I am a German undergrad Math student (3rd year) at the university of Munich and I would classify our courses as relatively hard compared to what I have heard from other (German, but also some other Country's) universities.

During the terms, I really dedicate almost all of my free time to studying and Math itself because I really enjoy it and love learning new stuff. Yet, I really struggle at exams. I am always able to pass the exams by doing the standard exercises, but once it gets to tasks where you have to have the right ideas and think a little bit more I am unable to have a clear head and almost never get a REALLY good grade. My grades are almost always around B+ to B- (if correctly translated), but never an A or even A+, since there's always some exercises that I can't solve. I start feeling like I am either studying the wrong way or I am simply too "stupid" to do some harder exercises.

Whenever I talk to graduate or PhD students or even professors, they always tell me that they have been straight A+ students and I've never met one who was just an average or maybe a little bit above average student.

So my question: Is the excuse "I am just bad exams" a legit one and if not, how can I work on it? I don't think that I don't study enough, it's actually not really possible to dedicate more time to be honest. I would really love to stay in the academic field but I am afraid I am not the right type of person to work on higher mathematics.

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    One of my favorite researchers about computation geometry wrote this: "I have the lowest undergraduate GPA (2.4/4.0) of any professor I've ever met, although some of my colleagues came close, and some others never finished college at all. (I really shouldn't be proud of that.) " I mean, he's really publishing top tier research. Thus, it is not about grades.
    – padawan
    Jul 28, 2017 at 18:20
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    Despite the OP being an undergrad, this is not a issue that is specific to undergrads! Jul 28, 2017 at 18:50
  • You seem very passionate about it, so that is great Jul 28, 2017 at 19:00
  • I'm glad to hear that not every researcher was a fully "A+ student". I just get so disappointed when I don't get the grades I want, even though I commit so much time to it.
    – Staki42
    Jul 28, 2017 at 19:46
  • Not having participated in a PhD program, but I'll say this: There is a tension in undergraduate testing around depth, time, and security (see many other questions). Obviously a math researcher needs some creative problem-solving, but whether this can be expected within an hour is debatable. I'd suggest that you take one or two graduate courses before matriculation to see if you like/succeed at that level. Jul 29, 2017 at 1:58

1 Answer 1


In my experience, if you're interested in joining a PhD program, as long as you're above the minimum required GPA they weigh your research experience, publications (if any) and recommendation letters much higher than your scores. If you want to find out whether you like academia and academia likes you back, find a professor willing to work with you on a research project or ask if one of their graduate students needs help with something. There are people who are great at both research and exams, but they are two very different skills IMO.

Whenever I talk to graduate or PhD students or even professors, they always tell me that they have been straight A+ students.

Depending on the school, country and program, graduate courses are almost always straightforward to get very good grades in since they are largely literature and/or project based. Undergraduate programs tend to be harsher with grading and exams. I would wager that at least some of these academics you've spoken to don't remember their undergraduate scores exactly. :)

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