Tips for applying to graduate programs in mathematics

I’m professor Sami Assaf. I am a
professor at the University of Southern California, and I’m a graduate of Notre Dame from 2001. I took the honors math courses, and I was also a philosophy second major. I went to graduate school at
Berkeley, and I loved it. Then, I went and did a post-doc at MIT and I loved it. Now I’m a professor at USC and I love it. I obviously really like math and I want to tell you a little bit about the
process of applying to graduate school: the logistics of it, how to go about
doing it, and how to go about picking a grad school that’s going to work for you. They’re not all the same. They all have
very different characteristics, and it’s important to find one that a good fit for you. The first
thing to know is, from the other side of things,
when we get applications for graduate school, we get a lot of
applications. We get more than we can read. Even if you’re willing to read them all,
we can’t. The first thing, the most important thing when applying
to grad school, you need to make the cut. Okay, there is a cut that most schools will use,
and they’re not gonna read certain applications. What this means for you is, take your GRE’s seriously. Okay, you do not have to ace your GRE’s.
It’s not important to get a perfect score. It doesn’t necessarily help you to get a
perfect score. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt, but what you need is
you need to be above that minimum bar. It varies from school to school so I’m not going to give you a number, but study and do well because that’s the main thing that we
use. We just we have a low cut off and we just don’t look at applications
below there unless there’s some compelling reason that we
already have to look at those applicants. So, that’s one way. Don’t get weeded
out. The first step to getting into grad school is you want someone to read your application. Take your GRE’s seriously. Do well on them, and hopefully that’ll happen. Okay, so now
you’ve made the cut, and we’re gonna read your application. I
need to remember your application. I’m gonna read 100 applications and some
other I sort of scim because, honestly, it’s like so many applications. Your application should
stand out. How do you get is a stand out? One thing
not to do is say I love math. I would love to find a
better proof for the four-color theorem. I think it needs a better proof. First of all it doesn’t. Second of all, everyone says that, even though it doesn’t which is weird. What you need to do is
figure out just sit by yourself and think: Why do I love math? What excites me about math? Why are math classes my favorite classes? What was a really great
moment in a math class and why does it stand out my mind? And after you write your essay, about how
much you love math and how enthusiastic you are, you should ask yourself: okay, if somebody
else read this essay, if one my professors read this essay and my name wasn’t on it, would they know it was me? If your essay is generic enough that any of you could have written
it, that’s not a good essay. Because it doesn’t really speak about
you. There are a lot of great students. There are a lot of enthusiastic students. What makes you an enthusiastic
student, personally? It needs to be something about your
experience. Just think about the memories that stand out in your mind, and you will find the thing to write about. This shouldn’t be a really stressful thing. If
you just think about your experiences and what you love, you will find that
thing that that makes your essay stand out. That’s one thing we look at when
we’re reading applications, but what I do know, we have that minimum bar. We get rid of most of the applications that way. Down to readable number. Then I go through and I start reading letters of recommendation. First. I don’t read your essay first. What’s more
important to me than your essay is: What do your teachers say about you? What do your professors say? How do you get good letters of
recommendation? When you are asking someone for a
letter of recommendation always ask with way out. If you have time could you please do
this? That gives the professor way to politely decline. If the person is not
gonna write you a great letter, that person will decline. Sometimes they decline because they don’t have time, so don’t take it personally if someone
doesn’t write your letter. But give the person an out. If they don’t think they can write
you a really strong letter, it’s better to ask someone else. How do you get a strong letter?
You can stand out in someone’s class by going to their office hours all
the time and asking them tone of questions. If you actually have those questions. A better thing to do is to do an RU, one of the research experiences for
undergrads, or do research or a senior thesis with a faculty member. That way the person gets to know you, gets to know you working, and gets to
see you in the environment where you’re struggling to understand something. Math is hard. If it weren’t, we
wouldn’t do it. Right? So at some point, you hit something
that hard for you. If you haven’t hit it yet, you will
eventually. Trust me. It does get hard. How you persevere through that is what tells us how you’re going to do you in graduate school, because in graduate school, it’s pretty
much all hard. Right? You have an open problem that no one has solved yet. Maybe a lot
of people thought about it too, so it’s not just because it’s sitting
there no one bothered to think yet. People have tried and haven’t succeeded. If you’re going to succeed, we need to
see that drive and that passion. If you do an RU where you work
and do a research project here with one of the professors at Notre Dame, or
you do a senior thesis where you’re just trying to understand difficult deep mathematics, that tells us,
gives the professor a sense of how your going to be. That
professor can write a letter for you, and that letter will stand out.
The same way that your essay will stand out. That letter will stand out. It’ll be
clear there’s an individual and this professor is talking about an individual. An
individual who is distinct from everyone else. It’s not gonna be
interchangeable. We read these glowing letters, then we
read the students essays, and we are, like, wow, this is someone that I think would be a good fit for our
department. So, that’s really the key to making your application work for you. Theories taken seriously. Write a letter
that’s unique to you and shows your enthusiasm and, hopefully, your competency, hopefully. You’re all honors math majors. You’re all good at math, but we were really want to see your
enthusiasm. We want to see how you persevere through difficult problems. That’s where
your professors come in. They’re the ones who are going to watch you
and it’s okay if you get stuck. It’s okay. It’s okay if you are doing a problem, and you don’t solve it. It’s how
you approach it, how you handle it, how you redirect, and try to solve it. Not to solve every
problem you try. Trust me, I can give you a few right now. Actually, if you solved them it would be pretty cool. There a lot of really hard
problems and that’s okay. The thing is how do you approach it? How do you tackle it? That’s what’s
gonna tell us, are you gonna be successful doing research on your own? That’s sort of the idea. Then, of course, the
other component to get into grad school, now that you’ve got your application
already to go, is where do you send it? It’s important to apply to a spectrum of schools. It’s important to talk to the advisers here at Notre Dame who you know you best. To get their input. You can choose to
ignore it. Some of us did. But it’s always good to get their
guidance. You know they will help you know, okay, should I be applying to Harvard and MIT
and Berkeley and Stanford? Maybe that’s enough. That would be
weird. Should I apply to a spectrum of schools and then also which schools? They are very different, so apply to a spectrum. Once you get
your acceptances, now think seriously and go visit the school. When you visit the
schools, talk to everybody. You have professors definitely talk
to them. Talk to the students, but talk to the second-year graduate students. First-year graduate students are bright
eyed and bushy-tailed, third-year graduate student made it and they’re gonna do
great, second-year graduate students you’re
gonna find some of each. You’re going to find students doing great and loving it and your going to
find students who are struggling. You need to say, where am I going to fit in? Which one of these students am I’m going to be? Am I going to be the ones who are going to
succeed. Why are they not? Why are they not happy? Why are these guys so glowingly happy? The second years, that’s where your good information is. Talk with them if you can stay with the most graduate programs facilitate you staying
with one of the other students. When you visit, that would be a great
thing to do. Get to know them, what they’re like. What it is like being a graduate student
at that school. It’s different. It’s so different from
school to school.

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