Tl;dr: Having taken lots of math classes, I've managed to forget a lot of information. Also, since I'm at a small university, most of my peers are not interested in pure mathematics graduate school, so I am not sure whether I am truly prepared for graduate school. I also feel that my GPA indicates my ability to work hard as opposed to any real ability. How do I know if I am actually ready for graduate school, as opposed to being a big hardworking fish in a small pond?

I am currently in my fourth year of undergraduate school at a small public liberal arts university (I transferred in during my sophomore year from community college). I plan on spending another year here in order to graduate with the degrees I want. I came in as a biology major, taking mathematics courses for fun. I ended up getting As in each math course and was hooked. I am now a math major, with minors in biology and chemistry.

I've taken several classes (including Proof/discrete math, Linear Algebra, Real Analysis, ODE, Advanced ODE, Abstract Algebra, Number Theory, Math Methods Operation Research) and some independent learning studies (fractals, Cantor set, some real analysis, measure theory, etc). I'm currently in Complex Variables, Real Analysis - 2, and Mathematical Modeling. In the future I am planning to take Abstract Algebra - 2, partial DEs, and an independent learning study on primality. So far I have a 4.0 GPA in math (3.92 overall).

I am not required to take many of these courses to graduate, but I have taken them because I enjoy math and to broaden what I know. I have pass failed only 2 classes (mathematical modeling and operations research) because I did not have enough time to devote to get the grade I wanted, due to pledging into a fraternity and being ill. I attained a pass of course in these two classes. Plus, these are more applied courses which I did not care as much as the purer courses.

My ultimate goal is to go to graduate school in number theory, mainly focusing on pure mathematics and primality.

My main problem is that over the years, I have taken more math courses than the average undergraduate would at my university and plan to do more. Although I've maintained an A average in all my math courses, I have managed to forget a lot of information I have learned. This mainly has occurred due to the fact that I've focused so hard to maintain this GPA that I often work very hard to get that A and then the knowledge is never used again for the most part. I am very, very afraid that when I attend graduate school, I will not know as much as I should, that I will be subpar, much far behind other applicants who have more mathematics memorized. Granted I have decent grades, it almost feels as if I don't deserve it since I can not recall a lot of the information I knew so well at one point or the other. I want to pursue a career in mathematics as I love it. I am just worried.

Also, aside from one very gifted student, I do not know of any other students in the small math department with grades like mine. Many are pursuing teaching masters and not as interested in pure math. Many of my classmates believe I am intelligent or gifted of some sort, but I do not feel like it. I feel like I should know everything if I attained an A in every course. The problem this is late in the game and I'm not sure what to do. Having a course load so difficult and challenging for the past few years, with taking organic chemistry/biology lectures and labs, with 2-3 math courses each semester, I barely have time to sit there and recall information from earlier courses to jog my memory.

I also don't believe I have the mind like some select few who just know how to do things or apply things. Sure I can work on something for a few hours and eventually get it but it does not just spark into my head to do certain things.

Overall, I honestly do not believe that my GPA is a good representation of what I know, but more how hard I can work. I know the simple answer is to just take the time and review things, learn it again, and use it so it isn't forgotten; but surely I can not do this for all the courses I've taken.

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    You might consider the possibility that the students in the teaching masters program are less interested in pure mathematics because they are in the teaching masters program, as opposed to because they are 'females'.
    – Aru Ray
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 12:14
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    @Frumpy The wording was 'Most are females (no offense) who are pursuing teaching masters' as opposed to 'Most are pursuing teaching masters'. It's not unreasonable to interpret that as your saying that their being 'females' is relevant. In any case, from your comment above, I'm happy to give you the benefit of the doubt.
    – Aru Ray
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 12:42
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    "Indicates my ability to work hard as opposed to any real ability..." Classic presentation of imposter syndrome - don't think that way.
    – JNS
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 12:50
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    You ability to work hard is real ability.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 13:07
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    @scaaahu This question would not be well suited for Math SE and would be closed quickly on there. Math SE is for asking and answering mathematical questions. This is not a mathematical question, this is a question about going to graduate school(albeit in math)
    – SE318
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 13:25

5 Answers 5


It was a bit surreal reading your question, because my own thoughts back when I was an undergraduate were eerily similar. Are you me?

Anyway, first and foremost, as JeffE would say, do not listen to the imposter syndrome! Here's some information on that in case you are unfamiliar with the term; it's worth keeping in mind - imposter syndrome is far too prevalent in academia.

Secondly, I don't know which university you are in, but unless you have massive grade inflation where everyone gets an A all the time (which you have indicated later in your question is not the case), if you're consistently getting great grades, you're doing something right. The underlying thread in your question seems to be the notion that the ability to do math (research) well is some sort of innate spark that some people have and some people don't. Nope, doesn't work that way. Math, even advanced math research, much like research anywhere else, is mostly about hard work. Some people do math more quickly than others, which must be nice for them and is an advantage sure; but the rest of us can do math just as well.

The point I'm trying to make is that you shouldn't knock hard work, it's at least 95% of any PhD.

Your (sub)question about remembering every single thing you have learned in college reminded me of this question on quora, which is about physics, but is pretty relevant to math as well. To summarize the many good answers there, no, you're not supposed to remember every single detail of everything you learned in college (ok, I guess there are people with eidetic memories, but not every person with an eidetic memory is in research, and not every successful person in research has an eidetic memory). If you learned something well, as in understood it and didn't just memorize it, it will come back to you when you need it (and it will take less time to understand it the next time).

A couple things about this: firstly, preparing for the math subject GRE, which you should take if you are planning on graduate school in mathematics in the US, was really helpful for me to recall a lot of the information I had managed to forget as an undergraduate. It also made a lot of connections between fields clear to me. (Of course I have now forgotten it all again!) Secondly, and very importantly, your statements about memorizing mathematics are odd. Maybe this was just an odd choice of phrasing, but you're not supposed to memorize mathematics, beyond say differentiation/integration formulas in calculus (although even those are better remembered by understanding where they come from). Memorizing proofs is different from understanding proofs; I hope this is clear to you.

I was also in a small department where not too many of us were interested in graduate school (we also had a large math education program, so again, are you me?). But, remember that you do have access to lots of people interested in mathematics, namely the faculty in your department! It sounds like you've taken several independent learning courses with some of them, why don't you ask them if they think you are prepared for graduate school? Back in the day, I got a lot of useful advice, ended up taking a reading course in graduate-level math which was lot of fun, which was a large part of how I decided that why yes, I am prepared for this.

Lastly, math is not just for a select cadre of geniuses. In order to succeed in graduate school (and probably beyond, but I am still working on that myself), you should have the ability to work really hard, feel really dumb most of the time, and yet still keep going. Being a genius is helpful, but neither necessary nor sufficient.

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    I have talked to the head of the math department here and he believes I am capable and that I should just spend some time relearning things.
    – H5159
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 19:08
  • Ultimately I think I do suffer partly from the imposter syndrome; not some crippling problem but something to get over.
    – H5159
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 19:11
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    Imposter syndrome isn't always crippling. For me, for example, it's usually more of a 'sneaking suspicion'.
    – Aru Ray
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 21:41
  • This is a great answer! Commented Mar 31 at 0:54

My wife suffers from Imposter Syndrome. I will tell you what I tell her:


  1. As @Aru-ray suggests, take the GRE. It will be a requirement for admission to graduate school anyway. Even if it isn't necessary, take the math subject matter portion of the test too. This will give you an idea of how you compare in knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge against all undergraduate students who intend to continue with graduate studies as well as undergraduates who intend to study Mathematics.

  2. Your grades give you a comparison of your ability to complete the assigned work at your school. See if you can find the distribution curve of grades vs. number of students for your major. Also see how your school compares to other schools in Mathematics.

Doing just these two things, and applying a little of your mathematics skills, should give you a very good idea of how you compare to other students who intend to pursue graduate studies in Mathematics.

If you still feel uncomfortable, talk to guidance counselors at the school you wish to perform graduate studies for their opinion.

My wife informs me that Imposter Syndrome often does not succumb to rational arguments. If this applies to you, use the following argument:

If post-graduate work in math is what you want to do, you are enjoying it, and you qualify to do it; why do you care how you rank among other students? Just do it!

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    +1, in particular for 'why do you care how you rank among other students?'
    – Aru Ray
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 15:17
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    The part where you said "why do you care?" hit me pretty hard. Thank you. I want to have a career in mathematics and accomplish something; so I shouldn't let rankings get in my way
    – H5159
    Commented Mar 5, 2015 at 19:06

Very good points from @Aru Ray. I'll throw one more disclaimer out there, in reference to the last line of your summary:

"How do I know if I am actually ready for graduate school, as opposed to being a big hardworking fish in a small pond?"

In truth, many mathematics graduate programs at well known and respected universities are pretty small ponds. I got my degrees from Vanderbilt, and their graduate mathematics class size averages no more than a dozen (there were 7 of us in my year). So if you were thinking you'll be adrift in a vast sea of geniuses, it's not really like that. Instead, if you choose well, you can become one of a very tight-knit group of people working together and supporting each other through the difficult, but very do-able task of getting your graduate degrees. There are small ponds everywhere, sometimes where you least expect them.

While I'm at it, I'll throw another tidbit out there. How and when you enter the PhD program, the requirements for the Master's and the PhD, and the choices you need/get to make along the way can vary wildly from program to program. Some schools reward you with a Master's after passing 2 years of their regular graduate level program. No Master's thesis required. Some don't even allow you to petition for the PhD program until after you've got your Master's, while others tend to weed out Master's candidates right from the start based on their likelihood to continue to their PhD.

I knew several folks in graduate school who were unsure, but applied, got accepted, worked until they got their Masters degrees, and then decided whether to continue. And even if you stop there, there are a lot of advantages to a Master's degree. For instance, you can teach at most community colleges across the US with just a Master's, and no education courses or certificates are required.


I think the only thing I would add is in your last year try to do some research with a faculty member(or REU). For any area of grad school actually doing research as an undergraduate can help give you a good idea if you will enjoy doing that for the next few years. I've been told that doing research can be quite different then course work. If you are able to present your work at a conference(poster board) or maybe even publish then I think that would be a big indicator that you would be ready.(not required at all).


You are drawn to the tough stuff. You deal with it. You master it.

You are afraid you don't remember enough of it.

You sound like a sword master who had won a fight against one of the great after preparing for a year. Now he's afraid that he might not remember all the winning moves in case this great sword master met him in an underground station and ambushed him.

And since he cannot remember the moves in detail, he considers himself unfit for a fight.

That's not how it works. Of course, sitting back and sipping wine is also not how it works. But it does not sound like that's what you are doing.

You'll meet more great challenges. But you are not expected to walk into them unprepared.

  • 1
    I think the OP is looking for something more specific than platitudes. Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 14:49
  • 2
    "You sound like a sword master who had won a fight against one of the great after preparing for a year. " While this is a colorful simile (maybe work in Braavos and/or Arya Stark to really sell it?) it does not in truth sound very much like the OP's situation. You seem to be telling the OP that their lack of complete memory of all the courses they've taken is not a cause for concern. Sounds fine to me, but could you do so less broadly and also explain why you feel that way in the context of a student considering a graduate program? Commented Mar 6, 2015 at 14:49

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