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Is it Possible to Have Fallen Too Far Behind in Math?

  1. May 6, 2014 #1
    ...And is there a point at which one should just give up?

    I'm not talking about taking Math classes, putting a decent amount of effort into them, and then failing. I'm talking about being behind from the start.

    I will admit that my academic past is... Well, it's terrible. I was an awful student. Between about fifth grade and nearing the end of my junior year in high-school, I just did not care about ANYTHING related to school. I slept through most of my classes, never did homework or studied, and I did the bare minimum that I possibly could to pass with the lowest grades I could and basically didn't learn anything.

    I have a much different attitude about academics now, but I am still definitely facing the fallout of my past poor decisions. I am presently an undergraduate freshman at a community college and I'm just about wrapping up with the pre-requisite to College Algebra (you don't need to tell me how pathetic that is, I am well aware, and quite humiliated to boot). This is obviously horrible for anyone wanting to pursue a career in Physics.

    So, tell me what you think. Is it too late for me? Did I screw myself over too severely to ever catch up? I am very concerned about where I am, and I hope that I can overcome this; but I know that this is obviously a very demanding subject, so maybe I've already ruined it for myself.

    Any advice helps, thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 6, 2014 #2
    You certainly did screw yourself over quite a bit. But it's not use to dwell in the past. The main question is "is it too late"? No, it's not too late. You're still young and you're more mature now to actually put in the work necessary. There are quite an amount of people getting their degrees in their thirties, even some people active on PF so I'm hoping they will chime in here.

    Don't look back at the past and go on learning stuff. College algebra and high school mathematics is evidently very useful in many paths, not only for physics. Maybe you'll change your mind and pursue something else like engineering instead, but the math you learn now will still be important. Just go on and learn as much as you can. It's certainly not too late for anything.
  4. May 6, 2014 #3


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    I think you can catch up but College Algebra is going to be difficult, it is at least 2 school years' content, for most people it is a refresher course but for you it'll be brand new. So passing it is going to be probably the toughest thing you've ever done.

    To have the very best chance, you'll want to know the prerequisite material very well. I'm still undecided on what book to recommend, I want to recommend a book that all and only the prerequisites in a useful way, although I know you have done a course in it but this is super important. I can't find a good book now so I'll look again tomorrow.

    Found the right books:
    US: https://www.amazon.com/Spectrum-Mat...8&qid=1399414091&sr=1-2&keywords=grade+8+math, Algebra
    UK: Grade 8 math, Algebra

    Book one has important stuff like interest, ratios, geometry, etc. Book two has algebra up to quadratic equations, which is where I think college algebra will start. I recommend learning what is in these books first before doing college algebra because college algebra starts where these end and it'll go pretty quickly.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  5. May 6, 2014 #4
    Yes, you did and quite severely too. Is it too late to catch up? Of course not. There are people who start much later than you. My friend's uncle, a few years back, was going to community college at an old age and now he is pursuing a degree at a good university.

    You have made the realization that you need to study and that education is important for you, which is good. College algebra may be difficult for you, but with motivation and good study habits/work ethic you should be able to do it. Good luck.
  6. May 6, 2014 #5
    I had similar fears when I returned to school at the age of 24. The highest math class I took in high school was Algebra 2 and I received a "D" one semester and a "C" the next. I didn't do too well in any of the prior math classes either. I got C's just to get by.

    I always felt confident about my ability to learn math, but I was extremely lazy. When I decided I wanted to return to college I had a lot of anxiety about my math. The college I applied to used the ACT Residual to place people in my situation. I spent several months (about 1 semester) studying, I made a list of all the subjects tested on the ACT and worked my way through them. I started with Pre-algebra concepts on-line, then, bought a Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 book. It was embarrassing to study and ask others for help when I got stuck, but I toughed it out.

    When I took the placement test I tested into Calculus I, but chose to take pre-calculus II instead since I was never exposed to trigonometry. This semester I finished Calculus I with an "A" and and I am no longer worried about my math versus others in my classes.

    So, I guess all that to say... I don't think it is too late.
  7. May 6, 2014 #6
    Two years? College Algebra is a specific one-semester course where I'm going... Quadratic equations were part of the last unit of the class that I just about finished, so I guess it will be what comes after that. I think that I have a good enough grasp of the prerequisite stuff, considering that I've been doing fine in the class (it wasn't an effortless breeze or anything; I still needed to study to do well), but I guess I hadn't considered if there was going to be a large difficulty gap.

    Oh, and thank you for conjuring up those links. Like I said, anything helps.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  8. May 6, 2014 #7
    Thank you for sharing this. I feel better knowing that I wasn't the only one who had a hard time with this.


    And thank you to everyone else who responded. I'm feeling a little less worried and embarrassed about it now. Still a little frustrated about my position of course, but I guess time will remedy that as long as I pass my classes.
  9. May 6, 2014 #8


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    I was in the same position as you, except I was home schooled. At 18 I went to my local community college and signed up for Introductory Algebra--two full semesters below college algebra. I'm currently 22 and have taken a math course (or three) every semester I've been in school. Next spring I'll have a bachelor's degree with a concentration in Pure Mathematics. It will have taken 5 years total.

    When asking "is it too late for me?" it depends on what you want to do. I don't think its ever too late to pursue an academic field. Unless you are extraordinarily gifted, or extraordinarily motivated and hard working, it is probably too late to get into a top tier PhD program without getting a masters first.
  10. May 6, 2014 #9
    College algebra is different everywhere you go (so are most courses). What verty means is that in high school, it is generally covered in 2 years. Of course universities expect more maturity and so on and therefore the course is much shorter (in your case one semester long).
  11. May 7, 2014 #10


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    other than algebraic techniques for solving linear and quadratic equations. i would focus on polynomial, logarithmic, and exponential functions. those are the most struggled with parts of college algebra, from what i have seen from classmates.
  12. May 7, 2014 #11


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    I was just worried that it might be too much too fast, is all.
    Last edited: May 7, 2014
  13. May 7, 2014 #12


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    I started at a community college, with "Introduction to Algebra" - pretty much where you're starting. It took a lot of work and determination but I ended up with a BS in physics.

    Don't think you have to rush just because you feel you're starting so low. It takes time to learn math - there are no shortcuts. Don't be tempted to skip a prerequisite!
  14. May 7, 2014 #13
    A friend of mine who failed algebra (twice!) and had a 2.5 high school GPA just got admitted to Cornell for his physics PhD.

    Make of that what you will.
  15. May 7, 2014 #14
    That's a prime example of how your high school results are not an indication of your capabilities.
  16. May 8, 2014 #15
    Einstein wasn't very good at math and had his girlfriend do his physics math as an undergraduate, while others did it for him when advancing Maxwells theory of relativity. You can evidently be bad at math and still do physics.

    I don't have a girlfriend though;(
  17. May 9, 2014 #16
    I'm in a similar situation to OP. I had dating/girlfriend problems throughout high school and did not do so well in math and other subjects. My grades were quite bad in math (C's and D's), so I know that feeling of being behind and having to catch up.

    I'm slightly ahead of OP in that I'll be taking Precalculus and Trigonometry this year in community college, but I'm sure there are many people further along than me. Having said that, there were actually some much older folks in my College Algebra class last year. I'm talking people in their 30's, 40's and two in their 50's!!

    Interestingly enough, the highest grades in the class were me, a 20-something girl, and one of the 40 year olds. The 40-yo was an older woman, who I think never got a chance at an education while growing up, but seemed very hardworking with her shot now. She asked a lot of questions in class and seemed always on top of homework and was very alert throughout lectures. You could tell she was focused.

    Good luck to you OP and if you want to do a study thread for people like you and me, I'd be down to do like an online math review and problem-solving thing. I actually need to study and review this summer before my Precalculus/Trig. class, so if you're interested at all in posting problems or questions in College Algebra, I might be able to join in (if not, no worries either).

    I think with the right mindset, attitude, and strategy that you may well find yourself doing a lot better than you may think and certainly better than many of the students I saw in my own College Alg. class who were slacking off and didn't seem to care very much about learning. I really think you may be surprised how much you can accomplish with the right preparation and attitude!
  18. May 9, 2014 #17
    Thank you for the support. This site seems like it's full of pretty cool people.

    As for the online problem-solving, I think there's a whole section of this forum dedicated to that already.
  19. May 13, 2014 #18
    Completely untrue urban myth. He began his study of calculus at age 12 and passed the physics and mathematics portions of the ETH entrance exam at age 16. Don't know why people keep repeating such things.
  20. May 13, 2014 #19
    First off- Don't be embarrassed. This will cause anxiety issues in the future.

    Secondly, you're fine! Don't get too ahead of yourself in where you *should* be. Just focus on where you're at! You're starting to build up the foundation for your mathematical house, so try your best to REALLY understand your upcoming algebra and trigonometry classes. I can't tell you how many people want to just get over with algebra and trig to get to calculus, but then stumble and fall because they didn't truly understand what they were doing...

    Good luck, and work hard so you can achieve your academic goals.
  21. May 14, 2014 #20
    It Is because it makes people feel better if someone who was a genius had the same problems they did. Much the same way if people who were terrible at chemistry heard Curie was terrible at balancing reactions.
  22. May 15, 2014 #21
    This topic seems to have been covered fairly well, but I think I still have a little to add.

    Math goes very fast in college. Unlike high school, where each class takes a year, you can cover up to four classes a year in college (either three quarters plus summer or two semesters plus summer/winter). At Pierce College (where I went for my first year of community college), the math sequence is:
    -Elementary Algebra
    -Plane Geometry/Intermediate Algebra
    -Calculus 1
    -Calculus 2
    -Calculus 3/Linear Algebra
    -Differential Equations

    So even if you start out in prealgebra, it's perfectly possible to get through all the math and still only spend three years in community college (including the physics courses) if you are able to take summer/winter, which is about a typical amount of time. I started out in trigonometry due to apathy during high school and couldn't even get into the class my first semester. I ended up taking trig in the spring and transferring after two years after taking calc 2 and will be graduating this year after a total of four years. I have a friend who started out in college algebra and will be finishing this year after a total of five years. So the moral of the story is that no matter how far behind you are, you should have no problem catching up in less than two years (assuming you are going to school full time and don't have any further setbacks and, of course, don't struggle with math too much).
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