I applied to 16 graduate schools for this coming fall. I am a transfer student at a Top 10 Public US school. I had GPA 4.00 at the time I applied (Not yet took graduate course yet, but I wrote that I would have taken 8 graduate courses at the time I applied).

I didn't have the REU (but I was proceeded algebraic geometry research thesis), and a few experience of presentations. I am an international male applicant.

The person who wrote my letter of recommendation is famous/reputable (one Fields medallist and one very famous mathematician of algebraic geometry). But, I couldn't hit any of the graduate schools (including the Top 50-60 US math department schools). I am not sure what was the reason I can't get into any of the graduate schools to which other students in my school were admitted.

What can I do to improve my prospect of getting into any graduate schools?

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    "Not yet took graduate course yet but I wrote that I would have taken 8 graduate course at the time I applied" -- I'm a bit confused about this sentence. You applied in Fall 2020 and would need to graduate before Fall 2021. When were you going to take these 8 graduate courses? Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 20:39
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    This seems like an interesting question: from the information presented here, I would not have expected you to go 0/16 (though I am no mathematician). But, of course, we can only speculate; it is possible there are important factors beyond those you are aware of (the obvious candidate is: could someone have written you a bad letter?)
    – cag51
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 22:07
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    @cag51 I think one factor which I didn't wrote on here might be choice of schools. I have a scholarship which could be used when I admit very good schools, so half of the schools are chosen out of from the Top 5-Top 15 US math department where I can study what I am interested in. Other than big chunk of such a schools I think I chose various schools from Top 60 schools.
    – anonyos
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 22:14
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    You did not mention if you had English language test scores that reach the minimum required for admission. Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 23:32
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    I read the first version of your question. Full of grammar errors, e.g. "would have took". Did you ask someone to check your statement of purpose in your application packages?
    – Nobody
    Commented Apr 15, 2021 at 4:34

4 Answers 4


I can suggest two possibilities and a possible solution.

First, your English writing seems awkward, so possibly you didn't express yourself well or made many misspellings. It is Fields Medal, by the way. This might have blown up your statement of purpose, which can be quite important.

Second, it is possible that the "famous mathematicians" wrote you mediocre letters of recommendation. I wonder how well they know you and your work. What they say about you is probably much more important than who they are for these purposes.

You can address both of those issues in various ways, but I also suggest that you simply broaden your search. Send a few applications, tailored to the individual institutions, but cover the full range of R1 universities (and maybe even some R2 places), not just the top of the range.

  • Thank you for a reply. I consider a possibilities that eminent mathematician wrote mediocre letters. One of the professor is my current project advisor and difficult to believe that happens. The other case I can say just I think I asked questions a lot in his classes. Discuss contents of classes or further topics in E-mail. I am not sure more than that in that case.
    – anonyos
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 21:05
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    The first reason is more likely. Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 23:31

It is hard to to diagnose the problem from the information you provided. Like @Buffy, I notice that your written communication is quite rough -- to a degree this is understandable because you are presumably not a native English speaker, but it also looks sloppy. (A non-native speaker should also know how to spell "Fields Medal.")

I will disagree a bit with Buffy and say that very eminent mathematicians giving only routinely supportive recommendations should be enough to get into a top 50 mathematics department given 16 tries. If the writer felt less than routinely supportive they should probably not have written the letter (and in most cases they wouldn't). So one idea is to talk to your letter writers. Don't even hint that you worry they wrote a less than strong letter: just express your concerns and ask how you can do better.

The only other thing I wonder is whether the answer is hidden in the details of being a "transfer student" -- how long have you been at your Top 10 Public School? At most such schools, a student with 4.0 GPA would likely take their first graduate course before their final undergraduate year.

Anyway, I agree that the outcome is surprising given the information given. I do suggest asking around for additional help, trying to improve the situation based on the feedback you get, and applying again next year. Good luck!

  • Thank you for a reply. In retrospect, my statement proposal might not be good(not only grammar but also contents). In terms of letter writer, one of the letter writer is my advisor so it should be strong I believe. I was in a year for that school(I entered as a Junior.)
    – anonyos
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 20:39

To add a little further context to Buffy's and Pete Clark's: in the U.S. in the current state of things, as I see in my own math R1 state univ (I'm on grad admissions), the total number of (EDIT: not admissions) applicants is perhaps 30% greater than usual. At the same time, economic constraints (partly due to uncertainty about the course of the pandemic) are reducing the number of offers we can make, and also reducing the volatility we can tolerate in the outcomes of offers made.

Further, the partly-good idea of the April 15 common date (in the U.S.) for commitment to grad programs tends to make us prefer to make offers to (good) people who've given some indication that they'd come to our program if we made the offer. E.g., at least some explicit mention of our university and some relevant people on our faculty. Otherwise, we figure we're just a back-up, and the April 15 thing has game-theoretic implications.

So there's a confluence of complications in this cycle.

EDIT: currently, as ever, contacting potentially relevant faculty by email is some evidence of your genuine interest. But/and this should be clear in your statement of purpose. If you don't get a first-round offer from a school, you can tell the Grad Office (in that dept) that you still are definitely interested in being on their "wait list" (or whatever they call it). And follow up again on April 14... :) Of course (!!!) if you send spammy-sounding emails, it won't help at all.

EDIT2: and, as Noah Snyder comments, international students may cost a department more in terms of the budget-games of tuition, and may create complications in terms of English fluency for functioning as teaching assistants. The other current features amplify these aspects in an unfortunate way.

I should also note that at my univ the math dept is NOT allowed to claim that we cannot cover all the math courses, due to reduced personnel (hiring freeze on faculty, for example). So we really need all new grad students (if not on fellowships or RA's) to be able to "hit the ground running" in terms of teaching. English problems are very unhelpful.

  • That's a good comment. I have done a lot of graduate admissions, but I am not doing it this year. But I do check in with the person in charge of that, which corroborates what you say: it's an unusual year. Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 20:42
  • Thanks for a wisdom. For clarification of latter sentence, did you means that "If I were potentially good candidate for an admission, around April 15 is good date to ask an information or contact to relevant faculties who I want to work on the future? "
    – anonyos
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 20:53
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    Economic constraints can also fall especially heavily on international students (who often cost the department more for tuition) and even more so on international students whose English skills limit which teaching assignments they can be given for the first couple years. Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 21:17
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    @NoahSnyder, indeed. I should insert such a remark, in case comments get expunged... Thanks. Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 21:19

A few things that may help.

  1. Your written English is below average. There are several grammatical and spelling issues with your post. One thing that can set you apart from many other international students is excellent English skills.

  2. While famous recommenders are important, more important is they have something great to say about you. You mention you didn't do REU's - this is probably the best way to make sure they can say something great about you. If possible do at least one semester of REU's.

  3. While a 4.0 GPA is important, that isn't the only thing admissions committees will look for. They look at leadership position held in clubs (such as president of the ACM), and other extra extracurriculars.

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    As someone who has done mathematics graduate admissions for almost ten (nonconsecutive) years: "They look at leadership position held in clubs (such as president of the ACM), and other extra extracurriculars." No, we didn't. Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 21:29
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    Thanks for a comment. I think if you implies "REU" to be official REU in U.S. Then International students are not eligible to participate these in first hands. If REU means Research curriculum of mathematics in universities, then I wrote some in proposal. Is it prefer on official REU?
    – anonyos
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 21:36

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