New Student Orientation

A Message About the Mathematics Placement Exam

Summer 2016

We hope you understand that it is very difficult (and foolish) to try to advise all 289 (or so) of you at once.  We do not know you and can only give you our best general advice.  The purpose of the Math Placement Exam is to assist us in tailoring that advice to you.  Here are some basic facts:

  1. Every incoming student is expected to show up for the Math Placement and take an exam.
    1. Yes, even if you are not planning on fulfilling your Math GE requirement with a Math course.
    2. Yes, even if you have already taken an AP course (Calc AB or even Calc BC).
  1.  It is a exam to help us advise you on placement, so
    1. you don’t need to study, particularly,
    2. we take into account the fact that you have probably forgotten some things over the summer,
    3. if you feel you were placed incorrectly, you can (and should!) meet with a Math Department faculty member for more personalized advice (or at least have your academic advisor contact one of us).
  1.  It is separate from course credit that you might get from the Registrar’s Office through AP (or other) classes.
  2.  There are actually four different placement exams.  The student chooses the appropriate level exam to take.  (See below.)


Math 23 – Transcendental Functions.  This is our standard pre-calculus course.  If you have started any calculus course, you probably do not belong in this class.

Math 30 – Calculus I.  Our standard introductory Calculus course.  Covered in AB and BC Calculus or any semester long college level calculus course.

Math 31 – Calculus II.  Covers through Taylor series (as in BC Calculus).  Usually where students who have done well on the AB Calc exam start.

Math 32 – Calculus III.  This is multivariable and vector calculus.  Covers at least though Green’s Theorem.  Usually for STEM or Econ majors and minors.  Students with a 4 or 5 on the BC exam usually start here.

Math 60 – Linear Algebra.  This is a proof-based intermediate level math course.  It is unlikely that we would place you out of Math 60 as a first year student, unless you have transfer credit from another college.

Here are the four exams (A, B, C, and D).

A. If you have had BC Calculus (or the equivalent): take the 31/32 exam.  (If you do well, we will place you in Math 32.  If you have some weaknesses, we will advise that you take Math 31.)

B. If you have had AB Calculus (or the equivalent): take the 30/31 exam.  (If you do well, we will place you in Math 31.  If you have some weaknesses, we will advise that you take Math 30.)

C. If you have started any Calculus course or finished a precalculus course: take the 23/30 exam.  It will test your precalculus knowledge.  If you do well, we will place you in Math 30.  If you have weaknesses, we will place you in Math 23.

Note: if you get placed (though any of the above exams) into Math 30, 31, or 32, you will have completed your Scripps Math GE requirement.

Common mistake: Taking a “lower” exam assuming it will be easier.  (Typically this happens when a student has taken an AP Calculus course and should be placed into Math 31.  But they take the 23/30 exam figuring it will be easier.  But the precalculus material is not fresh and they end up placed in Math 23 – a full year below where they should be.)

Common mistake: Assuming that “high school calculus” is not sufficient for “college calculus” and planning on starting over from scratch.

Our response: (If you are ready to), move on.  There are many, many more math classes beyond calculus.  When you are a senior, you will wish you had more time to take more classes in your major.  Don’t use up those precious slots by retaking a course you’ve already had (and intimidating your classmates who are only just learning this material for the first time).  A little review is good, but not a full semester of review.

Advice: It is much easier to drop down a course if you have been placed too high than to move up a course if you have been placed too low.  When you’re in doubt, we will probably advise you to push yourself.

D. If you have not had precalculus through trigonometry: take the 23 exam.  This is to be sure you are sufficiently ready for our Math 23.  If not, we will “place” you in Stats/Logic/22.  This placement indicates that you might not be ready to begin our Calculus sequence and might wish to fulfill your math GE using an alternative course, including an approved statistics course, a logic course from the Philosophy department, or Math 22.

Advice: Please do not put off your math requirement or continuing in your Calculus sequence.  Seniors are never happy to be taking Math 23 with a class full of first year students.  STEM and Economics majors are usually impressed by how much easier their major courses are once they have learned the relevant math background material.

Note: Everyone can have a bad day.  If you feel our placement advice was wrong, set up a meeting with a Math faculty member to discuss appropriate placement.

Do you have any questions before you arrive?  Feel free to contact me.


Chris Towse, Chair
Mathematics Department
Scripps College