I'm a second year student who has had a terrible semester. I don't live in a great place this year and I became really unhappy because of it. I'm also involved with too many extra curricular activities and took an extra course (biochemistry) that all together brought my GPA (and motivation) down incredibly.

I'm positive next semester will go much better, I've taken a step back and analyzed my situation and what I need to do to bring my GPA back up (I might take some summer courses too). Lucky for me, the course I'm doing terribly in isn't a math course that contributes to my major, and the other two courses I anticipate I'll end with a B/B+.

If anyone has any advice on what else I can do to make my applicant profile look better for grad school, I'd really appreciate it. I'm planning on asking professors to see if they'd be willing to take me in for research, hopefully my stellar math grades will make up for the crap ones I've got this semester.

Otherwise, I'm hoping to take the Putnam and GRE of course, but if anyone has a similar experience, I'd really appreciate hearing about it.


  • 1
    Possible duplicate of academia.stackexchange.com/questions/38237/…
    – StrongBad
    Dec 7, 2015 at 1:12
  • Perhaps you could narrow your choice of extracurricular activities and choose classes and professors that get you really excited about learning. Dec 9, 2015 at 1:57
  • Grad school decisions shouldn't be taken lightly, & should likely not be determined while 'down' about academia & an overbooked schedule (b/c that is essentially grad school). GRE's get your foot in the door of programs w/ min score requirements, but do little else (though you better do well on the math portion!!). GPA isn't even necessarily the most important factor -- think about it, even w/ straights A's/B's, you look like every other candidate that is applying. Focus on getting teaching, research, or other experience PRONTO. EXPERIENCE outweighs academics and makes you stand out. Period. Dec 9, 2015 at 4:35
  • Also, try your hardest to retain your dedication to and interest in participating in extra curricular activities while in grad school. The work-life balance issue is a HUGE issue for many graduate students (and academics in general). Extra curriculars are a good way to reduce stress and mix up your line of thinking every once in a while. Just make sure you work on your time management ;) Dec 9, 2015 at 4:40

1 Answer 1


If you are a second year student in the US looking to go to a PhD program in math, here is a list of some "standard" things to do:

  • Take as much math as you can, and excel at it. You should aim to not only have As, but high As, in many upper level classes.
  • Cultivate relationships with professors for letters of recommendation. This could involve research, but it could also involve class interaction, or attending appropriate seminars, or other ways of interacting with your professors.
  • Take the subject math GRE seriously, and study well for it.
  • Consider applying to REUs for the summer after you junior year. At more selective schools, many of the U.S. applicants will have gone to REUs. At the same time, the value of REUs is highly debated, with some favoring them and others suggesting that other kinds of preparation could be equally valuable, if not more valuable, in their opinion. In any case, you would apply to REUs in the fall or early winter of your junior year. Similarly, you could consider semester-long programs like the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics, the Penn State MASS program, or similar.

  • Begin researching graduate programs early; you will apply in the fall of your senior year, and the deadlines always seem to approach too fast.

  • If there are extracurricular activities you enjoy, continue to participate in them, but avoid getting too busy.

Other than the standard things, do what you enjoy. If you want to go to a PhD program in math you need a very strong track record in math. But that does not mean you need to be one-dimensional. Many of my friends at graduate school had other hobbies that they took very seriously.

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    "At more selective schools, the majority of applicants will have gone to REUs." I wonder if this is really true. In my department, a substantial minority of applicants have done REUs. At a really top department like Harvard, I would expect the vast majority of the applications to come from outside the US. Also, although I went to an REU, got a lot out of it, and recommend it to others, I'm not sure I recommend it purely as a strategy to improve one's graduate admissions chances. Most of what it conveys is that your coursework and grades were good enough to get you in. Dec 6, 2015 at 22:00
  • That is very helpful feedback - I have never been on the admissions committee for a top-25 school, so I am basing it just on what I have heard talking to colleagues at such programs. I did mean to say U.S. applicants; I agree of course that international applicants are not likely to have done an REU. Dec 6, 2015 at 22:04
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    One particular hidden benefit of REUs (at least claimed) is that someone at a well known REU can write a letter comparing the applicant to the others who have attended the REU. If the student is at a small or less well known undergraduate school, it may be hard for the PhD program to know how to interpret letters of recommendation from faculty at that school. So the REU might, in some cases, serve a sort of external benchmark. Students at top undergrad programs often already have research opportunities at their home institution matching or exceeding most REUS. Dec 6, 2015 at 22:14
  • Well, first of all, I've only done admissions work at my current institution, which I'm sorry to say is not in the top 25. (Multiply by 2.) When it comes to REU recommendations: to me at least, the letters always read the same way. The student picked up everything immediately, it went amazingly well, and (not always, but increasingly frequently) it led to a paper. I agree that it would be possible to write an REU letter of the sort you mention, and that would be more helpful. Maybe these letters are being written, and I just haven't seen them. Dec 6, 2015 at 22:19
  • Thanks - I genuinely think that your perspective is very helpful. Very few people have experience with more than a handful of PhD programs (I certainly don't), and the variation between programs is extremely large, so having several people comment on the same question helps enormously. My hope was that my answer would cover the "basics" and then others may be able to add additional points based on their experience. Dec 6, 2015 at 23:17

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