, due to the fact a strong background in Algebra prepares a student for more advanced math in high school and college (and makes passing exit exams a breeze).

    This also assumes that the coursework isn’t watered down at the high school level as well (though some students might need two years to master Algebra, some might pick it up in 6 months).

  2. Ken Summers says:

    Algebra is everything. I was very good in math, especially in algebra.

    One of the easiest classes I took in college was Physics, precisely because it was 98% algebra (with just the slightest hint of calculus).

  3. I was fortunate enough to get a B.S. in Mathematics and Computer Science from the LAS college at the University of Illinois. As I remember, it was the only B.S. offered by the LAS college at that time. Most computer science and computer engineering students were in the engineering college, but our particular track required a substantially heavier load in theoretical mathematics. The engineering college students certainly got plenty of math, but they focused more on applied mathematics rather than theoretical mathematics.

    Anyway, I feel as though my strong math background aided me immensely as I entered grad school in computer science and professionally as I moved very quickly past programming and into system design. Almost every aspect of computer science relies on something you should have learned earlier in one or more math classes. Perhaps the fact that logic underlies both math and computer science also helps build a core competency that is stronger than what is developed working in either field alone.

    I’ll finish with what some might regard as a cheap shot, but far too often computer programming is confused with computer science. It’s not. I’ve worked with a lot of programmers possessing college degrees in computer science who had no appreciable math background and their code showed it. I’ve also worked with a lot of engineers with little or no formal computer science training and they’ve been able to develop excellent programming skills in no time at all.

    By all means, pump up the gain on math in HS, but don’t stop there.

  4. So true. I got to know it frontward and backward tutoring it in my freshman year of college. Not only did it help with my college science curriculum, I use it every day on my job. Simple high school algebra! You’d be surprised how many don’t know it. Don’t let the X’s and Y’s scare you away.

  5. As a former recreational programmer (my 15 seconds of fame was being mentioned in a book on free stuff available on AOL, for a utility I wrote to parse AOL log files of chat room discussions), I have to agree with the previous commenters.

    It’s all about algebra.

    And I’d even go on to say that the ability to create a mildly complex spreadsheet is boosted by programming skills, both of which are near-impossible without a solid base in algebra.

    Now, if only I could get my students to appreciate that square root is the inverse operation of squared

  6. Roy W. Wright says:

    Joanne’s hit upon a bit of a pet peeve of mine. I have a friend who is majoring in Computer Science, currently in his sixth year of college — his first four were spent at a junior/community college — because he started out with atrocious math skills.

    My major is applied mathematics, and here at my university (UC Irvine, which my friend also attends), the Computer Science major requires three upper-division math courses. For that reason, I come in contact with a lot of CS majors. They can usually be distinguished in a math class by their propensity to whine about the rigor and difficulty of the material. Toward the beginning of this quarter, in one of my classes, one such student actually raised his hand and told the professor that the course is difficult for him and others because “they make us take upper-division math courses, and we’re not used to it.”

    I had to resist the strong urge to tell him that if he couldn’t handle upper-division math, he had no business taking on a major in computer science.

  7. How much math is needed? Look at the college department requirements. That will tell you.

    Do you HAVE to know math to be a programmer? Nope.

    Should colleges require a lot of math for a degree in computer science? Depends on what “a lot” means. Some “business” programming degrees do not require much math. The college I taught at years ago required computer science students to take a differential equations course. Computer Science was in the Math department. Even the business department required at least one semester of Calculus. Is this unnecessary? Perhaps, but it is much better than a lot of other things you could do.

    However, if you are a high school student that hates math or has difficulty in math, then I would say that there is a good chance that you would find programming difficult. Both subjects require hard work, attention to minute details, and a lot of persistence doing something that isn’t always fun.

    Could computer science courses be substituted for certain math courses in high school? I wouldn’t recommend it because the student would be limiting their college and career choices way too soon.

  8. Lack of math skills often stops women from pursuing technical careers. Getting math skills in high school is especially important for girls, who may feel that math is just for boys. By the time these math-avoiding girls get to college, it is almost too late to change their thinking.
    Algebra is important for boys too, if thinking about a technical career. Not as many boys seem to have the barriers to math that girls do.

  9. Walter Wallis says:

    If you don’t not got good math skills, then you better had get good english skills like I got.

  10. I definitely concur with the author’s opinion, along with these other commenters. Once, curious about why our university was running so many sections of remedial algebra, I took an informal survey of my remedial algebra class to see how much math the students had taken in high school. Most of the students had taken (and passed) algebra in high school; one (in a class of 30-40) had even gone up through calculus! Admittedly, some of the students were taking the course on some poor advising (of the “always start with courses numbered 101” type). But the majority of my remedial algebra students were working at or below the level of the material being taught; only a handful were ever ready at the beginning of the course to move on to the next level.

  11. And, if you want to do graphics programming, you should know trigonometry cold.

  12. This post and comment thread has me quite ambivalent. On the one hand, I’m really opposed to the “how little can you get away with” mode of reasoning. On the other hand, I know that with human nature being what it is, there are some areas in which people will want to do just enough to get by and there’s little use in shouting against the wind.

    Let me share my personal experience, which is instructive. From the moment that I got into high school, I knew that I was interested in the liberal arts (History and English) and that I was finding math fairly difficult. I made only decent grades in Algebra and geometry and had a hell of a time in Pre-calculus (which is trig and some other stuff). I opted not to take math in my senior year. My GPA had suffered enough already. Anyhow, even though I did mediocre in algebra, I got the concepts down pat.

    I never even took calculus in college but according to my GREs, I scored in the 85th percentile of math (score: 650). Thank you, algebra!

    But, here’s the upshot. I became a political science major. I was about two years into political science when I realized that the “hard core” and “leading edge” of political science required…math! And not simple, little math, either. It required complex, upper level statistics with plenty of use of calculus. Which I never took because I didn’t think I could do it. (In fact, all the social sciences require a good rigorous quant meth background.)

    So, the irony of the story is that if I had taken calculus, I would probably be approaching a social science Ph.D by now. Weird.

  13. Well,

    As some persons pointed out, computer science is NOT the same as computer programming, but I agree that strong math skills are needed to succeed in this field. Math is more than X’s and Y’s, slope, graphing, etc. It’s about teaching critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving skills (which most employers admit are in short supply among recent graduates of college or high school).

    A fair amount of high school students in my state (NV) have what is known as math phobia, due to the overuse of calculators and fuzzy math in grades 1-8, so that by the time they get to high school, if they don’t have a calculator, they can’t function (and when the students can’t pass the exit exam in math (which is at a 9th grade level in NV) they start whining cause they won’t be graduating in the spring (never MIND they had 5 or more chances to pass it).

    In my opinion, without a good grounding in math, english, reading in Elementary and Middle school, the student who lacks these skills will be doomed in high school and college…

    Read the recent articles on what a high school diploma is worth over at, this was from a recent study done in 5-7 states if anyone has any doubts…

  14. I think this is true. I took algebra I and II, geometry, trig and pre-calc in high school, and started Calc I in my first semester of college toward a CS degree.

    And while you will need to get through at least part of the calculus sequence in most CS programs, most of the math and logic you’ll need in the core CS discipline itself is based on algebra (and Boolean algebra).

    I can count on hand the number of times in my life — in and out of my career — where knowledge of calculus has solved a real world problem for me. That’s not to say that it won’t help others more; I’m sure it will. But for me, and the design, programming, test and reporting I’ve done, it’s algebra.

  15. I can concur from personal experience that CS degrees are very math intensive. At my own school (Penn State), the CS degree fulfills almost all the requirments for the math minor. By choosing the right electives, I only had to take 1 three credit course for the math minor that wasn’t also fulfilling one of my CS degree requirements.

    The problem is that a lot of people think of CS-practioner as being a technician. If that’s your interest, you should be looking into an MIS/IST/etc. degree. The CS-practioner is either a research scientist or an engineer.

    As for how useful calc is in your working life, it depends on what industry you work for. There’s some CS-grads who never use calc again. Others use calc constantly.

  16. Walter Wallis says:

    Sometimes you need math just to notice that some statements just don’t add up.

  17. I have a BA in Math, an MS in Computer Science. I took a year of calculus in high school, which let me place out of first semester college calculus.

    My advice: if you’re even thinking of majoring in any discipline that requires calculus (e.g. any natural or physical science, engineering, quantitative social science or business. And I’d be very surprised if any halfway decent computer science major didn’t require calculus.) then take as much math as your high school offers.

    Why? (1) Your aptitude in high school math should help you decide whether or not to pursue a program that requires college math. (e.g. If you get a C in high school trigonometry, don’t plan on majoring in electrical engineering)
    (2) It’s free in high school, but expensive in college
    (3) What the hell else does your high school offer that could possibly be a better use of your time?

  18. The answer is “It depends on what part of computer science you wish to study.” I concur that algebra is important, but discrete mathematics seems to be a big deal as well. If you are going to do any kind of computational science (for instance, using computers to process vast amounts of physics or astronomy data), you might want to study some probability and statistics, as they use things such as correlation, probability distributions, regressions, clustering algorithms such as k-means, etc. If you are going to do any kind of computation engineering (using computers to model an airplane or a skyscraper), then you are going to want to know some calculus.

  19. kamatari says:

    As a teacher, and a literature major, I opted out of math for GPA reasons. Since then, I’ve had to take algebra again at a college level for my MBA and am currently taking a chemistry course in which I would love to have a better grasp of algebra. I think that higher level math should be necessary to graduate from high school. I really think that it’s a life skill. I’ve wondered about offering Algebra for the Liberal Arts, or maybe allowing students to complete grade 12 algebra with a “Successfully Completed” instead of a GPA counting mark but..although it would have lowered my GPA, it would lower many other liberal-arts-headed student’s GPAs, which would even things out in the end.

  20. “It depends on what part of computer science you wish to study.” Douglas, all your examples are things that require algebra. Algebra is the basic language for calculus, and discrete math and statistics use algebra and calculus. So what the high school student with ambitions towards anything that will involve numbers needs is to have algebra down cold. (Geometry and trig, too.) If you understand algebra thoroughly and still have time to take higher math, fine – it may or may not be taught well enough to skip the college introductory courses, but it will certainly give you more algebra practice.

  21. Insufficiently Sensitive says:

    To begin with, a heartfelt gratitude to the Arabs for developing the ideas and tools of algebra, back in the good ol’ days.

    To continue, the connection between computers and algebra (not just algebra; trig, symbolic logic and numerical methods are essential as well) is made essential by the fact that the programmer in setting up a model of a problem must play God and create an entire universe of logic that has the power to extract solutions from the interrelated behavior of every element in it. If numerical solutions are required, algebra is the major tool necessary.

  22. Anonymous says:

    You math bigots crack me up. Here you are talking about how your math education was bigger than my math education, and somehow that makes you a better, more virile person. Basic algebra & trig are fine, you’re gonna use them one day. Heck, I create a new Function several times a day. Otherwise, upper math for most people is a waste of time & money. It should be part of the philosphy department, for all the effect it has on your working life, and it would complement the rigorous logic discussions there. Upper math is in place in Universities as a barrier to people, not to teach them anything useful. I was barred from the CS program because of my inability to get through Calc II, yet here I sit with the CS graduate degrees, doing the same job for the same pay. Am I somehow less of a programmer/ developer/ system engineer/ choose-reified-job-title-for-your-education? Please. If I had known that, I would have applied those 22 wasted credits to something that would have prepared me better, like speaking Chinese. The only thing more tiresome than a lousy employee is a lousy employee with an education they think guarantees they know how to do everyone else’s job better than they do their own.

  23. As a senior technical person who interviews and directs computer scientists, I have to agree that calculus and related fields are of weak benefit. However, algebra and discrete math are very important. In addition to the other reasons listed here, discrete math in particular provides a very powerful “language” for discussing design / implementation problems. If I can say “set up a partial ordering and look for anti-chains” instead of a day long algorithm discussion, it’s a big win for everyone involved. This kind of situation comes up all the time around here.

  24. Sounds like our anonymous poster a couple of posts up has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about his inability to pass calculus.

    Yes, he/she may be sitting there without a CS degree, being asked to do the same work as others with CS degrees. Want to make any bets on his/her proficiency and productivity versus theirs? How about on his/her long-term employment prospects in today’s competitive, continuous-learning environment? No takers? I didn’t think so.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Spoken like a true math bigot; Claire, I applaud you for underlining my point — my math isn’t as good as your math, ergo, I’m I doomed loser that can’t learn. I am confident and not at all defensive, why the hostility to the less numerate? I am indeed bitter that calc precluded a CS degree, for the same reason I would be bitter at color-blindness precluding an art degree.

  26. Roy W. Wright says:

    Math bigotry? That’s just a fancy way to say “discrimination on the basis of ability.”

  27. Anonymous says:

    Upper math is a kind of intelligence, among others. It is symbolic intelligence (not logic), unrelated to IQ, spatial, or verbal reasoning and logic. Its contribution to performance varies based on job function. To the point here, for CS, it is seriously overemphasized as a core (should be a specialty). Maybe it can be taught, but most people adept at upper math seem to have a hard time teaching the un-adept, and hence, are only able to teach others of that type of intelligence and dismiss the others.