Applying to Graduate School

Use this guide to understand the steps in applying to graduate school and to prepare the strongest applications you can. 

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Planning to apply to graduate school? Our guide to considering & choosing programs can help you make choices about programs and schools to apply to. On this page, we give you advice to help you plan your applications and to showcase your skills to admissions committees.

Graduate school applications consist of some basic information, a resume, a statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation. Some programs may also ask to interview you, or even invite you to campus to visit. There are a few steps you should take before you start your applications.

Start planning early

Identify the graduate programs you want to apply to as early as possible. Our guide to considering & choosing programs has advice to help you decide on a path and how to choose the programs that are the best fit for you.  

Most prospective graduate students apply to more than one program, and some apply to 10 or more. Don't hesitate to apply for some programs that you consider a long shot — you never know how your application might stand out and how you stack up against the other applicants. Also apply to some programs that you're pretty sure you'll get in to, and some in between. Make a list of all programs you'll apply to, and all their relevant deadlines so you are sure to submit all information on time.

Take your GREs during your junior year, so that if you aren't satisfied with your scores, you have time to take them again.

If you are eligible, apply to the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). Applications are generally due in the fall for support the following year. Apply for the GRFP during your last year of college, even if you aren't sure where you will apply or where you will go. If you do not succeed then, you can apply again during your first year of graduate school. Students in research-based master's programs can also apply.

Deadlines for some other fellowships may also be due earlier than your graduate school applications.

You can call or email the graduate program director to ask questions if there is anything more you need to know. This can also work to your advantage because it helps them get to know you a bit, which can help you stand out from the crowd.

All documents you submit should use correct English grammar, spelling, and technical terms. Make sure formatting looks clean and easy to read. Use complete sentences (except possibly on your resume).

 

Prepare to showcase your strengths

Applications provide several opportunities to help faculty on the admissions committee know who you are as a student. You can write a stronger application if you think in advance about what makes you a strong candidate, so you can stand out from all the applications they review.  

Before you apply, think about:

  • Is there anything unique about you they should know?
  • Make sure to talk about research you've done, talks and presentations, teaching experience, writing (publications, thesis), and any other relevant experiences you've had. You don't need to have all or even most of these, but if you do, make sure to let them know.
  • What are your skills outside of mathematics, such as motivation, work ethic, ability to collaborate, or leadership skills? Give examples of how you have developed and used these skills.

Consider brainstorming about these ideas with your friends, professors, or family. You may be surprised with some of the great ideas they have.

 

The application basics

The application will ask for some general information about you including

  • General information about you, like your name and address
  • Official transcripts
  • An application fee. If you have financial difficulties, some programs offer fee waivers.
  • GRE scores. Most schools require scores, but not all. There is a fee for each set of scores you send, but you can apply for a fee reduction.
 

Your resume

Your resume is where you summarize your education, work experience, honors and awards, research experiences, and other activities or experiences that make you a stronger applicant.  

When preparing your resume,

  • Be as brief as possible, but don't sacrifice thoroughness.
  • Include page numbers and have your name on each page.
  • Visit your college or university career center. They can review your resume and give suggestions.

The Math Alliance offers more details about preparing your resume.

 

Statement of purpose

Your statement of purpose is a very important part of your application. This is where you can really stand out from other applicants and make yourself shine.  

Start writing your statement early to give you plenty of time to get feedback and revise the statement— possibly several times.

  • Pay careful attention to questions each program asks, and make sure you address them all.
  • Don't spend a lot of effort describing grades and other details they can see elsewhere. Use the statement as an opportunity to focus on what makes you stand out.
  • Communicate your mathematical background, either in general or in a particular specialty. If you have a direction or a passion, describe it. Don't hesitate to show your enthusiasm for what interests you.
  • Write a general statement to start, and then personalize it for each program you apply to. The admissions committee will like to see that you have learned about their program and thought about how it is a fit for you.
  • Ask for feedback from a variety of people, such as professors, undergraduate and graduate students, and people outside of mathematics who you think are particularly good writers. Revise it based on their feedback, and consider asking them to read it again.
  • Keep to page limits.

There is more advice at The Math Alliance about how to write your statement.

 

Letters of recommendation

Letters of recommendation give the admissions committee a more objective view of the type of student you are.  

 

  • Identify professors who know you best and can write about your strengths. If you participated in a research project, consider asking the research supervisor.
  • Ask letter writers as far in advance as possible — a minimum of three weeks.
  • A recommender can write a stronger letter if they know more about you. Give them a copy of your resume and a brief written description of the key characteristics you'd like them to focus on. What are your goals? Remind them of any important accomplishments.
  • Make sure they have everything they need, including where to send the letters, if there are specific questions they are asked to address, and whether there is a specific form they need to use.
  • Be clear about when the letters are due. A week or so before those deadlines, contact your recommenders to ask if they need any additional information from you. This will serve as a reminder for them, in case they've lost track of time.
  • After your letters are in, make sure to write a thank you note to each recommender. Once you find out where you get in, send another note to let them know the outcome. In addition to being polite, this will ensure that they're eager to write you letters in the future.

This e-Mentoring Network blog post has helpful tips for requesting letters of recommendation.

 

Interviews

Not all programs you apply to will ask for an interview. Like job interviews, interviews for graduate school are not just for the interviewers to get to know you, but for you to learn more about the program and see if it is a good fit for you.  

It can help to do a practice interview with a professor or a friend. You may be asked some of these common questions:

  • What courses have you taken?
  • Is there any particular mathematical direction you wish to go?
  • Is there any particular mathematical experience that motivated you?
  • Have you had any experience doing mathematical research?

Be truthful. If they ask something you don't know how to answer, say so. Responses like "That's a good question. I'll look into that." are generally safer than making something up.

Be prepared with questions you want to ask. Remember that you are looking for a program that's a good fit for you.

  • Asking questions specific to the program shows them that you are prepared and interested enough in their program to learn about it.
  • Look at the categories of information you should be thinking about. Ask professors and students anything else you want to know.
  • This e-math mentoring blog post has some good pointers for doing Skype interviews, including suggestions for questions to ask. Many of the ideas they discuss are relevant to graduate school interviews.

There are some questions that interviewers (for schools or for jobs) are not permitted to ask, such as questions about your family, your race, or your gender identity. What counts as an illegal question can vary from state to state, so you may want to do some research in advance of your interview. Some interviewers don't realize that these questions are illegal, and even with good intentions they may ask you personal details that you do not need to disclose. Read more about protecting your privacy in Rachel Levy's blog post, "You're really going to ask me that in an interview?" from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). MAA's BIG Jobs Card Game is a fun and really informative way to prepare for interviews for graduate school or for careers. The game purposefully includes both legal and illegal questions, with tips from a human resources professional about how to answer each one.

 

 

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