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I am an undergrad at a top 5 research institution for context, and this is pertaining to math Ph.D. admissions.

I know looking at grades in isolation w.r.t. admissions is a questionable thing to do in the first place, but from an admissions perspective, are difficult classes valued over perfect grades? I guess the example in mind would be, is it better to have a couple of difficult courses + mostly undergrad courses with all As, or a lot of difficult classes but some Bs sprinkled in?

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    "Is it commonly believed that graduate classes are free A grades?" - No. If that's the case, either the person in question is unusually smart or the course is poorly assessed. – Moriarty May 28 '14 at 22:53
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    That's odd, usually graduate school admission committees put a lot of care on your capability to do research, which is the reason many students in natural sciences take one extra year just to beef up the resume with some publication. And as far as I know, even for computer science that is the case. – Leon palafox May 29 '14 at 1:00
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    Right, but I think math is the exception as the amount of background it takes to produce research that people are interested in is far greater than what most undergrads have, for most fields. – anonymous May 29 '14 at 1:03
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    The point is not to produce "any kind of outstandingly impressive result". The point is to produce, and then publish, a result. – JeffE May 29 '14 at 1:11
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    For one thing, when the OP says that "most professors I've talked to do not value publication in itself", he surely means that in the context of undergraduate students. I agree with that: there are a lot of REUs these days, and a positive proportion of math grad school applicants have published a result. Having done so is positively correlated with their admittance to the top programs...but the correlation is very far from perfect, and publishing a result is far from a golden ticket to admission at UGA, let alone Harvard. – Pete L. Clark May 29 '14 at 2:01
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I think this is a pretty easy one.

I know looking at grades in isolation w.r.t. admissions is a questionable thing to do in the first place, but from an admissions perspective, are difficult classes valued over perfect grades?

Yes.

I guess the example in mind would be, is it better to have a couple of difficult courses + mostly undergrad courses with all As, or a lot of difficult classes but some Bs sprinkled in?

The latter is distinctly better. I got a B in the first graduate course I took as an undergraduate. (I then took 8 more graduate courses and got A's.) This did not stop me from getting into all the math PhD programs to which I applied, including the top three in the US.

  • I feel like a single B (or multiple) early on is not so bad though, I have a friend who just got into Princeton who had terrible grades freshman year, and another friend who got a C in a math class who got into several top programs. At what point (proportion of B grades) do you think the situation changes, out of curiosity? I suppose in terms of numbers I am thinking ~4 grad classes vs 8-10, in the first 3 years of undergrad. – anonymous May 30 '14 at 18:49
  • @anonymous: Thanks, I agree that my undergraduate transcript was not so bad! (Actually my GPA was about 3.95.) I wouldn't feel confident specifying a threshhold percentage of B grades; that is so variable and depends on just about everything, including a specific applicant pool. But I'll say that committees look for a trend towards increased success and increased mathematical understanding: if you do pretty well in one course then do excellently in later, more advanced courses, then the less than optimal earlier grade is allayed. I specifically look for this when reading transcripts. – Pete L. Clark May 30 '14 at 19:13

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