It seems I'm about to have a bad application season, as all schools I'm waiting to hear from have given out offers of admissions to other applicants. I'm trying to come up with a viable plan to turn my application into a successful one for next year's season.

Here are some important things to note:

  1. I come from an unknown school, but my reference writers earned their Ph.Ds from well-known schools in the U.S. (top 25 via NRC ranking). They all encouraged me to apply to top 30 programs in the US.

  2. I am an international applicant.

  3. I am interested in pure mathematics.

Some fall-back plans I have is to actually get involved in research during the summer and fall, and I'm hoping I can get a serious publication out of doing this.

So for the people who have served on admissions committees in the past, what else can I do? Should I not bother to apply to the same programs I applied to this year?

  • 1
    Have you finally got accepted by any schools? Your own experience might be a very nice answer to this question.
    – No One
    Oct 7, 2017 at 2:09

3 Answers 3


Publish. I have seen the following pattern more than once. (1) Applicant X applies to my department's PhD program and is rejected, not for any major flaws, but just for not standing out from the crowd. (2) X joins a MS program at a different university. (3) As a master's student, X publishes one paper and has two more in submission (or at least preparation). (4) X reapplies to my department's PhD program, with a detailed technical discussion of his results in his statement of purpose and stellar letters from his new department. (5) X is admitted in the first round, with a fellowship.

If you haven't done so already, show your complete application to the people who wrote your rec letters, and ask for their brutally honest feedback, especially on your statement. Often students who write statements without some faculty feedback write them to the wrong audience. ("I'm smart; hire me." makes a bad statement of purpose. "Here is the mathematics I've worked on and what I'm interested in looking at next." is much better.)

It's a long shot, but if your recommenders know faculty at the schools you applied to, you might be able to get some second-hand feedback through them. Maybe.


To steal a phrase from real estate, "Network, network, and network". At this point, you can't really improve your GPA, you can't write a senior thesis, and you can't do undergraduate research. Your best bet is to talk to as many people as you can in order to (1) improve your letters of recommendation and (2) network with researchers.

Personally, I would recommend against taking more undergraduate classes, unless there's a specific deficiency in your academic record. Simply taking a course to raise your GPA will likely not have a large impact or be a good use of your time and money. However, if you're missing a subject area, this is the time to fix it. For example, I graduated as a psychology major, and needed some math courses when applying to biomedical engineering graduate programs, so I took a course on diff eq's and linear algebra. That course ended up being very helpful later on, both on my application and when joining research labs.

You mention that you hope to do research over the summer. Adding publications to your record will significantly help your chances, as it makes your academic record less important... the reviewing committee will often consider publications as proof that you can "do it". You should expect, though, that you will be grilled extremely thoroughly on your work during the interview process.


There's a lot of helpful advice on this front in the thread How do you get a bad transcript past Ph.D. admissions?

Basically, your situation really isn't all that different from the one discussed in that thread—your credentials don't seem to qualify you for international study. However, you may have some additional possibilities to consider:

  • Were your IELTS/TOEFL scores below par?
  • How strong were your letters of recommendation? Do they actually attest to personal attributes, or is it merely a recitation of your performance in class? The latter do you essentially no good in admissions to a US-style graduate program.
  • Do you have the opportunity to take more classes before you apply in an attempt to improve your standing?

These are some possibilities, but without knowing more about your situation, it's hard to comment further.

  • I just want to add to the first bullet. TOEFL score is very crucial to the application of international students...
    – No One
    Oct 7, 2017 at 2:09

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