Math Programs for High School


Kate Sliunkova

AdmitYogi, Stanford MBA & MA in Education



6 min read

Math Programs for High School


So, you want to major in mathematics in college. How do you go about making it happen? Of course, your academic record is crucial, but you should also evaluate other areas of your profile, such as extracurricular activities. These activities can help you demonstrate that you are developing your critical thinking skills and following your enthusiasm for mathematics outside of the classroom. In other words, your dedication to math outside of the classroom can be equally as important as your dedication to math inside the classroom (à la grades and test scores).

Are Extracurriculars Important for College

Many renowned schools, including top-tier public and private colleges and universities, conduct a holistic examination of each candidate, which means they consider all aspects of her profile, not just her academic record. Less competitive public universities typically do not conduct comprehensive reviews, instead relying solely on candidates' transcripts. While less competitive private universities may be more likely to evaluate individuals holistically, unusual actions are rarely required.

If you have a poor academic record, your extracurricular activities can help you stand out. While a B+ student is unlikely to get admission to an Ivy League college, her great extracurricular profile may be enough to tip an admissions committee in her favor if she is a borderline candidate.

The Four Extracurricular Activity Levels

Extracurricular activities are classified into four categories. The levels are arranged in decreasing order of rarity and "impressiveness" in terms of how college admissions committees will evaluate them.

A tier 1 activity, for example, displays outstanding achievement and is unlikely to be encountered on a regular basis by admissions committees. For example, winning a national math competition would fall into this category.

A tier 2 activity, on the other hand, is still noteworthy, however universities are more likely to see it. Serving as president of your school's chapter of a famous math group is one example.

Tier 3 activities are more common, such as being secretary of the same math chapter.

Tier 4 activities do not demonstrate considerable success, but they do provide universities with information about your interests and hobbies outside of the classroom. This category includes participation in a math-related group.

You should try to spread your activities throughout all four tiers, but you'll probably find that the majority of them fall into tiers 2-4. If you want to truly maximize your chances of gaining admission into a top university, you’ll want to have a tier 1 activity. We’ll now discuss how you might approach that.

Extracurricular Activities for Math

National Math Honor Society

Mu Alpha Theta, also known as the National Math Honor Society, is a high school and two-year college honor society with chapters in the United States and 23 other countries. Its goal is to acknowledge the accomplishments of kids who excel in mathematics while also inspiring interest in the discipline. To join their high school chapter, students must have completed at least two years of college preparatory mathematics, such as algebra and geometry, and have a 3.0 in math courses. Students and faculty advisers can receive national scholarships and honors from the society, and those who do can include this as a tier 1 activity. Other students may consider it a tier 2 or 3 activity, depending on their level of commitment.

Math Olympiad

The Math Olympiad, a two-day tournament, allows 250 high school students to test their understanding of arithmetic problems in a contest based on qualifying exam scores. The top 12 scorers are asked to participate in the Olympiad summer program of the Mathematical Association of America. The top six finishers in this round will represent the United States at the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Students who qualify for the competition may regard this as a tier 2 activity, whereas those who are invited to compete in the International Mathematical Olympiad may regard it as a tier 1 activity. Local placement is considered a tier 3 activity.

Math League

Math League is a competition for elementary, middle, and high school students. Students in high school can compete individually or as a team in one of six annual events. The event consists of six questions, with students having 30 minutes to answer as many as they can. This is a tier 2 activity for state winners and a tier 1 activity for national champions, albeit individual placement is considered more spectacular than a team effort.

Destination Imagination

In this tournament, teams of students are given challenges to solve. Students often practice their responses for 2-4 months before competing in local tournaments. The challenges range from technical to scientific to service learning to fine arts. An engineering challenge can entail creating a bridge out of certain materials, evaluating its load capacity, and describing the story behind the bridge. Teams compete at four levels: local (tier 4), regional (tier 3), affiliate (tier 2), and worldwide (tier 1). Ultimately, Destination Imagination is a great activity for showing math prowess, but also interdisciplinary thinking skills.

Future Problem Solving Initiative

The Future Problem Solving Initiative (FPSPI) is a collaborative program that involves a curriculum in which students deal with decision-making through a six-step approach, encouraging the development of critical and creative thinking abilities to tackle world problems. There are elements that are both competitive and non-competitive. This activity can be spread across all four layers. Students that proceed to the international level in one of FPSPI's four contests (Global Issues Problem Solving, Community Problem Solving, Scenario Writing, and Scenario Performance, for example) should expect this to be a tier 1 or 2 activity, depending on their placement.

Odyssey of the Mind

Odyssey of the Mind, an international creative problem-solving program, incorporates areas other than arithmetic; for example, challenges may require students to apply artistic and technological knowledge to design mechanical dinosaurs. School-sponsored teams are encouraged to compete, but you can also compete without that label.

Competitions, clubs, and chapters

Other math-related and problem-solving groups and competitions, such as Game Theory Club or Mathletes, are available at many high schools. Depending on how involved a student is in these clubs or chapters, they can be classified as tier 2, 3, or 4 activities. A Mathletes chapter president, for example, would likely classify this as a tier 2 activity, whereas a participant who does not place in local competition should classify it as a tier 4 activity.


Extracurricular activities are a vital component of getting accepted to selective colleges in the United States. As aspiring math majors, you should think deeply about how you would like to approach building a math-related “spike.”

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