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I am a senior at a top 15 public university in the states and planning to apply for graduate school in mathematics. Having been a top 100 Putnam performer and won a couple of medals at IMO in my high school, I believe I have a strong enough mathematical background to be a competent student at a top 5-10 graduate program. However, my application will not be stellar.

In the beginning of my junior year, I got severely addicted to a computer game and my grades suffered from it. Now I have one C in an economics class and an F in summer English class as well as two B's in upper level maths classes. Luckily, I have completely recovered now and performing very well in all of my current classes.

On one hand, my addiction problem in the past would certainly make it look like I am not strong enough to get through long and hard five years of a maths PhD student. But I do know that a researcher in pure maths will be my career and is what I am passionate about the most.

On the other hand, my adviser at the current university believes that I belong to a top school. He said:

...a student of your talent really needs to go to one of the best maths programs...

Now I am taking a second course in complex analysis with him and he seems to like me.

Because of my financial problem, I can apply to at most a dozen schools and want to make the best out of it. I thought that top 20-40 is my reach and top 40+ is my safety range. I had completely ruled of the idea to apply to a top 20 program. But what my adviser told me made me confused.

So my question is will it make sense for me to apply to a top 20 school? I have a really tight budget and do not want to waste spot for a school that I do not have a shot at.

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    I can apply to at most a dozen schools — As opposed to what? I think most students apply to about half that many.
    – JeffE
    Nov 19, 2014 at 1:38
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    I was unaware of that. But it is somewhat different for an international student like me. I can not stay in the states if I can not get into a grad school. So I need to apply to as many school I can afford. Applying to more than 10+ schools is very common for international students who are determined to pursue graduate studies in the US.
    – dezdichado
    Nov 19, 2014 at 2:37
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    Your explanation of what happened makes sense and would be appropriate to include in your application materials. Some evaluators might still hold this against you, but many would appreciate that you have taken responsibility for what happened and corrected the situation. I'd suggest applying to both some "reach" schools and some "safety" schools to be sure that you'll get in somewhere and still give yourself a chance to go to a better program. Nov 19, 2014 at 2:55
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    PhD admissions is largely based on letters of reference, so if your advisor thinks you belong to a top school, you should have a much higher chance of getting into a top school. Nov 20, 2014 at 2:23

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I think you should not worry about the 'junior' days. You are now equipped to apply anywhere. If you are concerned about not making at the top schools, also apply at say five second choices. If you get accepted at one or more top schools, you can pass the others. Get best testimonials in your hand so you are ready for the next move up. Best of luck.

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