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A little about me:
-I'm a math major.
-I'm going to be starting my senior year this fall.
-I have the credits to graduate early, at the end of the fall semester.
-I have taken a few graduate level math classes, computer science and statistics classes, and science classes (psychology, biology, chem, physics).
-I'm leaning towards applied math.
-I go to my state school, which isn't very selective or prestigious.
-I have a 3.9 GPA.

I haven't had any advising beyond getting me to fulfill my graduation requirements and now it's my senior year and I still don't know what I want to do career-wise. I think I want to go to graduate school because I really enjoy the school environment and learning, but I'm not 100% certain.

Assuming I do choose the grad school path, I feel that my application would be weak at this point. I would like to stand a chance at getting into a more prestigious program than my state school.

-I have not taken the GRE General or GRE Math test. These seem to be the most important factors in admission. I don't know that it's possible to get a good score on both between now and the application deadlines around December.
-I have no research experience yet. I plan to assist a professor with research in the fall, but I wish I would have more prior to applying.
-I have little work experience so my resume isn't impressive.
-I still don't know what program/research area I'd want to go into. I think this would show in my personal statement and recommendation letters.

Do I have time to improve all this before the application deadline? Should I take a gap year to see if I can get some research/work experience, make sure I want to go/figure out what I want to research, and do well on the GRE? Does a gap year weaken an application?

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    "I haven't had any advising beyond getting me to fulfill my graduation requirements" makes it sound like it's someone else's responsibility to make sure you're set up. It isn't. Your first stop should be your schools carer office. Jul 19, 2017 at 23:31
  • I've been to both my academic advisor and career center. My academic advisor wouldn't give me any advice other than making sure I graduated early (which is why I can graduate early) and my career center only gives advice on how to find jobs. The guy I talked to there told me to go to my advisor for grad school questions...
    – antsatsui
    Jul 19, 2017 at 23:35
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    My academic advisor wouldn't give me any advice other than making sure I graduated early -- I'm sorry that you had an incompetent advisor. (Unless you are under severe financial stress, there is absolutely no advantage to graduating early.) Find another faculty member to talk to, quick!
    – JeffE
    Jul 20, 2017 at 5:05
  • @JeffE how do you figure? Presumably you're getting the degree for some purpose, so the sooner you graduate, the sooner you can put it to use. Plus tuition costs go up much faster than inflation, so graduating sooner will probably save you a significant amount. I can't see any downside to it, really.
    – Kat
    Jul 20, 2017 at 6:03
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    @Kat I assume students are at university to get an education, not a degree.
    – JeffE
    Jul 20, 2017 at 7:20

2 Answers 2

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I think you are overemphasizing the importance of the GRE. Consider it as a box you need to check, rather than "the most important factors in admission". Still, you should get started on that process only because opportunities to take the test are few and far between, and if you are ill the day you intend to take the test or otherwise do poorly, you might want a second chance.

I think you still have time to get some research experience. I don't know what is available in your field of study and at your institution, but in my field I would recommend you find a lab that would possibly be interested in hiring you on in the spring after you graduate, assuming things go well in the fall. Although applications will be due before that spring semester, at least you will be demonstrating your interest in research, and hopefully you can get a decent letter of recommendation from your research advisor.

I would also suggest finding a faculty mentor: not an administrative academic advisor, yes, those people are mostly interested in your undergraduate progress, you need to talk to professors who have gone through the grad school experience, who are involved in admissions for graduate school, etc (of course one of the disadvantages of a smaller state school is that no one there may have experience with graduate admissions, except as a student).

I don't think there is an either/or question here. If you are set on doing graduate school, you should apply and plan for what you might do to make your application better next year if you don't get into a program you like this time.

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    +1 for pointing out this is not an either/or situation
    – Dawn
    Jul 20, 2017 at 0:36
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  • I'm a math major.
  • I have taken a few graduate level math classes, computer science and statistics classes, and science classes (psychology, biology, chem, physics).
  • I have a 3.9 GPA.

I'm not seeing the problem; a 3.9 GPA (with grad classes, no less) by itself will open some doors. Math in particular is much more focused on classes and grades than some of the sciences, which care more about research (though applied math may be different).

  • I have not taken the GRE General or GRE Math test. These seem to be the most important factors in admission. I don't know that it's possible to get a good score on both between now and the application deadlines around December.

Most students (in the US) study for these during the summer before their senior year and take them in the fall. So, you are right on schedule.

By the way, these are usually not "the most important factors" -- the GRE general in particular is pretty useless for math majors (you should be able to do very well on the math section with no studying, and expectations for the verbal section are pretty low).

  • I have no research experience yet. I plan to assist a professor with research in the fall, but I wish I would have more prior to applying.

This isn't great, but given the pandemic, I suspect it will be less of a hinderance than it might be otherwise. [I realize this question was asked before the pandemic and might be read after the pandemic, in which case the lack of research experience is a significantly bigger problem. Nonetheless, my advice below still stands].

I still don't know what I want to do career-wise...I still don't know what program/research area I'd want to go into...Should I take a gap year?

This is true for many students. It is good that you are asking these questions, though. I would recommend really considering what jobs you might realistically want to pursue and whether they require a PhD. Most students have only the vaguest ideas what "industry" looks like until they are on the cusp of graduation. But if you can identify a few specific career paths of interest, you may be able to better align your short-term plans with your long-term goals.

As for a gap year, the question is what you would do during the gap year:

  • An internship or "real job" might be valuable, though there is always the risk (or maybe it's a perk) that you'll like the real job and never go back to grad school. But, these are not always easy to get (especially if you are up-front about only staying for one year).
  • Doing a "fifth year" of undergraduate or a master's might be an option, but I don't really see the advantage of this in your case (this is normally for students with poor records who need to demonstrate success).
  • Personally, I never recommend taking a whole year to just hang around and study for the GRE and do research part-time, since this has a huge cost in time and money.
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  • This isn't great, but given the pandemic --- Note that the question was asked in July 2017. Serendipitously, I did the same thing by answering a June 2017 question earlier today without realizing it was asked 3.5 years ago! But +1 nonetheless because your answer is more appropriate/targeted to the specifics of the OP than the only other answer at this point. Jan 15, 2021 at 19:33
  • Thanks...yes, I realized my mistake shortly after clicking "submit", but oh well.... :-) Have added a note to clarify.
    – cag51
    Jan 15, 2021 at 19:37

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