Preparing for Graduate School

Applying to graduate school can often be an intimidating and overwhelming task. Below we’ve collected some Question and Answers from Alliance Scholars and Mentors about preparing and applying to a graduate program to help ease some anxiety you might encounter when beginning your journey into the next step of academia. Also make sure to look at our Resources page for tips on writing a personal statement and GRE information.

What can I study in graduate school?

Most mathematics and statistics majors who go to graduate school in a science–related area (as opposed to medicine, business or law), enter programs in mathematics, computer science, statistics, biostatistics, applied mathematics, biomathematics, operations research, and history of science. On the other hand, many other areas accept mathematics and statistics majors for graduate schools as they feel that they have sufficiently valuable backgrounds and skills. Ask your Alliance Mentor for advice on which program and school might be a good fit for you.

Where are Alliance Scholars currently studying?

Alliance Scholars are studying all over the United States, including our 44 Graduate Program Groups (GPGs). We’ve built strong relationships with these 44 programs and would highly recommend looking into them when considering graduate study.

Which courses should I take to prepare for graduate school in mathematics?

A solid foundation is required for graduate study in the mathematics sciences:

  • Discrete math, calculus and linear algebra.
  • Real and complex analysis (243, 343), abstract algebra (233, 333, and 325).
  • Other useful courses: MTH 245, 246, 342, 222, 238 and 254.
  • If possible, try to take part in an undergraduate research experience.

Additionally, you should plan to take both the General and the Advanced Mathematics GREs in the fall of your senior year. The courses that are most important in preparation for the Advanced Mathematics GREs are: 212, 211, 243, 233, 325.

Which courses should I take to prepare for graduate school in statistics?

A solid foundation is required for graduate study in statistics:

  • Discrete math, calculus and linear algebra.
  • Introductory statistics (245), intermediate statistics (247, 290), probability (246), mathematical statistics (346), modeling (205).
  • Real analysis (243).
  • If possible, try to take part in an undergraduate research experience.

Additionally, you should plan to take the General GRE in the fall of your senior year.

What are questions to ask when choosing a graduate school?

Success in graduate school can be difficult to ascertain. Ability is important, but it is often not the most important factor. Note that industry, confidence, and the right environment are all crucial. Unlike professional schools, graduate school in the mathematical sciences should not cost you money. Fellowships are available, though it is likely you will have to do some teaching (which you may enjoy), and you will not save much, but you will probably not go into debt.

When comparing different graduate programs, here are some things to consider:

  • Requirements with regards to coursework, research and teaching.
  • The size of the program (is it large or small)?
  • Consider the faculty — are they friendly and available for you to ask questions?
  • Consider the graduate students — are they friendly? Do they collaborate?
  • What is the average time to complete a Ph.D.?
  • Are you able to get funding? What is the cost of living?
  • What is it like to live in the surrounding town?

Other people and organizations have compiled lists of questions to think about when choosing a graduate school:

How do I put together an application?

The application process begins way before you actually start filling out a form. A year before your intended matriculation date, work out how many and what kind of schools you want to apply to. Apply to a variety of schools and start researching these now! Deadlines are usually in December or January.

The application itself consists of

    • Basic information: name, address, phone, email.
    • Education: degrees, dates of attendance and/or receipt of degree, honors, etc. List your major (and minor) and any graduate courses taken.
    • Work experience.
    • Publications: e.g. a senior thesis, REU papers, published articles.
    • Talks: e.g. Mathfest, department seminars, other undergraduate math conferences.
    • Teaching experience: e.g. grading, tutoring, formal teaching training.
    • C.V. or résumé. Remember to include the page number and your name on each page. Much of the information listed above will (re)appear on this document.
    • Statement of purpose. Note that every school has their own length requirements, but most essays have a length limit of 1-3 pages.
    • GPA and GRE scores. Plan to take the General GRE (and the Advanced Mathematics GRE, if applicable) no later than November.
    • Transcripts
    • Letters of recommendation
  • Give your letter-writers at least four weeks before the first deadline.
  • Provide your letter writers with C.V. or résumé, personal statement, and transcripts so that they can use these materials as a reference.
  • Ask your letter-writers if they would like a reminder closer to the deadline.
  • Other relevant information like grants, summer support, conferences attended, committees, foreign languages, etc.

If you are a U.S. citizen or green card holder, an NSF Graduate Fellowship is worth considering. This fellowship is valuable and enables you to attend any school which will admit you (as you are fully funded for three years). Note that the deadline is early (typically early November).

What are some study tips for the General and Advanced Mathematics GREs?

The official GRE website offers a variety of tips and resources when looking to study for the GRE. You can download a free GRE Mathematics Test Practice Book here.

What do I do once I have been accepted?

You can expect to hear back from some schools in early January. Others take longer to decide. Arrange to talk to faculty and students at the institution (the graduate director should give you names and email addresses when asked). If possible arrange to visit the school. When visiting keep in mind questions discussed above. You’ll want to talk to both faculty and students and really make sure you understand the details of the program requirements and the funding package.


Information pulled from Smith College with permission.