If you’re headed for college or university, a math placement test might be in your very near future. Schools use these tests as a tool to determine the appropriate level of math classes for incoming students. These exams are given after a student has already been accepted for admission; they are not part of the college application process. Also, there are no passing or failing scores on these tests.

There are several reasons colleges give these exams. For one thing, there are thousands of high schools across the country, and no two of them are exactly alike. Some schools do a great job when it comes to preparing their students for college level math, some are fairly competent at the task, and others do a poor job. So the fact that a student has a high school diploma isn’t very helpful when colleges seek to match students with the right coursework.

A second reason is that some students are naturally good at math, while others struggle to keep up. If a student who isn’t strong in math is placed into the wrong college level course, the results can be disastrous. In the best case scenario, the student fails the course and has to start over with an easier class the next semester. In the worst case scenario, the student gets discouraged by how hard college level work seems, and gives up and drops out.

The last thing colleges want is for their incoming students to get discouraged and drop out because they’re in over their heads. They use math placement exams to help make sure each student starts at a math level they’re adequately prepared for. Students can then use their success in less demanding courses as a foundation for taking advanced classes.

Each college develops its own math placement exam, so the exact content and number of questions on the test will vary from school to school. However, they tend to be very similar. If you’re being asked to take a math placement exam you should expect to see questions in a wide variety of math topics. The basics of arithmetic will be covered – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, decimals, and fractions. You’ll also see questions about more advance math such as pre-algebra, algebra, graphing, trigonometry, etc. Questions will typically cover algebraic fractions, roots and exponents, expanding polynomials, equations and inequalities, complex numbers, factorials, determinants, lines, parabolas, logarithms, etc.

At nearly all colleges you’ll take the math placement exam on a computer, and all questions will be multiple-choice. At some schools you will not be allowed to use a calculator of any kind, but some schools will let you bring a basic four-function calculator, or one will be provided on the computer. Retesting policies also differ from school to school – some colleges don’t allowing, but others will permit you to try again if you’re not satisfied with your score.

Not every school requires all students to take placement exams for math courses. At many schools, if an applicant achieves a high enough score on the ACT or SAT, they can skip placement exams and start taking advanced math classes immediately. If you’re being asked to take a placement test, it’s very important to prepare for the exam. If your score is high enough, you can save a lot of time, money, and boredom by skipping remedial and basic college math classes. You’ll enjoy college more and likely earn your degree faster.