Is it okay to mention in my statement of purpose for admission to grad school in math, that my undergraduate major is engineering because my parents wanted me to do it?

I was initially wrote my statement without including my motivation for undergraduate degree, however people said it seemed too abrupt. However, without it, I'm not sure how to tell why despite being interested in math, I still chose engineering as a major.

EDIT: Thank you for your responses, I should mention that, after my undergrad degree, I have managed to enrol in one of the top masters program in math in my country and I'm doing well there, and also that there was not really any scope to learn pure math in my undergrad university.

  • 11
    I don't think you want to say that.
    – dustin
    Nov 13 '14 at 13:04
  • 2
    Personally, I would advise against saying this - Engineering is maths-ey, so let them guess as to your motivation. Anyway, most of the applied mathematicians I shared an office with did Engineering undergrads, so switching is not unheard of.
    – user1729
    Nov 13 '14 at 13:04
  • 4
    People would think that you are immature.
    – John
    Nov 13 '14 at 13:04
  • 4
    You could say due to my interest in maths and my parents love of engineering, as an undergraduate, I decided to pursue (Blank) Engineering. As I progressed in my degree, the math felt empty since I was merely solving equations without the motivation to why. Etc, Etc, Etc.
    – dustin
    Nov 13 '14 at 13:10
  • @PinaColada Please flag the moderator to identify yourself as the OP.
    – scaaahu
    Nov 18 '14 at 8:02

Do not say:

"I did engineering undergraduate because my parents made me."

Why? Because you are applying for graduate school. The admissions committee wants to see adults. Referring to your parents (at all) makes it seem like you are not independent -- that your parents run your life. Whether or not they do, it does not benefit you to give such an impression. You don't want to put the idea in their heads, whether or not it is true now (or then).

I suggest, if your really must mention it at all, something along the lines of:

"My time as a Engineering undergraduate has made clear to me my true desires. While engineering is a interesting and worthy subject, my passion is for mathematical side I saw during my studies."

  • 4
    In some countries, the decision of which degree to follow is made during application to university. That a 21 or 22 year old applicant deferred to their parents when they were 18 need not imply immaturity - a lot can change with 4 years of university. Granted, I agree that this does not sound good.
    – Superbest
    Nov 16 '14 at 4:44
  • 3
    As I said: wether or not it is true (now), you still do not want to put the idea in the admittance committee's head. Keep the idea away. (I have edited to highlight) Nov 16 '14 at 4:46
  • 2
    There might be a cultural dimension here that you're ignoring. Sometimes there is a lot of pressure to follow your parents' wishes.
    – Moriarty
    Nov 16 '14 at 14:14
  • Indeed there might be, but I am ignorant of it. Please do write your own answer. (I am always interested to learn of cultural differences) Nov 16 '14 at 14:16
  • 2
    Sorry, I mistakenly entered my comment before I finished writing it. I simply mean that "my parents made me" can actually be a pretty valid excuse in some cultures, mostly developing countries. You wouldn't want to write it like that in a cover letter, but as in your examples it's easy to convey that you've freed yourself from your parent's influences without sounding "childish" about it.
    – Moriarty
    Nov 16 '14 at 14:19

You are right that some people will see a first degree in engineering and wonder something like "if this applicant likes (and is good at) math enough to do grad work in it, why not do the undergrad in it too?" Where you are wrong is in thinking that answering that question will help your application at all. (The specific answer of "my parents made me" will probably hurt your application, but I will say that in my opinion there is no answer that will help.)

What will help? Sentences that rebut the worries or doubts they may have about you:

  • engineers don't learn enough math to do well in grad school
  • people who don't know what they want at 18 can never pursue their true dream
  • people who change majors don't have the commitment and passion we need in this field

So, focus on what, as a math-loving person, you got from your undergrad work. Point to the courses you did well in, the electives you took, the projects you worked on, that helped you understand that graduate-level math was right for you. Talk about how committed and passionate you now are about math - and don't worry about whether teenage-you was committed and passionate about engineering. Admissions committees are aware that undergrad choices are made for a variety of reasons, including not knowing much about specific undergrad programs and not having much freedom of choice. Talk about your purpose now, not who you were four years ago. That four-years-younger person isn't applying to grad school; today-you is.


If you change subjects, consider what you did get out of your first degree. It has equipped you with skills, even if you didn't enjoy it. You go into your new field with a different background where you can bring to bear perspectives others do not have. Don't look at the negative, look at the fact that you realised your true vocation but you do have other skills that you picked up on the way, which are never worthless. Academe is about the ability to process existing knowledge and apply/adapt it to create new knowledge; if you can do that in a field you didn't enjoy, you can do it in a field you do. That your parents pressured you is bad, but we all make mistakes in life. You will be assessed on your ability to learn from your mistakes, not the fact you have made them.

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