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I read this question Does rigor/thoroughness of undergraduate program matter (for graduate/PhD applications)? and became very worried when I saw everyone blasting the OP for contemplating graduating in three years. The general consensus was that there was no reason at all to graduate early and that the lack of additional experience would hurt your chances at graduate school. I am concerned because I am graduating with only 2.5 years because I can only barely afford this by maxing out all loans. I would love to be able to develop greater depth in my field. Instead it has been a constant sprint to finish before I run out of money completely. I was rejected from every top ten university, and the one token safety school I got into jacked up the price as soon as they found I had nowhere to go.

Are the criticisms that finishing too fast valid in the context of extreme debt? I am saving over $100,000 by finishing early, will this reason be accepted by graduate schools? I see that graduate students do not have to pay tuition and get a small stipend, this sounds like a wonderful way to pursue an education and is very attractive to me right now. I feel that my education is rushed and I have not had the time to contemplate open research questions which are very important for graduate admissions. Graduate school is also the path to a job in research labs or academia.

edit: I have done well enough (6th in graduating class unless I mess up). They offer to tack on a year for a masters at your current rate, which is touted as a way extend finiancial aid. This is untenable for me.

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    Yes, those criticisms are still valid. Graduate schools don't care about your debt. They care about your preparation. And 2.5 years of study is certainly insufficient preparation. I'm sorry, but that's the reality. – Potato Apr 18 '15 at 1:31
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    Also, I worry that you don't understand the realities of graduate school if your primary motivation for going is that it seems like a cheap substitute for the last few years of an undergraduate degree... – Potato Apr 18 '15 at 1:32
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    @Potato: I am not arguing with your comment on how this impacts OP's chances for admission, but, being from a poor background myself, I think "saving $100k by graduating early" is a very understandable motivation which doesn't mean that the value of a continued (but expensive) education is not understood. – gnometorule Apr 18 '15 at 1:48
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    Did you do well enough to have reasonable hope to be admitted for a partially sponsored master at your current school? – gnometorule Apr 18 '15 at 1:52
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    I've never heard of any tuition system that would be able to 'jack up the price'...is this really a thing? Everywhere I've been charges the same tuition to all students based on their course of study. Was this a scholarship that was revoked or something? – Rob P. Apr 18 '15 at 19:02
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Are the criticisms that finishing too fast valid in the context of extreme debt?

Yes, the criticisms are still valid: the world, unfortunately, does not care about any particular person's debt problem.

The answers/comments given at the linked question in the OP are spot on; thus I would encourage you to try to find other sources of aid to fund your full-length undergraduate studies, if you haven't already done so (scholarships, etc.).

Having said that, some schools have a diversity statement that you are to submit along with your application. In this statement, you can provide some background on the adversities that you have faced and how you overcame them. If you have significant financial hardships that you are battling through, for example, then a diversity statement would probably be the place to talk about that and hope that someone would care enough to have it positively impact your admission decision.

Whether the "diversity statement approach" will work or not depends on (among other things) your particular situation (e.g., how inadequate is your preparation for grad school due to graduating early relative to others in similar situations?) and the number of available slots the school has for cases such as yours. I still think this approach is too risky to count on, and I would, again, encourage you to look for other ways to stay in your undergraduate program for the "normal" amount of time so that you may reap the many benefits of doing so.

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    My preparation is pretty inadequate, no research and no contact with faculty. I believe it is an issue of time and not ability, but I see now that my choices to speed coursework have really hurt everywhere that actually matters to academia. As for diversity, I am a white male from college educated upper middle class family ("I worked my way through school, you can too" from parents; not the same situation after 30yrs of 7% inflation). I apply mainly to proposal scholarships (since I have about zero chance for diversity ones), but I never make the final money round. – Karl Apr 18 '15 at 2:35
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    @Karl The lack of faculty contact is a big concern. The most important part of most graduate applications is having multiple strong recommendation letters from known researchers. Without that, it's hard to see a path to getting a funded offer at anywhere reputable. There are ways to recover, but they are generally expensive (e.g. masters programs) or take a significant amount of time (e.g. working and taking classes part-time, ideally trying to find a research-related job in your field or a nearby one). – Roger Fan Apr 18 '15 at 2:53
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    @Karl It sounds like you're in the US. The US inflation rate hasn't been above 7% since 1982. For most of the time since then (i.e., the last 33 years), inflation has been running at about 2-3%. – David Richerby Apr 18 '15 at 11:53
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    @DavidRicherby, maybe Karl means the inflation in college costs. Although I don't know the number, 7% seems quite reasonable. In fact, this just inspired a Plan C, I'm going to edit my main response. – aparente001 Apr 18 '15 at 14:23
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    @aparente001 Good point. Bloomberg has some data ("PCE" is a measure of general inflation). That shows that private college fees have been rising at about 4-6% per year for most of the last 20 years, and public fees have been all over the place but have probably risen by more than 7% in at least half of the last 30 years. – David Richerby Apr 18 '15 at 14:38
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Here's one way to think about the issues. Imagine comparing yourself to someone comparably talented and hard working but with an extra year and a half of education. That candidate would be better prepared to excel in graduate school (they could hit the ground running, rather than having to catch up), and they would have had more time to build a track record that could impress the admissions committee. All other things being equal, they're going to be admitted rather than you. Basically, it's difficult to compete with a better educated version of yourself.

Of course you could just catch a lucky break, but your chances are best if the admissions committee can't fill the entering class with competitors like this. If you are exceptionally talented, that could well happen at any university. (For example, Terry Tao was admitted to math grad school in Princeton at an unusually young age. If he had spent longer getting to that point, he would have built up an even stronger track record. However, he didn't need that to get admitted, since he didn't have to worry about competing against hordes of equally talented applicants.) It could also happen if you aim for a somewhat lower-ranked grad school than you might have been admitted to otherwise. However, you'll run into trouble if you apply to schools that have their pick of a lot of applicants like you.

How this will play out depends on your personal circumstances. Most grad school applicants can get admitted somewhere, if they really aren't picky about where, and few will be admitted to the very top graduate programs. All the factors applicants worry about are basically pushing them a little bit up or down the hierarchy of prestige or desirability in graduate programs. If you see the slope as being steep, then this matters a lot; if you see it as being shallow, then where you end up matters less.

  • The competitors is a great point. If I had another year and a half at my current rate I would run circles around current me, heck, most of my classes this last year have been full grad classes (skipping the undergrad class and taking the next level costs less as they are fewer credit hours. It's alot more work but marginal cost per hour is lower than menial jobs to make up difference). However I have no idea how I compare to undergrads at those T1 schools. They are obviously more engaged with a higher quality education, but is the gap small enough that more hard work on my part can fill it? – Karl Apr 18 '15 at 18:26
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    That's a good question, which can't really be answered without a lot more information (about your background, field, accomplishments, etc.). The best way I can think of to get a feeling for it is to talk with professors who know you about your graduate school prospects. – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 18 '15 at 19:07
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Karl, if you have figured out a way to get through your undergraduate institution's hoops in 2 1/2 years, that says something about you!

There is a wide variety in level of preparation (along with many other variables) of incoming grad students.

Don't reject your candidacy before giving some grad schools the opportunity to accept you and fund you.

But do prepare a Plan B for the possible case that you do not get accepted.

In Plan B, you would not be paying an arm and a leg for tuition, but you would be working in someone's lab, getting your feet wet with research. Perhaps you would be an intern (paid or unpaid). Perhaps you would sign up for one credit of research (somewhere cheaper than where you are now), and take the initiative to do more than what is normally done for one credit.

Perhaps you'll land a job where you can support yourself and do something interesting based on what you studied -- as a CV builder.

Or you could be a Vista volunteer, and make your CV more well rounded. Community service is a big selling point.

Edited here

I just thought of a Plan C. After your year of not being enrolled anywhere (during which you can be plenty productive with academics and research, you just can't be enrolled), and of being financially independent, perhaps you could apply for financial aid as an undergrad. You could state your intention to get a second Bachelor's degree. After one or two semesters of research projects, you'd then be ready to do your grad school applications.

I wouldn't embark on Plan C, though, without having an in-depth conversation with a financial aid officer. I recommend making an appointment with one that works in a community college. They'll have a helpful world view.

The thing I'm unsure about here is whether financial aid is given for a second Bachelor's.

By the way, another online forum that might be helpful for you is College Confidential. Addition: the culture there is to advise but be gentle with college students.

Another addition:

I have not had the time to contemplate open research questions which are very important for graduate admissions.

Don't worry about that. You will get where you want to be, step by step.

General comment: just to put some of what you're feeling in perspective -- it is quite common for college students to hit a certain point in their studies where their self-confidence gets quite shaky. I have heard it said that the freshman knows nothing, the sophomore thinks he knows a lot, the junior is realizing he doesn't know anything, and the senior does know a lot. Hang in there. If you have a strong foundation in your area, and enjoy doing science, it will work out. I appreciate that you may not feel that way right now. All I can say is that these feelings are not unusual at your stage of academic development, and it should start to get better in the medium term, if not sooner.

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    Plan B sounds promising overall, but I don't agree about community service being a selling point. Maybe this varies between fields, but well roundedness and volunteer work do not contribute at all to graduate admissions in mathematics in the U.S. (Spending a year doing community service would definitely not help in getting admitted. If it made a difference at all, it would hurt, by making the applicant look less committed and by giving their undergraduate skills time to atrophy. Volunteering is very much worth doing for its own sake, but not as a CV builder for graduate admissions.) – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 18 '15 at 8:45
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    @AnonymousMathematician And spending a year neither studying nor earning money would surely make the asker's problems worse, not better. – David Richerby Apr 18 '15 at 12:11
  • @Anonymous Mathematician, I take your atrophy point. Let's suggest that the community service involve math. In my town there are lots of already existing ways to do that. – aparente001 Apr 18 '15 at 14:20
  • Most of the top ten schools do not offer second bachelors degrees, notably MIT, Stanford, Caltech, and Princeton. I don't think second bachelors is that great an idea for targeting quality research institutions that will give substantive research experience to undergrads. I am taking several graduate classes now to wrap up free electives and the egregious violations of scientific method and ethics of my grad classmates does not fill me with confidence that other institutions at this level are any better. My goal is to get up and out, not move sideways. Maybe that's not possible. – Karl Apr 18 '15 at 16:22
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    I'm sorry for the egregious violations you've seen, Karl. Don't worry. There's plenty of good science happening at many schools here and abroad. (Oh! Oh! One could construct a Plan D in a country that has affordable institutions!) Anyway, perhaps you could kill two birds with one stone -- send an unofficial copy of your transcript to a couple of professors in your area, and ask for an appt. for some informal advising. Explain your situation in the appt. You may get some good advice, AND you'll get some contact with faculty! – aparente001 Apr 18 '15 at 17:12
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When students coming out of the universities with early finishes usually are not up to the level students who have completed the whole degree within 4 years or more. There is a clear difference between them when it comes to analytic and problem solving skills. Many reputed companies always look for the well educated people than people just having qualifications.(early finished student, but still having the qualification)

Same thing happens for when you go for further higher studies, as reputed colleges always wants to produce top class; well educated students, they'll most of the time rejects applicants who have early finishes. They'll consider that those people doesn't have proper foundation.

  • This is a completely different world view than I had. I always saw the top scientists blowing through school like Erik Demaine or Feynman. These are the standards of measure that we must measure up to. Now everyone is saying that it is a signal of incompetence to finish early, all I'm trying to do is get an education at all with the limited money I can borrow and work for. It looks like I'm between a rock and a hard place, don't get an education and work menial jobs or get one and look stupid to every hiring manager in a technology field. – Karl Apr 18 '15 at 16:01
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    @Karl Plan to be an average scientist, not an outlier. If you are an outlier, it can emerge naturally. – jakebeal Apr 18 '15 at 18:21
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    @Karl Nothing is wrong with aiming to be great. Everything is wrong with making a life plan that depends on being both great and fortunate in several different ways simultaneously, like the people you mention. – jakebeal Apr 18 '15 at 18:46
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    @Karl I've seen some of the best mathematicians today present and think. It doesn't actually work like that. They make errors and take time to think about things just like "the rest of us" do. Von Neumann types are exceedingly rare and don't represent the usual "top" mathematician. – Potato Apr 18 '15 at 19:10
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    @Karl Further, if you were on Von Neumann's level, you would know by now. So if you want to stay in mathematics, you should start contemplating a "life of average" working at a normal speed like the rest of us. I assure you that it is still very rewarding. – Potato Apr 18 '15 at 19:13

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