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Suppose there are two students applying for math PhD programs in U.S

Student A mentioned in his statement of purpose that he was born in a well-educated middle class family with both parents scientists/mathematicians. He chooses to pursue math because he grew up in excellent family circumstance and his parents told him that "mathematics is the best field because it has an amazing internal consistency and a level of rigor and certainty unmatched by any other intellectual endeavor..."(quoted from Dr. Pete L. Clark)

Student B, however, mentioned in his statement of purpose that he was born in a poor family with bad-tempered, quarrelsome parents who had never gone to colleges. His motivation for pursuing math is that he believes that knowledge changes fate, doing math can help him find peace while his parents are fighting and math research doesn't cost much money.

Given that A and B have similar GPAs, test scores,LoRs, undergraduate institutes, etc., does

A has an advantage over B in graduate admission because he grew up in a well-educated family so that the committee believe that A is more likely to be successful as a research mathematician than B(for instance, A's parents have strong social networks which can help A to be successful in the future) OR

B has an advantage over A in graduate admission because the graduate committee believe that it is much more difficult for B to achieve what he has achieved today so that he has more potential to be successful in math?

A further question is that if an applicant's family background is so unusual(good or bad, like A or B) that it affects one's motivation for pursuing math, is it better to mention it(to increase one's chance of admittance) or not to mention it(just for safe)?

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    I'm just an undergrad, but if I were a member of the admission committee, I would choose neither of them because one of them wants to study math just because of his/her family, and the other just because s/he thinks math is a tool to find peace, in which case after learning it is not the case, s/he will not want to study math anymore. – onurcanbektas Aug 7 '17 at 16:47
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    Actually, motivations and feelings aside, there is one significant factual difference between the applicants: A's parents went to college and B's did not. Some institutions will give preference to "first-generation" students, and for that reason alone B might have an advantage. – Nate Eldredge Aug 7 '17 at 17:07
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    @onurcanbektas: Perhaps I should not have used the word "preference". Certainly many institutions have stated policies of encouraging or supporting first-generation students (examples 1 2), and there is a widespread sense in higher education that such students ought to be encouraged, but I don't have any specific information about how this plays out in terms of graduate admissions. – Nate Eldredge Aug 7 '17 at 17:28
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    Perhaps this is a cultural thing but I would never mention anything about my family background on any kind of application. – astronat Aug 7 '17 at 17:32
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    Because I want to be judged on my own merits and qualifications, not on the actions of my parents (even if it is unconcious bias). Furthermore, I want to use the limited space in a statement of purpose to describe why I want to research my subject, why I'm applying to that specific department and what I'm interested in researching, rather than waste time with what might be perceived as a 'sob story'. – astronat Aug 7 '17 at 17:44
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How a statement of purpose is read varies from department to department, and from person to person. That said, I think for most people reading your statement, it wouldn't matter much. Yes, many people are for socio-economic diversity in admissions, so scenario B could be slightly helpful, but really this might only make a difference in very borderline cases. (Of course, you should be truthful, and not claim to be Pete Clark's offspring if you're not.)

What's important about the statement is that we get some sense of your motivation and goals, and possibly mathematical maturity. It's also good if your expectations about grad school sound realistic. By the time you are applying for PhD programs, between your academic history and your letters of recommendation and a statement about your motivation/goals, we should have a good sense of your likelihood of success in our program without any information about how you grew up. We care more about where you are now rather than how you got there, so to speak.

My advice is, if you feel it's useful to explain where you came from to explain your motivation/goals, then by all means feel free to. If not, there's no need to bring it up.

  • Thank you for your answer! I am just curious. How does one show his/her math maturity in the statement of purpose? – No One Aug 8 '17 at 17:20
  • @TiWen This isn't something I would explicitly worry about--I think it's something that comes across naturally when you talk about mathematics. E.g., if you describe how learning some specific topic made you realize the beauty of mathematics, how you explain that topic will give us some impression of how deeply you understand it. In any case, we should get idea of it from your letters and transcript, but the statement is just another point of reference. – Kimball Aug 9 '17 at 0:47

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