Grad School Q&A

Note: This is copied from an email communication

March 26, 2018

Graduate School Application Roundtable Talk


  • These responses are the opinions of the participating panel.
  • These notes from the Information Session, were captured Lilly, an undergraduate student.

Q: How long in advance should we start preparing for grad school applications?

Usually, you should submit applications in before the December deadline of the current year to apply for graduate school that starts September of the following year.

Q: What are the weights on GRE, reference letters, CGPA, personal statement in terms of admission?

  • GRE
  • Not required for Canadian schools (does not matter whether you have it or not)
  • Required for US schools (depending on which school you are applying to. Some schools care more but some schools care less.)


  • Reference letter
  • Important


  • CGPA
  • The most important component
  • Not only the grades matters, but also what courses you took
  • There’s no cut-off grades, but better be grades for important math courses
  • Only math courses will be looked at (doesn’t really matter if you fail a physics class)
  • Usually they would look at the 10 most advanced math courses on your transcript and drop the lowest two


  • Personal statement
  • If you prepare a generic statement then it becomes the least important component
  • Shouldn’t be more than 1 page unless there are stories that are very interesting
  • Make sure there’s no spelling or other grammatical mistakes
  • Becomes very relevant when there’s something special about your story (e.g. had 5 years gap during undergrad; already had a PHD in physics and now want to do another PHD in math, etc…)
  • Very important if the school you are applying to allows the future supervisor to make the decision

Q: How useful would doing research be in terms of applying for grad school?

It is a plus, but not a necessary thing. Math is a very specialized discipline, so it is very rare to see undergrads doing serious research. But if you can win the USRA award, then definitely include it in your application.


Q: How does one find research opportunities in undergraduate?

Walk around the department, knock on doors, ask professors, “Do you have a summer project?” or “Could you supervise me in a reading course?” Usually it is comparatively difficult to become engaged in research opportunities in the Department of Mathematics. You should take the time to review the research interest of the professor that you would like to work with.  You may also have conversations with your professors after class, and talk about interesting questions related to the course material and introduce interesting topics that you would want to explore further.


Q: How useful would math competitions be in terms of applying for grad school?

Similar to research, it is a plus, but not a necessary thing. They are looking for your strengths, not a fulfilling a check list. It’s fine for not having research or competitions results.


Q: Is it encouraged to do PHD at another school?

It is recommended because by doing so you will be seeing other perspectives, learning more cultures etc. However, if you have a good personal reason to stay here (e.g. because your families are here etc.), it is also good to stay.


Q: Should we apply for master first or apply for Ph D directly?

  • In US: apply for the Ph D directly
  • In Canada: usually you should apply for masters first, and when you get admitted, you will also be admitted to the Ph D program automatically (conditional offer)

Some countries offer 3 years Ph D programs (e.g. some universities in UK), but there are also some countries that offer 1 year master + 5 years PHD programs.

  • the longer may be the better
  • when applying for post doc, what matters is not how long you’ve been studying math since elementary school, but how many years you have studied since PHD. So you may have some disadvantages by taking the “fast lane”


Q: About applying for grad school and stating a particular professor that you would like to work with?

Make sure that the prof you are aiming for is actually working there. Sometimes their names may be listed as faculty members, but they are not actually permanently employed at that institution.


Q: If I want to do grad school for applied math (e.g. finance or physics). During undergrad, should I take more applied courses or should I take more pure math courses?

For most applied programs, the process of admission could be very different comparing to math programs. For some applied programs, you may even need to contact your potential supervisor because quite often the decision is made by them.


Q: Are there any advantages for taking most advanced math course (e.g. MAT157, 257, 357)?

Specialists have many advantages comparing to math majors. In the reference letters details are usually provided about the content of the courses as it is here that the applicant’s university will learn of the strength of the applicant.


Q: Does a 4th year statistic student still have chance to get into grad school for math?

What’s important is which courses you have taken. As long as you have all the necessary courses (algebra, analysis, topology), then it is possible.


Q: What are the necessary courses?

MAT327H1    Introduction to Topology

MAT347Y1    Groups, Rings and Fields

MAT354H1    Complex Analysis I

MAT357H1    Foundations of Real Analysis

MAT457H1    Advanced Real Analysis I

APM421H1    Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics


Q: How to explore interests?

  • Take courses
  • Talk to professors and students
  • Be involved

It is actually harmful to decide too early, which field of mathematics you want to study. If you decide too early, you are sort of preventing yourself from exploring your true self.


Be ready to get rejection letters and do not be too offended when you get a few rejection letters.








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