I am applying to math Ph.D programs from U.S universities for next fall.

Frankly, I was not a good student during my Bachelor's degree. Instead, I did many things towards finding my real dream: what I really want to do. After I got my B.S in math, I did teaching in academies, and learned some skills for analyzing football statistics from a private academy. (Actually, I was crazy about football at that time, so I wanted to get a job related to it.) After that, I met a consultant and he advised me that it would be much better to utilize my major.

So I got back to my university to get my Master's degree, and I think I did quite well. I want to research on AI and math. My thesis is about graphs, which is related to expressing our body through graphs (to research related to football, too). I got my Master's degree in August this year and am now preparing for applying.

I wonder if I should write the story above, to compensate for my lower B.S. degree and to emphasize that now I am quite a motivated researcher and totally different person than about 10 years ago. Also, in Korea, there is an "age stereotype" in society. I am now 31, I am worried about the committee thinking I am too old to study.

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    Is this about further study in Korea or elsewhere?
    – Buffy
    Oct 19, 2022 at 10:25
  • @Buffy I forgot to write. I plan to study in US
    – JAEMTO
    Oct 19, 2022 at 10:26
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    Any "story" in your SOP needs to be brief and to the point - you don't want to make it seem like you're offering excuses for poor performance, but instead, want to show that even though poor performance happened briefly - you were able to bounce back from it, and become a more capable student and prospective researcher than you were before. Oct 19, 2022 at 15:36

2 Answers 2


(Context: I’m a computer science professor in Canada who’s been on the other side of admissions a handful of times.)

If I were reading such a statement of purpose: yes, in this case a brief explanation of your path to wanting to do research (more or less as long as you wrote above) would be helpful to me. It helps to understand your motivation for wanting to do research, and justifies a bit not only your lackluster undergrad but also your somewhat-nontraditional experiences in between. (Not everyone necessarily agrees about motivating stories, but here in particular it also helps explain some things about your undergrad and work experience, so I think this is a meaningfully different situation.)

But make sure that, while this is a motivation, you convey your legitimate interest in the math itself. I’d personally be a little bit wary of a student who seems to only be interested in one particular application (if I’m not especially interested in it) – if the research ends up wandering a bit, I’d want to think that you’d still be okay with that.

I wouldn’t especially worry about your age: 31 is young enough that you’ll only be older than the very youngest professors, who could potentially feel a little weird about that, but for most professors it won’t matter at all. It’s also not like you can do anything about it at this point anyway!

  • I actually read the child story post before, but I think it is a different situation from mine. So, I would rather writing contents of my life on my SOP. Also, I am writing "what fields of math I am interested in and why I should study them" on my SOP, too. Thanks for your guidance!
    – JAEMTO
    Oct 19, 2022 at 4:40
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    I would look at the age from the other direction. Most starting graduate students are in the mid twenties. So 5 years older than that is not much of a difference.
    – quarague
    Oct 20, 2022 at 6:48

Actually I'll give the opposite advice than the answer of Danica. You have a misunderstanding of the purpose of the SoP. Some places also ask for a letter about motivation, but that isn't the SoP, which should be entirely forward looking. It isn't well used if you just write about the past to try to explain away shortcoming.

In the SoP write about what you intend to study, being as specific as you can without being too insistent on a particular, narrow, research topic. Write about you goals for doctoral study. Also add some things about your goals thereafter. What career are you working towards.

If you focus on the past, then you are wasting an opportunity. However, you can include some short phrases in the SoP that indicate your readiness for starting on you plan. You can also put short phrases of motivation as long as they are strongly connected to the plan for the future.

The CV details the past. The SoP looks to the future.

Note also, that in the US, for someone with a masters already, the undergraduate grades will mean much less than the more recent results. If your math performance has noticeably improved then you should be fine. If your masters thesis is good, even better. The CV already contains that sort of information.

The admissions committee needs to make a prediction of your likely success in the program. Make sure that your letters of recommendation are strong and support that view. If they focus on your current readiness for doctoral study, the older grades mean much less.

The reason for not being too insistent on a research topic is that you will need to find an advisor who is willing to take you on. If few are interested in what you want to do, then it will be much harder. Keep some flexibility within the plan and how you express it. You can specify the fairly narrow area you'd like to work in.

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    I see your point, but I think it is necessary for explaining my "the very first motivation" and it cannot be shown neither on CV nor SOP, if I didn't write it. Also, I restarted my study, so I think I should write what I did during the time that I did not study. I think your answer and Danica's answer, both of them have a point so I should consider it
    – JAEMTO
    Oct 19, 2022 at 11:24

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