how did you guys pick your list of schools

Forum for the GRE subject test in mathematics.
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sunflower
Posts: 19
Joined: Sat Dec 23, 2023 10:50 pm

how did you guys pick your list of schools

Post by sunflower » Sun Dec 24, 2023 1:42 pm

hi, i was just wondering how you guys came up with your list of schools to apply to?

i basically told my letter writers some of my preferences (e.g. california is too far from home, i don't have a car or a license so can't move somewhere where i'd need to depend on a car, etc.) and then they gave me a schools based on their knowledge of the field i want to go into, where their collaborators are, stuff like that. i guess i'm just a little worried because i found this forum recently, and i feel like i see so many posts of people with insane qualifications getting rejected very widely. or i see most people applying to a lot of state schools/safety schools, and i'm starting to wonder if i should do this as well.

for context this is my list, i am applying all for pure math phds and i do not have a masters degree:

- mit
- harvard
- princeton
- yale
- uchicago
- upenn
- brown
- umich
- columbia
- nyu
- alma mater (american t20)

at the end of the day, my apps are in and even if there were schools still accepting applications, i can't ask my letter writers over the holidays to send them the letters. so i guess i'm just pretty freaked overall. for those of you applying to a lot (eg 15+ schools) at a ton of different levels, how did you decide to do so? i want to trust my letter writers because they are very knowledgable about admissions, and also about me and my profile, and they said this was a good list of schools for me. but it's hard to put the nerves out of my mind because i don't feel like a very exceptional applicant. for example, i don't have a publication (though i am currently working on a paper), but i see lot's of people on here get rejected even with multiple papers in journals. i guess i'm just really scared, and i don't want to end up with nowhere to go next year:(

KovenFan
Posts: 4
Joined: Sun May 21, 2023 2:22 am

Re: how did you guys pick your list of schools

Post by KovenFan » Sun Dec 24, 2023 3:09 pm

If you did your undergrad at a high ranking fancy name brand school you'll be fine even if you have a low gpa and no research. If you did not do your undergrad at one of those schools, you'll probably be rejected from all of these schools on your list no matter your qualifications.

In either case, add some safeties.

sunflower
Posts: 19
Joined: Sat Dec 23, 2023 10:50 pm

Re: how did you guys pick your list of schools

Post by sunflower » Sun Dec 24, 2023 3:23 pm

KovenFan wrote:
Sun Dec 24, 2023 3:09 pm
If you did your undergrad at a high ranking fancy name brand school you'll be fine even if you have a low gpa and no research. If you did not do your undergrad at one of those schools, you'll probably be rejected from all of these schools on your list no matter your qualifications.

In either case, add some safeties.
interesting, i guess i didn't think it was this straightforward because i hear a lot from current phd students who also did their undergrad at my school that they applied to a TON of places and got rejected everywhere but our alma mater. also i don't want to downplay my app, i definitely have a good gpa and research experience, good connection with my letter writers, and community involvement and teaching and things like that. i just see a lot of people with similar/better profiles getting rejected across the board and it really stoked my admission anxiety.

like i said sadly the list is what it is because i'm pretty sure it is too late to add more safeties, but i will do a look around to see if anyone is taking apps still, with a deadline late enough that i can reasonably ask my letter writers to submit after the holidays. thank you for the insight and the advice.

KhanComplex
Posts: 5
Joined: Tue Dec 19, 2023 6:56 pm

Re: how did you guys pick your list of schools

Post by KhanComplex » Sun Dec 24, 2023 4:27 pm

As one of the people freaking you out by applying to 15+ schools, I think it's only fair that I say a few words about it. There are two main reasons to apply to a lot of schools.

The first is that it is difficult to objectively assess the strength of your own application. In a simplified model in which each applicant has a single known constant denoting their qualifications, and each school has a single, known number denoting the cutoff for admission, you can simply apply to the single best school you can get into (where "best" means best for you according to your own criteria, not necessarily the highest cutoff). However, in real life, your own qualification score may be better modeled as a random variable. You may therefore need to hedge against the possibility that you are overestimating the strength of your application , while applying to some "reach" schools in case you underestimate it. Applying to schools across a wide range of selectiveness is a good way to do this.

The second is that each school's admissions involve randomness as well. Perhaps you mention stochastic differential equations in your statement of purpose, and someone on the committee thinks these are the best thing since sliced bread. Maybe something in your personal statement resonates with one of your readers and they see themselves in you. Your GRE scores may get much higher weight at one school than another, someone might have had a bad experience with your alma mater, an anecdote in your application might ring true to some and false to others, subtext may be read into your rec letters, the reviewers might have just eaten a great lunch, etc. To be clear, this is not necessarily an indictment of any particular school's process; it's a very challenging problem to objectively and transparently assess the qualifications of many similar applicants, and I am sure most schools put forth reasonable efforts to achieve these goals. To counteract this kind of randomness, you should apply to a large number of similar schools clustered around where you expect to marginally get in.

The main disadvantage to applying to lots of schools is that it becomes more difficult to find time to maximally tailor every application for each school. Applying to lots of schools also involves a lot of time and money. Because I had enough free time, I think that there is quite a bit of randomness in each school's reviewing process, and I am not sure exactly how strong my own application is, I believe applying to many schools is worth the tradeoff for me. This may not be the case for you.

With regards to papers, it is very hard to assess how much each paper actually means without context. If the paper has multiple authors, how much work did each author do? How much of the work was done independently by the applicant, and how much "hand-holding" was involved by mentors? How innovative is the research being done? Do people actually care about the result or the methods? None of these questions can easily be answered by reading a post on this forum in most cases (and see my first point about the challenges of objectively assessing your own qualifications). The mere fact of being an author of a published paper doesn't by itself mean as much as you fear, though it's potentially a significant boost.

With respect to what you should do, I would consider looking for a few "safety" schools if you are strongly committed to pursuing your Ph.D. this fall; there are still several whose due dates haven't yet elapsed. If you are more flexible about the timeline for your Ph.D. and strongly prefer to get it at a top school, perhaps looking into some master's programs would be prudent; you could strengthen your qualifications and, with luck, publish that paper before applying again to MIT-tier schools in a year or two. Remember that your rec letter writers have already done 95%+ of the work by writing the letter and submitting it to 11 schools; asking them to click a link and hit the "upload" button a few more times is not a major imposition, though it is not ideal that this be done over the holidays.

Good luck, and whatever happens, don't give in to despair or catastrophizing. If your profs think you have a good shot at getting into these schools, you surely are doing a lot right.

activator73
Posts: 23
Joined: Tue Feb 14, 2023 8:29 pm

Re: how did you guys pick your list of schools

Post by activator73 » Sun Dec 24, 2023 6:46 pm

It definitely is not too late to add safeties! A lot of lower-ranked schools have January 15 - Feb 1 deadlines, for example Iowa State and Nebraska.

Good luck!

LetMeIn2401
Posts: 41
Joined: Sun Feb 14, 2021 10:22 pm

Re: how did you guys pick your list of schools

Post by LetMeIn2401 » Fri Dec 29, 2023 2:50 pm

The dude that mentioned undergrad prestige is definitely tripping. I went to a T5 undergrad and its still very difficult process even with those of us with a 4.0 and research experience. Also, I know people that went to less prestigious undergraduate programs that did extremely well. The process depends on so many things and I would not take this dude's word for anything.

probabelitist
Posts: 10
Joined: Sat Mar 11, 2023 4:22 pm

Re: how did you guys pick your list of schools

Post by probabelitist » Mon Feb 19, 2024 11:45 am

LetMeIn2401 wrote:
Fri Dec 29, 2023 2:50 pm
The dude that mentioned undergrad prestige is definitely tripping. I went to a T5 undergrad and its still very difficult process even with those of us with a 4.0 and research experience. Also, I know people that went to less prestigious undergraduate programs that did extremely well. The process depends on so many things and I would not take this dude's word for anything.
Yeah that person has no idea what's what: the process is nothing like that.

MonsieurGalois
Posts: 8
Joined: Wed Jan 10, 2024 8:05 pm

Re: how did you guys pick your list of schools

Post by MonsieurGalois » Mon Feb 19, 2024 10:46 pm

Honestly, I think admissions are actually a lot more predictable than I originally thought. From what I can tell, if you have great research fit with one or more faculty members that is demonstrated through REU's or an undergraduate thesis, you have a decent chance of being admitted. Otherwise, if you aren't an IMO medalist, Putnam HM, don't have a famous letter writer, and the department is T15, then you're almost surely getting rejected. In fact, this suspicion became apparent to me even before I submitted because my SoPs for departments where my background naturally fit with a faculty member just flowed a lot easier. So I guess it wasn't too surprising to me that the places I've been admitted or waitlisted at were exactly the places with the best research fit. I guess the moral of the story is, if your ultimate goal is to go to a T10 department for a PhD, then make sure you tailor your REUs and undergraduate thesis to the research areas commonly found at T10 programs.



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