What level of knowledge do universities expect from their admittees ?

Since in the US you have no universal exam like Gao Kao in China, nor do you have a standardised high school curriculum, and the students can pick any major once they are admitted, don't universities get a can in the sack? Would you not end up with the situation when different students who are on an utterly different level end up in one class? Could a student who, say, picked engineering as his major come to the beginner university maths class and find out that he is way behind on maths? Would you not end up with a class where some students were barely taught at high school how to find simple derivatives whilst others are proficient in integration? What if a student were to choose biology as his major and then come to the first class just to find out that he knows next to no biology and is thus unable to understand anything?

Are situation like this common?My question is: is there any standard level of knowledge that the newly admitted students are expected to have in any particular subject? Also, how do universities filter out students that have knowledge bellow that level? 


@Scott So, are you saying that it perfectly normal for a person with next to know knowledge of maths to end up in an engineering course? Are universities expected to teach every subject from scratch?

Update 2:

@MS Now I am starting to understand why your universities have gen-eds. Why isn't it more common for universities to accept to a major directly and only those who already have the preliminary knowledge?

7 Answers

  • 2 months ago
    Favorite Answer

    First, it's not quite true that there's no standardized high school curriculum. Nearly all high schools at least offer biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics up through calculus (or at least precalculus). Four years of English composition and literature, and at least three years of social studies (including one year of American History), science and mathematics are required by nearly all school systems.

    College applications require the students' high school transcripts to be submitted, so the colleges are fully aware exactly what math and science classes every applicant has taken (and their grades therein) prior to admissions. 

    If a university has a separate engineering college, it will often have different entry requirements for engineering majors. Engineering schools often require applicants to have taken calculus and physics in high school, for example, while the College of Arts and Sciences might just require math up to pre-calculus, and three years of unspecified laboratory science. The engineering schools might also require the SAT2 or AP exam to be taken in Calculus. 

    However, many college and universities do not require one to "declare" a major upon application, and/or do not have an engineering school.

    In these situations, there are several influencing factors:

    1. All college majors start at the "introductory" level. Other than in math and English, no former knowledge is expected in subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology, economics, or sociology. Of course, it may help to have learned the subjects in high school, but one is able to start from the beginning in college. Few high schools offer psychology, for example, but that doesn't stop anyone from getting an A in introductory psychology. Most engineering majors (outside of engineering schools) start out with Calculus 1, so any student with high school math through precalculus is ready to take it, although they may struggle with it more than someone who had it in high school and for whom it's review.

    2. Many colleges require a placement test given in math, to determine whether a student need to take college algebra, precalculus, or can proceed directly into calculus. The placement test is often waived if one scores highly enough on the SAT and one can start in Calculus 1 (a student may place out of Calculus 1 (and even 2) by a high enough score on the AP exam). More competitive colleges (like the Ivy League) can dispense with placement exams, because it's so difficult to get in that every admitted applicant will have a high enough score. 

    3. But even if a student has to start at college algebra, they can just plug away at the math prerequisites until they're ready for engineering-level math and physics. Just because they don't have a background in high school doesn't mean they're not intelligent enough to do the work. But such students may be "self-deleting" since it would take them so long to catch up in math (and meanwhile they can't take any of their major requirements), that they just choose another major.

  • ?
    Lv 5
    2 months ago

    chinese universities charge you and dont care if you fail , and there standard is not recognised in the states , you education is recognised world wide .havent you wondered why american and australian universities are full of chinese ..

  • 2 months ago

    The simple answer is yes, student will come in with vastly different backgrounds. Universities tend to teach classes like Chemistry from the beginning but they will cover things at a very fast paced and students are expected to learn a lot on their own if they don't have a solid foundation.

    Math is a little bit more tricky as a university isn't going to teach math from the beginning. But I don't know many programs that would expect you to know calculus coming in although most students getting into engineering programs will have likely taken calculus. Most engineering programs I am aware of start with calculus classes.

    Of course this does give advantage to students who were able to take many advanced level courses are their school.

    These are some of the reasons why the drop out rate in the STEM subjects is very large. Many students are not as prepared as they though they were and aren't will do dedicated the time necessary to get caught up.

  • 2 months ago

    No, that is not what Scott said at all. Many high schools teach math up to calculus. To be admitted to an engineering program, a student must have certain math courses in high school. For other students, there is a range of math. A humanities major may only need to take algebra. That class would have all students who haven't had a lot of math in high school. There is also often a placement test- I placed out of freshman English and 1st semester calculus, for example. Students usually need to have at least 2 years of science in high school to get into a university. A freshman biology class might assume some basic knowledge, but university biology goes much more in depth than any high school course. 

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  • MS
    Lv 7
    2 months ago

    Some degree programs require that students apply into those majors that expect some advanced knowledge to start.  If they don't have the necessary high school coursework, high school grades, and/or test scores, then they may not be admitted to that major.  Some universities have "pre-major" programs for potential majors in certain fields, and students must pass a set of key foundation courses (such as advanced math for engineering) before they can officially declare that major and continue on.  Some universities allow anyone to declare any major, and you might end up with a situation like what you describe - in that case, students usually figure out pretty quickly whether or not they are cut out for that program.  If not, that might be a reason they'd decide to change their major.

    EDIT in response to your follow-up question: Not everyone has the opportunity to receive the preliminary knowledge in high school, but do quite well when given the chance to prove themselves at the university-level. Not everyone knows what they want to do or what they will be good at until they get to college and have the opportunity to try some subjects out.  Not every major requires significant preliminary knowledge, so there's no reason to require them to apply into the major.  

  • ?
    Lv 7
    2 months ago

    College is different in that they don't really care weather you show-up or not, they've already GOT your money.  Same goes with your background.

  • Scott
    Lv 6
    2 months ago

    High school students are admitted based on their unweighted grade point average and their scores on an entrance exam like the SAT or ACT. It’s only for graduate or professional school that specific skills and knowledge are required.

    That’s one reason why the drop out rate in stem fields is so high in universities.   A lot of students are not able to pass the calculus one and two sequence their freshman year.

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