What is the difference between business calculus and calculus?

calculus vs. business calculus

There is a lot of common ground between business calculus, sometimes called “applied calculus” or “calculus for business and the social sciences”, and calculus or “calc 1”. However, the focus of the courses are different and so are some of the main skills covered. Which course you take often depends on your major and what plans you may have for graduate school or further education.


What topics are covered in both courses?

In your first calculus course, you can expect to cover these main topics:

  • Limits – this is all about understanding the behavior of functions f(x) as they approach certain values of x. You will be finding limits using graphs and using algebraic techniques.
  • Derivatives – derivatives are a way of understanding rates of change. They are a central part of any introductory calculus course and so will be a big part of both classes.
  • Derivative applications – using derivatives, it is possible to understand the graphs functions in a way you couldn’t in previous courses, and this application is studied in both business calculus and calc 1. You can also use the same ideas in application problems, like finding the maximum profit (a natural application in a business calculus course!)
  • Integration – integrals are used to understand the area under a graph and to “undo” derivatives. Integration techniques (how to find integrals) are studied in your first and second calculus courses. These are studied more heavily in a regular calculus than in business calculus.
  • Additional topics – depending on the textbook and the professor, in either course you may also study applications of integration and possibly even a little bit about partial derivatives.

So what is different?

One of the key differences is trigonometry. Most often in business calculus, you do not work with trigonometric functions like sin(x) or cos(x). In a regular calculus course however, you work with these in every topic – from limits to integrals.

Another difference is focus. For example, in business calculus you will see ideas like marginal analysis where you use tools like derivatives, cost functions, and revenue functions to really understand a business situation. It is rare that this would be covered directly in other calculus courses. Instead, students in a calc 1 class will see the occasional application problem but it might relate to a variety of applications like physics or engineering. Even if they see a business application, the main focus is on the mathematical techniques.

Finally, in an regular calculus course, you will also focus on some definitions and occasional proofs that are really important to understanding the theory side of calculus. These may be touched upon in business calculus, but not on the same level – that time is spent on applications instead.

Which course should you take?

Whether you should take calculus or business calculus usually depends on your college, your major, and your future plans. In some business degree programs, it is a requirement while in others it may be that either business calculus or calc 1 can be taken. You can find information about this by talking to an advisor, a professor in the business department, or in the college catalog.

Another consideration is if you plan on eventually entering an analytical MBA program or a masters degree program with a business analytics focus. Depending on how mathematical the program is, it may be that they want to see a strong focus on mathematics courses like calc 1 and often statistics. This is something that may be worth checking into if you know it is in your future. Still, most programs will be ok simply with your business degree (including business calculus), test scores on tests like the GMAT or GRE, and related experience.


Which is easier?

Nobody would call any kind of calculus course easy. But, most students would tell you that business calculus is a bit easier than calculus since there is less of a focus on theory and there are less rules to learn for derivatives and integrals. For those that are not mathematically inclined, this can be a relief, but it is still quite a tough course! No matter which calculus course you take, you should be sure you are putting in the work should you want to succeed.

Additional reading

Before your calculus class starts, take a few minutes to review the following articles!

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