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Is it too late to get into a top math program?

  1. Jun 4, 2012 #1
    Look, I know these threads are annoying but I just need all the information I can get. Believe me, I've read a lot of the relevant threads but I believe my situation is somewhat unique because I am deciding so late. Also, I know that it's not the end of the world if I don't get into a top school. It's just nice to set high (but realistic) goals.
    Here's my background.

    Long story short: I was a terrible student in highschool (to the extent that I almost failed out of 11th grade) but I turned it around and got into a decent state school. Unfortunately, I didn't know that math was cool until my sophmore year. Also, I spent a lot of time in physics and only decided that I wanted to go into math grad school a month or 2 ago (I'm entering my senior year this fall). I'm trying math research for the first time this summer so I will have at most 1 summer +fall to do research. Btw, by top I mean top 20 not top 6. I know that top 6 is impossible. My dream school right now is UT Austin. Here are my grades:
    (I took Calc I &II in 11th grade and didn't try).

    Calc I: C+
    Calc II: B
    Intro to proofs: B

    A-'s in:
    Linear Algebra
    Advanced Linear Algebra
    Graph theory
    1st semester of Grad Analysis

    A's in:
    RA I
    RA II
    This problem solving course at my school
    Abstract Algebra I
    Grad Abstract Algebra I
    2nd semester of grad Analysis
    Diff Eq.
    Partial Diff Eq.

    I also took 1 grad level physics course if it's relevant plus 10.5 other physics courses.

    I expect to have 7/8 grad math courses by the time applications roll around. Any advice or input is greatly appreciated.

    Edit: Forgot to include 2 classes
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 4, 2012 #2
    I have just been accepted into graduate school this upcoming term so I don't have much other than anecdotal remarks. There's nothing wrong with your grades on a class to class basis. Overall gpa may be important though. In the end it was really strong recommendations that got me accepted.
  4. Jun 4, 2012 #3
    Why is overall gpa important? I've always heard that math schools only care about math grades.
  5. Jun 4, 2012 #4

    king vitamin

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    Many schools have minimum GPAs enforced. If the department wants to admit someone below the min GPA (usually 2.8-3.2) they need permission from the main Graduate School's dean or other administrators. If you're under the minimum, you've better hope the rest of your application is so strong that it'll want the admissions committee want to go through all that trouble for you. Also, there's the obvious usual argument that if you're in the range of the cutoff for acceptance and they need to decide which students to weed out, if your GPA is decently lower than your competitors it gives them a good reason to toss your application out.

    In any case, as theorem4.5.9 said, the real indicator of how you'll do in admissions (provided your GPA/GRE aren't terrible) is recommendation letters. You should really focus on impressing whoever you're working with this summer. Did you do any significant physics research?
  6. Jun 4, 2012 #5
    Some institutions have minimum gpa requirements. Other than meeting these (if they even post such requirements) I'm not sure if it's looked at. You could always find the Profs on the graduate admission committee at your university and ask what they they look for. I don't know why more students don't do this.

    EDIT: that reminds me of a story one of my professors told me. When her friend applied to a top 3 graduate school, the department accepted them but the graduate school denied them. The graduate school didn't like their gre scores. They ended up going elsewhere instead of repeating the exam.
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2012
  7. Jun 4, 2012 #6
    My overall gpa is over 3.7. I did do physics research however I'm absolutely sure that I did not impress my advisor. I wasn't particularly interested in what I was doing and he is one of those people that is very hard to impress. In fact several people who had worked with him in the past told me to avoid him but unfortunately I did not heed their warnings.
    I think that I could impress the person that I'm working for this summer provided that I work hard enough. I will certainly definitely try my best to do so.

    Do recommendations from professors I've only had courses with hold much weight? I know several that really seem to like me and have commented very positively on my abilities.

    Also, if it's relevant I was given a departmental award this year (given to one person annually) even though I didn't have the highest gpa in my year.
  8. Jun 4, 2012 #7

    king vitamin

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    If the professors you took courses with know you decently well then their recommendations will be good. Especially if those professors nominated you for the award you won, and if you took grad classes from them that you excelled in so they can compare your performance to grad students. Over a 3.7 GPA is probably fine, especially since it looks like you'll be able to brag about a very high advanced/graduate math GPA.

    I would simply say that you should really try to impress your advising professor in research a lot, and really kick *** on the math GRE. I didn't start my main research project until this time last year, and even though I didn't have a paper out in time for applications, I got an excellent letter and acceptances into top schools. The phrase I've heard is that "recommendations get you into graduate school, GPAs or GREs can keep you out." If your grades/tests are non-competetive it's a red flag, but just having good grades/tests won't impress admissions committees.
  9. Jun 4, 2012 #8
    Yes, king vitamin is right. Letters really help your application. They are essential for any competitive program. That said, doing a good job at everything you do is one of the few things you have serious control over. Assuming you do try to do a mini thesis with a professor, that's a good letter candidate.

    It isn't too late, but do apply widely - all top math programs are very competitive, and there's a lot of randomness from year to year. People who started late can and do get into all levels of math programs, but it just goes to say it's hard for almost anyone who isn't a clear prodigy.

    My advice is to find a large number of schools you'd be happy at. Remember - it's not the school, but a small community of researchers that does things you like, that is ultimately vital to your having a happy experience (that and things like location can come to play). So just choose enough places that very well fit what you see yourself doing.
  10. Jun 4, 2012 #9
    @King Vitamin
    That's good to hear. I know that you got into a lot of top 10 schools. Although I think you did go to a top 20 undergrad school right?

    I'm well aware of how random acceptances tend to be. I do plan on applying to a wide range of schools. I actually really like the math department of the school I'm currently attending even though it's ~80th. It has a really nice atmosphere and the people are great. The one problem though is the limited course selection in my desired field of study. The course selection at top 20 schools makes me drool.
  11. Jun 4, 2012 #10
    Course selection has little to do with the ranking of a school. If you want a large course selection, go to a large program. I think one of the greatest advantages of highly ranked programs is your fellow grad students. Lower ranked programs tend to have a lot of people who want to teach community college or something similar, while higher ranked programs have students with grander goals. I'm generalizing a lot here, but that's been my experience.
  12. Jun 4, 2012 #11
    I second theorem's advice that course selection has little to do with rank (just look at Princeton!!). Usually, large departments have more courses to offer, but at some point, this breaks down - look at Caltech, a tiny program, as compared to programs 3 times as big. It offers a pretty good load of courses even in special topics.
  13. Jun 4, 2012 #12
    I have only looked at the programs of top 30 schools and all the ones I looked at have more courses than my school so I just assumed that would be the case(a somewhat large state school). I did figure that it depended on size. For example a large top 30 school may have better course selection than a top 15 school because of size but if you compare a school that's top 20 to a school that's outside of the top 50 there's probably not going to be much competition. Also, the breadth of material covered in each course will probably be larger on average at a top 20 school because the students will on average be able to take on more material per semester.

    The students are another reason I would want to go to a top 20 or 30 program. I don't want to be better and significantly more prepared than the average student at the grad program I attend. I feel that this would be the case if I venture too far outside the top 50. In fact, it would be nice if I were a little below average. That would push me to get smarter faster but I wouldn't feel overwhelmed (this is why I'm avoiding top 10 programs). I would also like to be surrounded by ambitious people like myself. Actually I feel that I sometimes under perform because there aren't enough ambitious people in my undergrad department. Like I always feel bad asking to get into grad courses or I feel bad overloading on math courses because people will tell me how I work too hard when I really don't feel that I do.
  14. Jun 4, 2012 #13

    king vitamin

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    Yeah, I actually just graduated from UT Austin. I agree that the math department is fantastic - good luck with getting in!

    I also had some interesting conversations with various people while attending open houses regarding grad classes at different places. For example, some people who were familiar with both schools commented that at MIT the grad courses really hit you hard and prepared you for research, whereas at Berkeley the classes were simple updates on undergrad and you learn the material used in research on your own/from others (this is in physics). Of course, I think everyone across the board (including the professors) agreed that you learn so much more from fellow grad students than classes or your advisor anyways.
  15. Jun 5, 2012 #14
    That's interesting to hear. I would have thought that classes as Berkeley would be at about the same level. Thank you for your advice and input by the way!
  16. Jun 5, 2012 #15
    This is false. A buddy of mine just got into Berkeley with a quite low GRE score and a GPA in the 3.5-3.75 range. His letters of recommendation and statement of purpose were key.

    I also know another student who got admitted to Princeton. Surely he had a better profile than my friend who got into Berkeley, but when you talk to him, he just seems like a regular guy who is very interested in mathematics, rather than some uber-genius.

    Our school is one of the "public ivy's" that is not particularly great in math.
  17. Jun 5, 2012 #16
    By impossible, I meant highly unlikely for someone in my situation. Keep in mind that my school's math rank is in the 80's. I think it's a lot easier to get from top 30 to top 10 than to go from top 80 something to top 10. Last year, the best person from my school decided on a school that was 50th. I'm not sure whether he got into any significantly better schools. It could be that he simply liked that particular one. I have significantly more coursework than him I believe so that might give me an edge. Of course the year before we sent someone to Cornell. Either way, I think the admissions process is really random sometimes.
  18. Jun 5, 2012 #17
    You might be right, simply because the letter writers have a little extra pull, but quite honestly, students from all sorts of schools get accepted to the top schools, and I've heard a school like Berkeley is a little more willing to take students from "random" schools than, say, some of the elite private schools (Princeton, etc).

    With good performance, I think you should get accepted to a very good program. Don't think too much about rank, because I think nowadays especially perhaps, rank does not correlate very well with either student quality or how hard it is to get in. Sure, the very highest ranked schools like MIT, Princeton and such get a very high percentage of incredible students, but otherwise, there's quite a lot of variation.
  19. Jun 5, 2012 #18
    I know people who have gone from sub-100 programs to top 10 programs. It's not easy but it happens. For the previous post concerning Berkeley's courses, I'm skeptical and at best think it's quite a generalization.
  20. Jun 6, 2012 #19
    I'll share an anecdote and possible advice. I was in a similar situation as you my junior year. I had been in physics and planning on going to physics grad school and then changed my mind towards the end of my junior year and managed to get a math REU. I was a bit behind you, so completing the added math major would take another year and a semester, giving me an extra year to get to know/impress my math professors and another summer for an REU. I think that this extra year was key - I had many more math courses on my transcript and got to know three math professors fairly well (taking 3 courses with one and doing research with the other two). So if you can afford it, you might consider trying to stay for an extra semester/quarter so that you can work over another summer and have more classes. For what it's worth, since you mentioned UT Austin as a dream school, I had similar grades as you, fewer classes, and got into UT Austin for their math PhD program this year. I think you are doing fine.
  21. Jun 6, 2012 #20
    I can't afford to stay an extra year unfortunately.
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