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This question is aimed at the countries where the graduate program admission decisions are normally made at the department level; the primary sources of funding are TAs/RAs and there is at least one year of coursework prior to the transition to full-time research (e.g., the US).

It is likely that I will be looking to apply to graduate programs in applied mathematics next year (however, the question can be generalized to certain other STEM disciplines, I believe). I have filtered a number of schools based on my research interests (somewhere around applied dynamical systems, control, bifurcation and stability analysis, applications in mechanics), but it is still a reasonably long list. I would like to understand how can I select a (fixed) number of graduate programs from this list so that my chances of admission somewhere are maximized.

I am looking at schools in a wide range starting from around 30 down to 150+ according to the rankings in the subject area, all of them being within the R1/R2 range. However, I have a concern that there may be little correlation between how selective a given program is and how well it does in the rankings. For example, some schools state explicitly that they admit exactly 5 students to their graduate program each year (while there seem to be others that admit well over 20 graduate students each year). In other cases, I would speculate that the location of the school might make up for its lower “reputation” and warrant fierce competition for positions. I could also speculate that private universities may be more selective than the public ones at around the same “reputation/quality level”.

Is it possible to devise a reasonably generic methodology that can be used to filter schools that, in all likelihood, will have less stringent or even reasonably lax admission requirements? Otherwise, I am looking for any helpful hints/advice.


A few notes:

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    Your age and time since graduation should have no impact on your admissions chances, provided you still have at least one good referee in academia and haven't spent the intervening years twiddling your thumbs.
    – astronat
    Jul 26 at 12:11
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In my view, the best methodology, which also applies to top students, is to cast a wide net. Make sure that the schools you apply to have faculty in the subfield that most interests you, but don't parse it too finely.

You have a better chance in a large program. And you have more options at a large place if you get in. You may get good advice from your local faculty. Some of them might know people in some places so that a recommendation will be given a bit more weight.

You might try to expand your search even beyond your "range", however, with a top school or two (in case you have a bit of imposter syndrome), and a bit farther down the list as well.

Don't put artificial constraints on your search. In fact, no constraints that aren't actually necessary. Even things a bit outside your desired field might be worth a look.

But the key, I believe, is a broad search. Most schools that are relative low in the overall rankings still have some excellent faculty. Ultimately your advisor may be more important than the ranking of the school you attend.

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  • Thanks. Overall, it’s good advice to give, but it doesn’t address my concerns. I don’t have an impostor syndrome: a few years ago I applied to graduate programs in the area of my major (engineering) and received offers only from 30+ schools (I decided not to attend). So, it’s senseless to aim higher while trying to switch to applied mathematics. In any case, I’ve already selected several schools based on their compatibility with my research interests. However, I would like to narrow down my search to a selected few, given that my primary goal is to maximize my chances of admission somewhere.
    – user140322
    Jul 25 at 18:34
  • Sorry, but narrowing the search decreases your chances. But if it is to be only a few, make sure that they cover the range. The net needs to be wide. Exhaustive is a different thing.
    – Buffy
    Jul 25 at 18:47
  • Don't lose track of the fact that it is very competitive.
    – Buffy
    Jul 25 at 18:59
  • As per the premise of the question, the total number of applications is fixed. I don't know what this number will be yet, but at the moment I am looking at the list of 30+ schools. It would be both impractical and time-consuming to submit so many applications. In any case, thanks for trying to answer this. One useful advice that this answer contains is that I "have a better chance in a large program". This is something I was not entirely certain about.
    – user140322
    Jul 25 at 19:01
  • Again, you don't have to apply to "every" school. Just pick from a broad range, not a narrow one. I'm not suggesting that you make 200 applications.
    – Buffy
    Jul 25 at 19:06
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I have a concern that there may be little correlation between how selective a given program is and how well it does in the rankings.

Well, if you compare the #30 ranked school to the #31 ranked school, then yes, you might find out that the #30 ranked school admits X% of its applicants while the #31 ranked school admits X/2% of its applicants. But if you consider groups of schools very far apart in the ranks, say consider the group of #30-#40 versus #130-#140, I would be extremely surprised if the lower group was on average more selective than the upper group.

Is it possible to devise a reasonably generic methodology that can be used to filter schools that, in all likelihood, will have less stringent or even reasonably lax admission requirements?

If you want to apply to only, say, 10 schools total, then apply to the bottom 10 ranked schools, i.e. the absolute lowest ranked (or the lowest ranked schools that have faculty in your interest area and meet your other filters). Although one or two of them may be more selective than their ranking would imply, I'm sure that at least one of them will have reasonably lax admissions requirements.

That's not what I would recommend you do though. I'd recommend you apply to a few "safe" schools, the bottom of the list that you are pretty sure you can get into to, a few "stretch" school, the top of the list that you are pretty sure you cannot get into but are trying anyway, and then a good number in between. E.g. if there are 100 schools, apply to a few ranked 10-20, a few ranked 30 - 50s, and a few in 80-100.

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  • I am confident that your idea of applying to 10 lowermost schools would work well for undergraduate admissions. However, I doubt that this is a good strategy for graduate admissions because funding is involved. My guess is that the lowermost 10 schools may not even hire graduate students every year depending on the availability of resources/need for TAs. I could speculate that large departments that need many TAs in the 80-120 range may be safer bets than 190-200. However, I am asking this question precisely to find out about such things.
    – user140322
    Jul 29 at 19:01
  • "My guess is that the lowermost 10 schools may not even hire graduate students every year depending on the availability of resources/need for TAs." Remember that TAs are cheaper than professors. If there is a class to be taught it is always cheaper to hire a TA than a professor. So I'm not sure if your assumption is correct. The schools with less resources might actually have more TAs (and less professors) than schools with more resources. This is just a guess though, no data to back it up. My original advice still stands: apply to a range of schools, a few each at top, middle, bottom.
    – Daniel K
    Jul 31 at 21:10

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