I got the following response from a mathematics professor at UT Austin:

Gaining admission is more about the positive things in your file than about checking all the right boxes. If you haven't taken all of the standard courses, but have learned it all on your own, that's OK. However, there has to be a very good reason why you're better than another applicant who HAS taken all of the standard courses. Your letter-writers have to make a convincing argument that there is something very, very special about you. If your physics professors are better able to present these arguments than you math professors, then it's OK to have most of your letters come from physicists. But those letters have to be very, very good.

My situation is such that since I am not a mathematics major, I haven't done a lot of standard math courses, which I intend to/or have studied on my own. Clearly, I need to win the graduate admissions committee's over by making sure my letter writers write good letters for me.

My question is:

Generally, what can students like myself do to make sure they get the best possible letters from their professors? That is, how should one structure the self study plan to ensure maximum possible output and in return, the best possible letter from an instructor. More so, I'm not sure what qualifies as a "very, very special letter." What makes a letter "special?" More so, how can students like myself make sure that they are able to get such letters.

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    Your question implies you have some kind of instructor/ professor helping you with your self study, is that the case? If so, are they one of your referees? Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 22:15
  • @astronat Yes. I'll of course keep her as one of my referees. Commented Apr 16, 2017 at 22:17
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    if you are special, you will get a special letter. it is as simple as that.
    – Rüdiger
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 0:13
  • What makes you think you're special? Or that you can do a maths phd without doing maths? Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 11:09
  • @TryingToGraduate I don't consider myself special; I only consider myself as a hardworking, dedicated person who wants to excel in this field. My situation is a bit bizarre; I started off as an economics major, and I started taking math and physics courses at the end of my 2nd term. Now that I am set to graduate, I intend to go to graduate school (in math) and specialize in mathematical physics. The problem is, I have much more physics courses than math courses under belt, and I am not sure if they're enough (as you say). Hence, the question(s). Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 11:12

1 Answer 1


How best to organise your self-study? Pick your 10 favourite PhD programmes and look at their admissions requirements. Those are the courses you need to cover in your self study.

Then read the email you received carefully. Notice that it's not the letter that needs to be special-- it's you. You've already hinted at your drive and motivation to continue studying your subject at graduate level; why else would you devote so much of your (presumably) otherwise free time to studying it outside of classes? This effort may carry some weight with the admissions committee. Think of it as your unique selling point.

Now the tricky part: really making sure that the admissions people understand your USP before they meet you. This is your referees' job, and to help them do it successfully, it's your job to make sure they know and understand you as a student, as a mathematician and as a person.

In this task, I think communication is the key. Talk to your instructor; tell her your plans for self-study, discuss what topics interest you the most, ask for feedback on your work, chat about relevant literature, where you want to go for your PhD, whether the moon really is made of cheese-- you name it.

What I'm getting at is that for your letter to stand out from the no doubt tens or hundreds of other generic letters the admissions committee read, you need to come across as a real person with a genuine interest in your subject and the requisite skills and knowledge to back it up. And the only way that will happen is if your referee knows you as such.

(Disclaimer: I've never written or read a reference letter, but I've had some small recent successes in the hunt for a PhD place, largely (I think) due to my reference letters.)

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