Freshman

Learn more about what the Princeton Math major is like and connect with other interested undergraduates.

Why major in Math?

A major in Math is a degree in learning how to decipher, analyze and understand. This degree will challenge you and create opportunities to improve the way that you think. A Math degree, particularly from Princeton, will enable you to pursue any field. Students interested in tech, consulting and finance are often pleasantly surprised by how recruiters fast-track them through initial interviews due to the impressiveness of the Princeton math degree.
- Aria Wong '20

I am interested in the Math major, but I'm not sure, what should I take?

Ask upperclassmen for advice! Go here to find contact info
Princeton students interested in math typically start in one of two tracks:

  • MAT 203-204: Partially proof-based multivariable calculus and linear algebra
  • MAT 215-217 or 216-218: Proof-based real analysis and linear algebra

MAT 203-204 and MAT 215-217 do not assume any prior experience with writing proofs. MAT 216-218 does assume background with proof-writing. Your decision about what to take is ultimately up to you, but my personal suggestion* for prospective math majors is:
[DISCLAIMER: NOT official department advice, talk to deparmental rep for official advice]

  • If the highest math course you have taken is AP or IB Calculus (or similar), probably start in MAT 203, although you can consider starting in MAT 215.
  • If the highest math course you have taken is non-proof-based multivariable calculus or linear algebra, start in MAT 215.
  • If you have taken proof-based math before (e.g. at programs like PROMYS, Ross, HCSSiM, etc.), start in MAT 216.

If you're unsure about what to take, don't worry - talk to upperclassmen and know that it is very easy to switch during the first few weeks of class. The department is very flexible about this.

Most math majors start with 215-217 or 216-218 their freshman year. Some instead take 203-204 freshman year, and take 215-217 or 216-218 sophomore year. Although starting in 215 or 216 is more common, it is by no means necessary to be a successful math major. Someone I know who started in 203 had, by her senior year, become a TA for Complex Analysis (a sophomore/junior level proof-based course)!
- Jenny Kaufmann '19

My best advice to freshman is to challenge yourself, but particularly if you don't come from a background in proof-based math (ie Math competitions/math programs) - it is perfectly ok to start in 203/204 freshman year and become a Math major. I made the mistake of taking MAT 201 freshman year (I got bad advice! Talk to upperclassmen & don't rely on rumors!), but I was still able to become a Math major when I realized later on that this was the right department for me. This is certainly not standard (or recommended, I had to do a lot of studying on my own) - but it is possible. If you are interested in Math, you can make it happen.
- Aria Wong '20

I'm in MAT 215 but I am having a hard time - what should I do?

Many students (and successful Math majors) find MAT 215 to be the most challenging course of their time at Princeton. Finding this course challenging does not mean that you are incapable of being a math major/you are not smart enough, etc. Those doubts are easy to have but the reality is that MAT 215 is supposed to be hard and as your likely first introduction to Princeton Math classes (or college classes in general!) many students struggle! That's ok!

My freshman year, I entered MAT 215 with zero experience in proof-based Math. I had taken Math classes at a local university (that school up in Boston) and so I believed that I had enough of an understanding of Multivariable and Linear Algebra that MAT 215 would be a breeze for me. The class was nothing like what I thought it would be and I was filled with self-doubt and intimidation by the other students who seemed to be thriving in comparison (in reality, they were just as scared as I was). I, unfortunately, recieved bad advice and ended up switching to MAT 201 - a course that I had already taken and was not at my level. Looking back, I wish that I had had an upperclassmen tell me that even though MAT 215 is hard - especially at the beginning - sticking with it will teach you a lot about how to think critically. It is so easy to be intimidated and doubt yourself as a freshman, especially in the first few weeks, but I encourage you to be confident in your abiltiies. You are one of the top students in the United States! Princeton accepted you! You can do this.

If you are truly overwhelmed or you don't have experience at all in proof-based Math (like me!), my advice is to switch to MAT 203/204. These classes still enable you to potentially become a Math major, but they offer a slower introduction to proofs. But I geniunely encourage you to perservere and stay in MAT 215. Perhaps you might end up PDF-ing it - but I believe that you are an incredibly smart woman and there is a high likelihood that the class will get easier for you with time. You will learn an immense amount and no matter whether you end up being a Math major, it will help you succeed at Princeton.
- Aria Wong '20

How should I choose what to take?

Classes are taught by professors and occasionally post-docs, not by grad students. Professors range in quality; some are excellent, most are good, and some are mediocre. I've never had one who was actually bad. General advice, not just for math or Princeton: talk to older students (see Contacts) and find out who the good professors are, then take their courses. Last year I chose two of my classes solely on the basis of the professors' great reputations, and in both cases it was a good decision. The inverse is also true -- don't take classes with bad professors.
- Jenny Kaufmann '19

What should I expect in my classes?

The math classes are pretty much all lecture-style. (An aside, professors like being asked questions and are more likely to remember the students who speak up in class, so even if no one else is doing it, you still should.) However, much of the learning is done through the problem sets. While students must always write up their own solutions, collaborating on problem sets is encouraged, and usually essential to do well. Not all math courses have formal problem sessions, but students are constantly having informal ones. To emphasize: Don't be afraid to work on p-sets with other students! Find some p-set buddies, make a group chat, organize problem sessions in your dorm/common room/Fine Hall/etc. Discussing problems with others helps you understand the problems better, and helps you get ideas when you're stuck.
- Jenny Kaufmann '19