Students who want to study mathematics in graduate school should start thinking about these items during their Junior year:
- Undergraduate preparation for graduate school
- Selection of schools to apply to
- The application process
The application process begins during the Fall of the Senior year.
Undergraduate Preparation for Graduate School
An aggressive plan is presented in Math Major Requirements for students who are considering graduate school in mathematics. There are some course selection suggestions on that page as well. At a minimum the student should complete the BS degree requirements. Some will schools look at your transcript to see evidence of exposure to graduate level courses.
Which Schools Should I Apply To?
The choice of graduate school is an important step in the career of a mathematician. The process begins with the selection of schools you will apply to. First decide how many applications you can afford. Each school will have an application fee. Treat the application process like an investment portfolio – have a sure thing, have a long shot, and have some middle of the road chances – diversify. You can learn a lot about schools by talking to professors. Other excellent resources of grad school information are the American Mathematical Society and the mathematics grad school listing.
You should determine whether a university you are planning to apply to has top faculty members pursuing research in your potential field of specialization. There are a number of mathematics departments which may not be highly ranked, but do have top mathematicians who can be excellent thesis advisors.
While it is important to choose a school with strong reputation in your field of interest, it is also important to balance this with the overall breadth of the department. The talent of other graduate students in the program is also important. During the first few years of graduate study you will learn much from other graduate students, so it is very helpful to have good peers.
Applying to Graduate School
Letters of Recommendation
Ask professors with whom you have had classes and who know you well enough to write about work habits, character and tenacity as well as your mathematical talents.
You will be required to write one or two application essays. Typically you will need to describe your academic background, your achievements to date, what experiences have led you to mathematics, and what areas of research interest you most. Those essays give you an opportunity to explain away possible bad grades, to describe your resolve, and to convince the admissions committee that you not only have mathematical ability, but that you can persevere to finish your dissertation. They want to know that you are not going to grad school just because you could think of nothing better to do, or because you missed the deadline for a professional school exam.
Graduate Record Exam
Besides recommendations and essays, other criteria for admissions include grades and scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Take this seriously, having poor grades in math courses or poor GRE scores can hurt your chances. Most universities require applicants to take two parts of the GRE — the general and the subject tests. The general part is similar to the SAT. You may not have seen some of the material on the subject test, so you should study up on the test material – you have less than a minute per question. Information on the GRE is available here.
The deadlines for graduate school applications range from late December to early March. Most schools require you to complete your application folder in January. The deadlines for fellowship applications start as early as October.