General Math FAQ Page

    Some Common Questions:

  1. About Placement
  2. About Changing Courses/Sections
  3. About What to Expect in a Freshman Math Class at Princeton
  4. About Getting Help
  5. About Other Miscellaneous Topics

Questions About Placement

  1. How do I figure out which math class to take?

  2. When is the math department's placement exam?
    • Never. The math department does not have a placement exam.

  3. Why doesn't the math department have a placement exam?
    • We think it works better to make an initial placement based on your background, test scores and interests. Then, crucially, we use the drop/add period to adjust as we get more information during the first two weeks of the semester. Placement involves many complex issues that cannot be measured on a multiple-choice test during orientation. This two-step approach is more flexible, and we feel, more reliable, but it does require students to take an active role and make realistic decisions.

  4. All the initial placement recommendations are based on standardized tests that I never took. How do I figure out which course to take?
    • Start with these placement guidelines. If that doesn't help, then consult An Overview of the Usual Freshman Courses. Representatives from the math department will be available at freshman registration to help you figure this out, but it helps if you check out the online information first. Student recommendations can also be very useful. Talk to other students with a similar background who have been at Princeton for a year or two. Your academic advisor or director of studies should also be able to help you think about this.

  5. I can't decide between two math courses. Both seem reasonable to me based on the guidelines on the math placement page. How long do I have to change my mind? Is it hard to switch classes once the semester begins? How do I decide?
    • First, stay calm. Lots of people are in this situation. Sign up for the harder or more advanced of the courses you are considering and be prepared to use the two-week drop/add period wisely. During drop/add, it is very easy to switch courses in SCORE. (if anything is easy in SCORE)
    • If possible, attend the first few lectures of both courses you are considering to get a feeling for what will be expected.
    • You don't need to worry about space -- the math department will make room for you in a course if that is the course you need. You may have trouble getting into a very popular section of a course, but you won't be closed out of the course (or a time) altogether. If you are trying to switch into a course during drop/add and the course is full, just let us know. (E-mail the undergraduate administrator, LeeAnn Rushinski-Coleman, at
    • If you are deciding between two courses in a sequence, e.g. between 103 and 104, or between 104 and 201, then it can be a bit tricky. The material taught in the first few lectures of the less advanced course may seem quite familiar to you, reinforcing your feeling that you should jump to a more advanced course, despite the placement guidelines. It often happens that our idea of knowing a topic is very different from yours. Most students find that the expectations here are much more rigorous than any encountered in the past in high school, in community colleges or even in other universities. Don't skip a Princeton math course unless you can actually do most of the problems on an old final exam. The standard should be that you can solve the problems, not that the words look mostly familiar to you from your previous courses! If you can't meet this standard, then you are taking a very big risk if you sign up for the more advanced course. Sample exams are available from most course web pages, and these can be reached from our Overview of the Usual Freshman Courses.
    • If you are deciding between two courses like 201 and 203 that cover the same topic with different levels of mathematical abstraction, then attending the first few lectures, doing the homework for both and taking the first quiz should give you the needed information. For most students the answer will become clear by the end of drop/add. This is largely a question of taste, so you have to give it a few days and decide for yourself. If you are undecided as the drop/add deadline approaches, talk to your instructor or consult majors/advisors in your future department or you can talk to the adept rep.
    • In rare cases students switch courses after drop/add is over. This involves quite a bit paperwork because you will need permission from the math department, from your new course instructor and from your dean or director of studies. Once you have all the paperwork lined up, you will need to go to the registrar's office in person to seal the deal. Such changes cannot be made through SCORE. Additional fees may also apply but these are a relatively minor consideration. More importantly, since all our courses move very quickly, the sooner you can reasonably decide, the better!

  6. I already took a multivariable calculus (or linear algebra) course in high school. Do I still have to take 201 (or 202)?
    • In most cases the answer is yes, especially if you need the course to do more advanced course work in your department. Chances are good that the course you took in high school is not equivalent in rigor to the corresponding Princeton course. Check out the department's web page for the course carefully.
    • Take the sample final. Can you do any of the problems? For many students, the answer will be no. Review your old notes and try again. Can you do at least 60% of the exam?
    • If you still think you should skip the course, bring your graded exams from your high school course to the placement officer. You will need his/her permission and you may be required to take an exam to demonstrate your knowledge before making it official that you can skip the course.

Questions about Changing Courses/Sections

  1. I think I'm in the wrong math class. Is there someone I can talk to about this?

  2. What is add/drop and how does the math department use it?
    • Drop/Add is a two week "shopping" period at the beginning of each semester during which SCORE allows students to add, drop. or swap classes. The math department uses this time to help students try out which math class best suits them rather than relying on a placement exam as some other departments do.
    • Once classes begin, you can drop classes freely, but if you want to add a course you have to fill out a form and bring it to LeeAnn Coleman in Fine 307. Many other departments allow students to add and drop freely, but because the math department wants all students to be able to register for the course and time that they want, we need to keep track of how students are moving so we can open or enlarge sections as needed. You will be able to see if your request was approved by logging into SCORE.
    • If you have questions about the paperwork for drop/add, contact LeeAnn Coleman. For questions about placement contact the adept rep.

  3. I thought that I was doing ok, but we just took the first quiz (or midterm exam) and now I'm not so sure. Do I have any options?
    • You can talk to your instructor or the adept rep. But first check out the FAQ below on the general structure of Princeton math courses. The expectations for exams are likely quite different from what you are used to from high school, and it is easy to misunderstand what your first math test really means. If it turns out that you are in the wrong course, our system is very flexible, but it gets a bit more complicated to make adjustments once drop/add is over. Please come talk to someone soon! Help is available.

Questions on What to Expect in a Freshman Math Class at Princeton

  1. How is math here different from the math courses in high school or other universities?
    • Generally speaking our courses are more fast-paced and rigorous. Because they are full of students who are ambitious and hard-working, the standard for doing well is naturally elevated. Most of the courses 101 through 202 are similar in spirit to high school courses, but by comparison they are extremely fast-paced and rely more on independent work outside of class. In order to distinguish among this group of talented and highly-motivated students, the exams tend to be very challenging. Even compared to similar courses at other universities these courses tend to move quickly. For example, the material covered in the largest freshman course (MAT201) is frequently taught over two semesters at many other well-respected universities. Moreover, your instructor will generally expect a much deeper mastery of the material than you have experienced before. It can be a bit of an adjustment, but it will prepare you well for more advanced work in other departments.

  2. What is the general structure of a math class?
    • These classes meet three times per week, for 50 minutes. During that time the instructor will give an overview of the key points of the day's topic, with as many examples as time allows. You will do much of your learning outside of class, working on your own, or perhaps with a study group to master the remaining details. We expect that most students will need to work 3 or 4 hours outside of class for every hour in class in order to do well. Although your instructor will often quickly review material from previous courses (e.g. completing the square or a basic trigonometric identity like the addition formula for sine), there will likely be gaps in your background knowledge. It will be assumed that you will recognize these gaps and work to fill them in, taking advantage of the many sources of help available to you.
    • In addition to introducing the main ideas and techniques in class, the instructors from all the sections work together with the course head to set the course content and pace, to provide a good list of problems for you to think about, and then to help you answer the questions that come up as you work problems on your own. The team of instructors will use their expertise to prepare interesting exams for you, exams that give you a good chance to show what you have learned and to deepen your understanding a bit more while you work through problems on the test. You will be expected to think and adapt during the exams, not just remember how to do problems that you have seen before in the homework or precept.

  3. What kind of calculator do I need for my math class?
    • You do not need a calculator for your math class. We do not use/require them.

  4. How much work is involved in math courses?
    • Generally they require a steady time commitment throughout the semester. We expect that the weekly problem sets will take at least 3 hours to complete. To do well on exams, you need to work a lot of extra problems from old exams. So all in all we expect these courses to take a minimum of about 10 hours/week outside of class on average.

  5. I'm doing really well on homework assignments, so I must be doing great in the class, right?
    • Homework is typically worth about 10% of the course grade in introductory courses like 101 up through 202 and homework averages tend to be about 90% or higher in those courses. For 101 through 202, near perfect homework only indicates that you are on track to pass. The problems on quizzes, midterms, and final exams will often be more difficult then the routine homework problems. In MAT203 and MAT204 the problem sets count more and are less routine. In MAT214 and higher, the problem sets are very challenging and make up a major component of the course grade.
    • Once you have mastered the basics in the homework assignments in courses like 101 up through 202, you should begin to work through problems from old exams from previous semesters and think deeply about these questions. This will be your main tool for doing well in these courses. It takes time to digest the material and to develop the necessary expertise, so last minute cramming for exams is generally ineffective.

  6. How hard is it to get an A?
    • Our courses are graded on a curve. In 101 through 202, typically, the top 25% receive some kind of A and the middle 45% receive some kind of B. The remaining 30% mostly get C's, but we regularly give D's and/or F's if necessary. Because we think it is more useful to ask more interesting questions, midterm and final exam averages tend to be around 65% in these courses, but averages of 50% are not rare.
    • In 203/204 a somewhat more generous curve is used. Students who want to risk taking a more challenging course on the same material as in 201/202 can do so without risking excessive damage to their GPA's.
    • In 214 through 218, the extremely challenging courses for math majors, students are asked to learn a whole new way of thinking about mathematics. In these courses we again use a more generous curve to encourage those students who want to learn how to think like a mathematician to invest the time and energy required without undue risk.

  7. The exams in my course seem impossible. Why are they so hard? I used to think I was good at math but now I just feel like a failure.
    • Obviously it feels very different to take an exam with an average of 65% (which usually corresponds to some kind of B) after years of taking high school exams where a score of 65% generally meant failure. In most high schools, students expect to recognize the problems on exams and simply remember how to solve them. We put significant effort into asking exam questions that are based on the practice problems, but where you must adapt and figure out how to solve using the ideas and techniques you have already been working with in the practice problems.
    • These harder exams can be a bit painful at first, but we firmly believe that they give you a much better opportunity to learn the course material well enough to apply it effectively in your future course work in many different fields where mathematical analysis is a useful tool. One of the big challenges in your first Princeton math class will be to redefine what it means to learn mathematics, what it means to fail and what it means to succeed.
    • Often students falsely believe that everyone else in the class understands more. Be brave and ask questions in class and in office hours! Keep working problems. It takes time to develop these skills. We hope you will learn to enjoy being asked to do a math problem that you don't already know the answer to and that you will get better at finding your way to a solution. But OK, even if you don't see that happening, try to learn to keep working steadily, ask questions, and above all, believe in the curve!

Questions about Getting Help

  1. What can I do to get help?
    • Check out the ASAP (Academic Success At Princeton) website: for lots of useful information.
    • The McGraw Center at Princeton offers a variety of resources including individual tutoring and tutor-facilitated study groups for all the freshman math courses. Starting in the fall of 2011, in addition to 101 through 203 they will add 214, 215 and 217 to their list of supported courses. This is a great resource which we highly recommend.
    • It can be very helpful to use a study group to talk about questions that came up during class or as you were going over your notes. Or take these questions to your instructor's office hours. A visit to office hours will go better if your instructor can see that you are working to learn the material, generating questions as you go. This will make it much easier for him/her to give you real help.
    • Peer tutoring is available through the residence colleges. Talk to your director of studies as soon as you think this might be needed. (If McGraw and your instructor are not enough.)
    • Arrange a consultation with McGraw or think for yourself about ways to make your time in lecture more effective.
    • Talk to your instructor about help options for your specific course or consult the adept rep for advice.

  2. My math class is useless. I don't understand anything my instructor says.
    • Consider the suggestions in the previous question first.
    • You can try going to a different instructor's section if there is room. Sometimes you have to find a teacher whose style is a better match for you. If there is room in the section the math department will generally allow you to switch. After drop/add this requires some paperwork and a smallish fee (at least compared to what you have already invested). It is better to make the switch official since your grade for the course will be assigned by the instructor you belong to officially, and it won't count in your favor if it looks like you just stopped coming to class when times got hard.
    • Go to office hours. You can go to any instructor's office hours and they should all be posted on blackboard. This may be a good way to find an instructor whose style works better for you, or just a way to hear the same idea explained by a different person. Again, be prepared with specific questions when you go to office hours. Even if they are vague. You want the instructor to see that you have thought about the questions already yourself and the explanations you get will make more sense to you if you have already invested some time and effort into trying to understand on your own.

  3. I need to talk to a person. Who should I contact?
    • It depends on your question:
    • For questions about lower division math courses (i.e. 101 through 204), contact the adept rep.
    • For questions about being a math major, or the introductory courses for math majors (214 through 218), send mail to
    • For placement questions, especially in upper division courses, or for questions about skipping a 200-level course, contact the math placement officer at

Miscellaneous Questions

  1. Does the math department have any therapy dogs?
    • Nope, we're not really into therapy. We're more "tough love" types. It doesn't mean we don't care. We just don't like to talk about feelings. I have heard that McGraw was looking into this, and some eating clubs or residence colleges have brought in puppies for study breaks.

  2. Do I have to go to class?
    • It depends on what you want from the course. A good understanding of the material generally comes more easily with class attendence and if you don't go to class regularly, the instructor probably won't have much sympathy when you bomb the midterm or final exam. (So you won't want to end up a borderline case when the final curve is decided.) Neither will the instructor feel much inclined to answer your questions in office hours. But if you are very confident and won't need to bank any good will with your instructor, your grade will be computed based on your performance on the exams just like anyone else. You will probably have to work harder than other students in the class to get the same result and you will of course be responsible for any announcements made in class. We try to post all these on the course web site on Blackboard, but you'll need to be vigilant about checking there and your instructor will likely feel that announcing information in class repeatedly is sufficient.

  3. Will my instructor hate me if I fall asleep in class?
    • Hate is a little strong, but most instructors find this to be rude. We mostly try to maintain a grown-up attitude and shrug it off, but it is difficult to ignore sleeping students, especially the ones that snore. Some instructors will wake you up, which can be embarrassing. Yes, we understand that you are sleep-deprived, but if you really can't stay awake in class it is probably better not to go. Just sleep in. Asking questions in class can help you stay awake, so try that. Most instructors really want their students to ask questions.

  4. Will my instructor hate me if I use class time to update my facebook page?
    • Again, hate is strong, but most instructors consider it rude and distracting when students come to class and read e-mail or check in on Facebook. It is usually pretty obvious and it will cost you some good will with most instructors. There is really no point in coming if you can't pay attention, so if you go, try to get something out of it by paying attention and asking questions.