I understand that applying to competitive pure math PhD programs in mathematics in the US/UK definitely requires good grades (A or above) in most math courses - but I'm wondering how bad is it if I have one or two B's or C's? Are there other factors that can help me shadow my not-so-good grades while applying? (of course, only in 1 or 2 courses).

In particular, the course that didn't go so well for me this fall is a second course in Linear Algebra, and I ask this since I am a little worried about the situation.


A single bad grade is unlikely to matter much. A history of bad grades is worrisome. Your application to a doctoral program needs to show that you have high likelihood of success in (math) research. This implies that you can demonstrate insight into areas of math that you want to specialize in.

But insight in mathematics isn't uniform over sub-fields and mathematicians understand that (I hope, anyway).

In the US, there are many things taken into account besides GPA and even individual grades. So, you are right to be "a little worried", but not to panic.

But, for some people, even a poor academic history (not like yours, I think) can be overcome by other factors.

But you might want to be ready to answer a question or two about why you got lower grades in a few courses. Lack of insight is only one possibility. Taking too many courses in a term is sometimes a factor.


The issue is most often not what happened a few years ago, but what has happened most recently. That is, what is the shape of the arc of your grades?

Many people take some semesters to get in sync with math programs, and early troubles are not surprising.

Grades of relatively recent, relatively basic courses matter quite a bit, though still not perhaps completely critical. But/and people will start to wonder (relevant to the typical U.S. math grad program set-ups) how you'd fare in grad-level courses if you've had recent difficulties in their prerequisites. Indeed, I'd think some self-examination about that question might be warranted, insofar as even most "advanced" undergrad math is very, very standard, not "specialized", and really pretty necessary no matter what kind of specialization one might eventually take up.

  • I'm only a sophomore, and this is my first theoretical math course - so I think this early trouble shouldn't be too much to worry about then? I have most of my undergrad left, and I'm confident I'll take care of the shape of the arc of my grades. – strawberry-sunshine Oct 29 '20 at 2:19
  • If you're just a sophomore now, you have a few years to figure out not only math itself, but how the system there works, so that you can succeed in it. So, no, not so critical to be out-of-sync when you're a sophomore... – paul garrett Oct 29 '20 at 2:29

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