As some of you know, I’m working on Cornell’s Summer Math Research Program for Undergrads this summer. The program directors held a workshop/talk about what us undergrads should expect when applying to math grad school. Most of us are rising juniors, with a smattering of rising seniors and sophomores. I’m going to briefly lay out a schedule of what an aspiring math grad student should look forward to.

The first thing to do is the GRE, typically in the applicant’s junior year. In 2014-2015, the tests were held on September 27th, October 25th, and April 18th. There are also subject tests. It seems like the Math subject test is the only one that matters for Math grad school. The presenter didn’t linger on this topic. It seems like GRE scores won’t help you, but can hurt you if they are low. The presenter told a story of a promising Cornell math undergrad who didn’t study at all for the GRE. He had impressive coursework and some research, and seemed on track to get into one of the “big six” grad schools. However, he completely bombed the GRE, and went to a second tier school as a result. Apparently, we shouldn’t worry too much or to little about the GRE.

In our junior and senior years, we should work on developing a mix of general background (undergrad courses), expertise on specific topics (grad courses), and research experience (published papers). Published papers are not necessary: the typical accepted applicant has published no papers. They are tremendously helpful, however. The most important thing is developing good relationships with professors, to write letters of recommendation. Also, make sure that the trends on grades are good. Good grades in sophomore and junior year are crucial; a few C’s in freshman year can be overlooked. That’s really it for junior year, next comes the beginning of the application process.

The next part is choosing which schools to apply to. By the fall of senior year, the applicant should have at least a vague idea of their specialty. This is not meant to be a final idea, and it should not be constricting. The big six graduate schools are:

The second tier (given by the presenter) are:

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. One word of caution: don’t just apply for the big six. If you don’t get into any, then you might be left high and dry. Apply to a mix of stretch, standard, and safety schools, like with college.

At this point, the applicant should be writing the essays for their schools. The essays, like the GRE scores, can disqualify you, but cannot help much. DO NOT start your essay with :

The essay should be a statement of interest, similar to the college admissions essay. Talk about why you like math, and why you want to go to grad school. If you can’t write about this, you should reconsider your motivations for going to grad school.

Your applications will be submitted in early January. Cornell returns decisions by February 1st. The presenter told us that we should tell every college we have yet to hear from when we are accepted into another grad school. This is good for the applicant, because the admissions officers will be thinking more about the strength of applicants than their yield rate, according to the presenter. This is the time when it’s good to apply to a mix of stretch, normal, and safety options, because you don’t want to suddenly have to start interviewing for jobs with no warning if no graduate school accepts you. To give an idea of the statistics, in 2015 Cornell had 250 applicants. They admitted 30 of them, and 10 accepted.

Every grad school will have an official vising weekend, and will give the accepted students a small travel budget. You can meet and talk with professors and especially current grad students. They’re a good bellweather. They are most often honest about the struggles that they face, and will tell you the strengths and weaknesses of that program honestly.

Once you’ve decided which program you want to accept (if any), that’s it! Have fun in graduate school!