Common Questions and Answers about Graduate School Applications
QUESTION: Which application components are more important than others?
ANSWER: Faculty members have varied opinions on the value of each application item. The wise approach is to do as excellently as you can on everything so that over time you generate the most impressive set of academic accomplishments that you are capable of.
QUESTION: My friend told me I should submit as many letters of recommendation as possible with my application. Should I try to obtain more than the required 3 letters?
ANSWER: Faculty members on admissions committees may have hundreds of applications to read. Submitting more than the requested quantity of applications might actually be frowned on. What is important is not having more than the required quantity of letters, but rather what the authors of your letters say about you.
QUESTION: What constitutes an outstanding letter of recommendation?
ANSWER: If you are applying to an academic graduate degree program, your letters of recommendation should mostly (or all) be from faculty members. Those professors should be able to speak at length and in detail from personal knowledge about your character, your past performances in coursework and/or your research accomplishments (or at least your estimated potential to do excellently at research), and anything else convincing about your capabilities and interest in the subject. A letter of recommendation that merely says, “[student name] earned an A in my [course name] taken in [term]” is of no value because it only reveals what is already contained in your transcript.
QUESTION: What can I do to help me get great letters of recommendation?
ANSWER: When you ask a faculty member to write an excellent letter of recommendation for you, you are asking the member to put his/her reputation at risk. Additionally, for a faculty member to write a detailed letter, s/he has to have had time and opportunity to get to know you. It is not up to the professor to make that happen; it is your responsibility to present yourself to him/her.
When taking a class, your in-class conduct should be impressive. Habitually be punctual, do not leave class early, sit near the front, put all personal electronic equipment away (unless usage is required by the professor), be attentive, ask thoughtful questions as time permits, and be honest. Show that you have put thought into what you ask. If you have a question about homework, be able to demonstrate that you have first made ample responsible effort to solve the problem. Explain what you did and where you are stuck. If you work for a professor on research, show that you are responsible and a person of your word. Be thorough in your work. Stay in contact with the professor and professionally respond to all communication. Make good use of office hours.
If you are in close contact with a faculty member for only a short period of time (such as a quarter or two), stay in touch afterwards. Drop by once or twice per quarter to say hello and let the professor see how you are doing academically and otherwise. You should be reading mathematics journals and be able to discuss interesting topics in mathematics. Your performance in classwork should show that you have exceptional talent in learning the subject and using what you learn.
The UC San Diego Dine with a Professor and Coffee with a Professor programs are freely available to all undergraduate students. Check with your college student affairs office for details. These are excellent ways to get to know faculty members (and graduate student teaching assistants) on campus but outside of classroom or office settings.
QUESTION: How should I prepare for the GRE General Test and GRE Mathematics subject test?
ANSWER: General Record Examination tests are offered by Educational Testing Service (ETS). At the ETS website, you can read about the content and format of tests, rules of testing, dates and locations of upcoming tests, test application procedures and fees, how to have test scores sent to schools, and expiration of scores. Being fully versed in advance about test instructions will save valuable time during testing; you will still be able to read the instructions when you take the test, but at least the information will not be new to you.
For some tests, a reservation may be needed or recommended. Allow yourself months to study for any GRE test. A pattern of spending quality time daily using intelligent, proven study techniques is recommended. (There are many third-party study materials available to help in preparing for GRE tests.) These are not tests that can be properly prepared for by “cramming” over a few weekends.
QUESTION: Is there any guidance on what to say (and not say) in a personal statement?
ANSWER: The personal statement should be a narrative that speaks directly to the admission committee members, giving them a clear understanding of why you want to attend their program, what you think makes you an outstanding applicant, and how earning the desired graduate degree in their department will help you attain your career goals.
Do not exceed the statement’s length limit (if one is given). If specific questions are provided, respond to them. Avoid rambling, space fillers, and mentioning things that are irrelevant to the statement’s purpose (see above) or are overly personal. Faculty members who review applications are savvy. They know when an applicant is trying to dupe them and when a personal statement is light on substance. There is also no need to lecture readers on how great mathematics is. (Faculty members reviewing your application already love the subject. That is why they chose to spend their lives researching it!) If something in your record (such as a few bad grades or withdrawal from school for a time) can be explained honestly in a sentence or two, you may wish to do so, but beware of sounding as if you are making excuses for irresponsibility or getting unnecessarily detailed on personal matters. Be truthful, but do not use the statement to try to explain everything that has gone wrong in your life.
Do not go too far back in your life to relate experiences. If you showed a liking for numbers as a toddler, that is nice, but it does not in itself make you a more worthy candidate than someone whose interest surfaced in adolescence. What have you done throughout your undergraduate school years that shows great potential for you as a graduate student in mathematics? What research project in undergraduate mathematics have you contributed to and what specifically did you do? In what ways have you gone far beyond the minimum requirements of your coursework in order to learn and accomplish more? Have you pursued relationships with faculty members that demonstrates a desire to learn from them and become an advanced student? Have you demonstrated independence in studying beyond minimum course requirements? What inspires and excites you about mathematics? How dedicated are you? How willing are you to persevere in studying/researching at the graduate level? These are examples of things that you may want to mention.
A personal statement takes much time to prepare. Start working on it well in advance of the application deadline. Long before you submit it with your application, have it reviewed by people who will offer honest impressions. Some (if not all) of those people should be faculty members, and it would help if at least one is a person who does not know you but is well versed in the subject.
Finally, one faculty member offers this advice: There are personal things that may be appropriate to say in a graduate school application’s financial aid statement(s), but should not be mentioned in the personal statement because they are too personal and not directly related to the applicant’s mathematical capabilities.