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What to Expect in College Algebra

by Staff Writers

Whether you have chosen a math-intensive major or not, chances are you will be taking college algebra early in your college career as one of your basics, especially if you are pursuing a bachelor’s degree. You may even have to take two semesters of it. This can be tricky, as some students freshly out of high school may have taken another math more recently, such as trigonometry or geometry, and may not have taken algebra since their sophomore year in high school. However, recent high school students usually have the advantage of preparing for and taking SAT or ACT exams, which keep algebra fresh on the mind. As for those returning to school as working adults, if the words polynomials, exponents and quadratic equations sound like Greek to you, then you may want to brush up on long-forgotten math skills or take a remedial class to prepare yourself for college-level algebra.

College algebra will start foundationally, but build quickly and incrementally on what is taught, so you will not want to risk missing a class if math is a challenge for you. For instance, students will begin with simple concepts such as the difference between whole numbers and integers. Then, they will move on to the order of operations in algebra, or what portion of an algebra problem to tackle first.

If this sounds very elementary to you, you’re correct — it is one of the basics of algebraic expressions. However, everything that follows will be built on these early principles. After learning the basics of exponents, radicals, polynomials and factoring, students move on to tackle more complex equations. Students move from the linear equation to the quadratic equation.

Because what you learn in a college algebra class builds on what was taught in the previous class, it is important that you speak with your professor in office hours or by e-mail immediately if you find yourself falling behind in class. You may also want to form a study group with your classmates and work out problems together. After all, college algebra is not like college literature where if you don’t understand medieval literature, you can at least hope to understand 19th-century literature. In algebra, it’s not going to get any better if you are stuck in a certain area of algebra. You will need to master that one area before you can advance to the next level.

Finally, good college algebra professors will teach their students some of the applications of algebra and how it is used to solve complex problems in the real world.