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The course calendar for my university describes Chem 101 and 102 as "math intensive". However, it doesn't say what kind of math is involved.

What kind of math should I expect in first year chemistry? Would it be helpful to have first year calculus under my belt first?

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to chem.SE! Also, which country? It could differ you know. $\endgroup$ – M.A.R. May 1 '15 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ @MARamezani - Thanks for the welcome. Re: which country? Canada. I think that the curriculum here is the same as it is the US. The MCAT website categorizes the tested materials according to classes that teach it; they don't distinguish between American and Canadian schools. Likewise, the Canadian medical schools that I've looked into don't distinguish American credits for their prerequisite classes from Canadian ones, but for other countries, the prerequisite credits vary. $\endgroup$ – Hal May 1 '15 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ A quick search gives me Calculus and Linear algebra from here $\endgroup$ – Gowtham May 1 '15 at 15:38
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Let's answer three ways:

  1. Specific expected math Important mathematical skills will include algebra (including understanding variables and constants conceptually), interpreting graphs, and logorithms. There is very little chance you will need to know calculus in first year chemistry. If you have specific concerns, like those described in the comments, your advisor or department assistant should be able to directly address those.

  2. First year chem philosophy A good goal for first year chemistry is to understand fundamental chemistry concepts so that you can apply them in future courses and work. To do this, you need to know enough math that it doesn't prohibit you from understanding the concepts.

  3. Continuing Education This one is just my opinion and I'm sure many will disagree. If you want to work in chemistry, take more math and physics than the department requires. It will give you a more thorough and complete understanding of chemistry. It will give you an edge in the future in solving interesting problems. This can be done in parallel however- the department won't expect that you're doing this.

Bonus: As many people before me have suggested, go to 6-8 classes on syllabus day even if you're only signed up and intending to take 4. Its always better to know your options and theres no risk to going and seeing whats available. In this case, you'll learn if you've got the background the professor expects for this course and can compare it with other options.

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There is relatively little mathematics required for a typical first year chemistry course beyond what most will have studied at school.

A solid understanding of algebra, trigonometry and diffrentiation/integration is necessary. More advanced topics which may be useful include partial derivatives, solving simple first and second order differential equations, solving partial differential equations, group theory, Fourier transforms.

Appreciation of group theory in particular is important for a good understanding of spectroscopy and quantum mechanics. A good (but difficult!) introduction to this topic with suitable examples is Chemical Applications of Group Theory by F.A. Cotton. For the other mathematics you might find Mathematics for Engineers and Scientists by Alan Jeffrey useful, although there are lots of other texts which cover this sort of material well.

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    $\begingroup$ To clarify, you're not suggesting that spectroscopy and quantum mechanics will be covered from theoretical perspective in first year chemistry are you? I would expect that at most students would be exposed to spectroscopy as a block box that helps you in the lab. Also, can you give an example of problem a student would need to solve first year that requires differentiation/integration? I can't think of one. $\endgroup$ – ericksonla May 1 '15 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ Many of my physical chemistry problems in first year (at a European university) in kinetics or thermodynamics or chemical physics used calculus. Maybe the pedagogy is different at other universities but I struggle to think how you could teach any substantial physical chemistry without it. $\endgroup$ – J. LS May 1 '15 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ @J.LS IRC physical chemistry is taught as its own course at my (and I presume, at most north american) schools. At least, from what you're saying, I hope that's the case. Word on the street is that there's reason for students to fear integrals and derivatives. Learning those as their own concept along with chemistry would be an intimidating proposal. $\endgroup$ – Hal May 2 '15 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ Most of the first year physical chemistry we read (chemistry major) included lots of calculus, specifically things like euler chain law, partial diffrential equations, various operators like laplacion. For both multi-component thermodynamics as well as quantum chemistry depends on it. For chemistry minor courses thermodynamics was bit relaxed but still considerable amount of calculus was there in quantum chemistry. $\endgroup$ – ipcamit Jul 22 '15 at 4:07

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