I don't know if this is the right place for such a question, so please redirect me to a more appropriate place if necessary.

My main question is, if you go to a small school, are you doomed to fail right from the get-go? My secondary question is, what are my options then, if I am indeed doomed to "fail"? The following is more of a personal description, so obviously it doesn't apply to everyone, which would make the question "not general enough", but I suspect that there are many others caught in a similar situation.

I'm going to be a senior (fourth-year) in the fall (August) and am currently doing my "homework" on graduate school admissions. I go to a small liberal arts college you've probably never heard of. From what I've read and heard, I'm extremely discouraged and I'd say I'm borderline depressed about my future, but the truth is, I don't really want to do anything else other than learn more math (and get a PhD in the process if I'm capable of it).

I like to think that I've worked very hard (but everyone says the same thing). Classes I've taken include topology, complex analysis, algebra, real analysis, statistics, graph theory, number theory, and Galois theory. I've been told that none of my coursework means much to graduate schools because my school is relatively unknown. Furthermore, much as I can get some good recommendation letters, I've heard that since none of my letter writers is "relatively well-known" in their area, and everyone who applies to graduate schools gets glowing reviews anyway, I can't compete with other applicants at all.

I've gone through all of Herstein, a little more than half (i.e., as much as I could) of Rudin, most of Hoffman/Kunze, and the first half of Munkres. None of these texts are actually used at my school. In other words, I don't think I've given any less than I'm physically capable of in the last three years, and if that isn't enough, I really shudder to think what is.

I haven't taken the GRE yet but am currently studying for it. But it's no secret that the GRE is a relatively silly measure of grad school success. A bad score would condemn me to eternal hell, but a good score isn't a direct ticket to success.

I've heard the "anything can happen ... who's to say that you can't succeed ... people from small schools have gotten into big schools" argument, but in all realisticness, there's absolutely no reason to pick me over a Princeton graduate who has the exact same credentials, and there are tons of them. So what are my best options given this reality?

Any advice/encouragement/experiences would be very much appreciated. Thank you.

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    $\begingroup$ No one, at no stage in life, is doomed to fail. $\endgroup$
    – user17762
    Jul 7, 2012 at 4:29
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    $\begingroup$ "there's absolutely no reason to pick me over a Princeton graduate who has the exact same credentials" - that is, unless you find a way to make yourself distinctive from those other people you speak of. Find that distinction. $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2012 at 4:35
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    $\begingroup$ Being condemned to eternal hell sounds terrible. Let's hope you do well on the GRE! $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2012 at 4:43
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    $\begingroup$ Don't neglect the GRE's. You don't need a perfect score, but you have to pass some threshold to be considered. Don't get sub 50th percentile! Ironically, top ten math graduate schools may accept you with poor gre scores, but you may get rejected from all your safeties. Not something you want to depend on. Many schools use them as a filter. $\endgroup$
    – William
    Jul 7, 2012 at 5:37
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    $\begingroup$ You may find that admissions committees are less biased against small liberal arts schools than you think. Anyway, if you love mathematics, then you have your answer: you must try and study it no matter what. Do your best to interact with others in the mathematics community. Apply to an REU. Read the notices of the AMS, the college mathematics journal, the American Mathematical Monthly. Start reading/participating in MSE. Interacting with the mathematical community is a great way to avoid depression of this kind. By the way, a 21 on the Putnam exam is a good score! $\endgroup$
    – treble
    Jul 7, 2012 at 7:29

6 Answers 6


You've gotten some good advice so far; permit me to chime in with the perspective of someone on the other side of the lectern. I've been teaching at small liberal arts colleges for longer (far longer) than any of my current students have been alive and over the years my colleagues and I have seen many of our majors accepted at good-quality graduate schools, both for Master's and Ph.D. programs. Let me get your major question out of the way immediately

[I]f you go to a small school, are you doomed to fail right from the get-go?

This is easy to answer: no! as I've mentioned above.

Now that that's out of the way, I first need to back up a little and ask you the question you should ask yourself,

Why do I want to get a Ph.D.?

The process of obtaining a Doctorate is long and, frankly, painful. If you've decided put your life on hold for five to seven hard and exasperating years, you'd better have a good reason. If your goal is to continue doing mathematics and eventually producing results of your own that add to the body of what is known, that's commendable. If you view the Ph.D. as a high-falutin' teaching certificate and see yourself as primarily a college professor, that's also commendable. If, on the other hand, you're contemplating merely drifting into a way to keep doing what you're good at, it might be a good idea to ask yourself whether there might be some other way to spend the next few years, since a Doctorate in mathematics won't help you very much in the Real World outside of academia and may actually harm more than help in eventually landing a job out there.

For the purpose of discussion, let's assume that you have thought long and hard and decided, "Yup, I really want to get that diploma," how can you get your foot in the door? You've earned superb grades in what looks to me to be a reasonably solid undergraduate curriculum. For all but the applicants for the very top schools, that will work in your favor, though you're correct in your assessment that good grades will be a small part of the admissions committee's view of you. Similarly, the GRE will also be a small part of your total package---those scores will primarily be a check for the Committee to ensure that you're not a hopeless idiot. On the other hand, you probably won't have any Fields medalists among your letters of reference, but that's not as bad as it may seem, especially if any recent graduates from your college have made it into a school for which you're applying.

Reference letters are the single most important part of your package, hands down. No matter where you did your undergraduate work and no matter who's writing your letters, the sentence "X was the best student I've seen in ten years" will loom large in the eyes of the Committee. If your English is excellent, make sure one or more of your letters mentions that, since universities are always on the lookout for good teaching assistant material.

Is there an area of math that really excites you? If so, check for universities with strong programs in that area and mention that in your personal statement. It's already been mentioned that it might be a good idea to write to faculty members at your target school and ask about what they're doing in the area of your interest before you submit your application.

That said, where should you apply? I agree that a top-tier graduate school is probably a stretch, though that shouldn't rule out trying for one or two. Who knows, you might get lucky? On the other hand, you probably shouldn't limit yourself to universities whose motto on their seal is "Plenty of Free Parking." There are plenty of respectable universities between those two extremes and for the time being they still need a crop of good applicants (which you are). As I said, we've sent a lot of students off to grad schools and I can't recall a case where one of our students failed to get into at least one of the schools to which they applied. Your task over the next few months is to research those middle-tier schools that look like the best fit for you.

As Ragib and Francis mentioned, getting a Master's degree first isn't all that bad an idea. At least, it might give you an idea about whether going on for the Doctorate is what you want to do (that's what I did, though for different reasons). If you go that route, do your best to make yourself stand out from the crowd, so your subsequent letters will reflect that. Keep in mind, though, that you'll have to dig up the money to pay for your education, since graduate schools rarely offer financial support for Master's students (though many will provide full support for Ph.D. students).

Finally, I fully agree with some of the other answers: don't be discouraged. Things are nowhere near as bad as you've painted them. If that's what you want, you'll almost certainly succeed. Best of luck---keep us posted.


I think a good place to start is not to be so down on your school. You didn't go to princeton, but it doesn't sound like you went to a bad school. And at your school it sounds like you have done exceptionally well and have tried to do as much as possible within the limitations of your situation. If you had gone to an "obscure" school and done poorly, then there might be an issue.

One thing to emphasize, both in whatever statements you write for the applications and in your recommendations is your potential. Tell the people writing your letters about all the extra work you have done to try and empress upon them the effort you have put in so far and would be willing to put in at a graduate school. While your recommenders may not be well known, at a small school they do have the chance to get to know you really well and that benefit shouldn't be underestimated.

Once you have an idea of what you would like to study and where you would like to go, try contacting some people at those schools in those areas. Tell them who you are, what you would like to do, and if they had any advice for someone preparing for graduate school. Ask for some papers that would serve as good introductions to research. Many will be happy to do that for you, and you will have a contact at that school that knows who you are and sees that you already want to start doing some work. These are both good things.

And when you are looking at schools, apply to a wide range. When I applied at the end of my senior year (also at a small midwestern liberal arts school), I didn't get in anywhere. So I took a year off, took a grad class at the University of Iowa, got a job at a community college, and reapplied. The second time I lowered the general range of schools, still applying to some good ones but including more lower tier programs, and I got in.

I think it worked out for me. Just because you don't go to a great school doesn't mean you can't get in somewhere. And once you are in you can do the work to make a name for yourself. You can try a masters first, or go straight to a PhD, but you can still succeed.


Currently the road I'm considering: Aim for smaller steps up the ladder.

If we were to divide schools up into 3 levels, where your current one is 3, your desired PhD program at 1, then apply to do Masters degrees at schools of level 2. It will probably have to be a 2 year Masters (instead of a 1 year) because otherwise you have to file PhD applications before you can get good recommendations.

This isn't necessarily 2 years wasted, because in this time you do many things you would otherwise do in the first year or two of a PhD program, such as learning more mathematics and honing in on what area you want to research in. If you use those 2 years wisely, impress the faculty and work your butt off, then you could end up with a strong enough case to get into your goal PhD school.

Digression: I'd just like you (the OP) to know, this is a problem that keeps me up at night as well. The best we can do is keep trying, work hard and have hope.

  • $\begingroup$ I know a couple math grad students who used a Masters-degree step-ladder to get where they are. I have no idea if it's the best route to take, but it certainly worked for them. $\endgroup$
    – davidlowryduda
    Jul 7, 2012 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ @mixedmath That is certainly comforting to hear. Can you tell us a bit about their paths? Where they went for undergrad and masters, and at which phd school they are at now? $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2012 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ I was in the same situation as the OP. I was told absolutely not to do this. There is little funding for masters, so you'd have to pay out of pocket, and the PhD admissions probably won't look on a masters as much more than the bachelors so it will be a big waste of time (lots of it) and money (even more). If it is possible to get directly into a good PhD program (and it certainly sounds as if the OP has a great chance at it) then that route should be taken. It worked for me and he sounds like he's in a much better situation (21's on the Putnam!!) $\endgroup$
    – Matt
    Jul 7, 2012 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Matt I never intended to advise that the OP should only apply for masters programs and not PhD programs. Certainly, if you get accepted directly into a good PhD program, then you should definitely take that opportunity straight away. You'd be crazy if you didn't. But in the scenario where you haven't gotten any offers from a good program, then you can use the masters degree as a stepping stone. $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2012 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ ...Not that PhD admissions will think of the masters degree itself as much more than a Bachelors, but perhaps they would notice that the applicant has managed to distinguish themselves not just in a small obscure school but also at a better school with stronger peers. Also, the masters school is more likely to have professors that are more well known and whose recommendations carry more weight. $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2012 at 18:05

Encouragement: Have more self-confidence!

Bertrand Russell: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are so confident while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Despite your self-doubt, you are clearly an intelligent guy (I believe few people take topology in their first year).

Anyway, I believe that not being in a famous big-name school is not the end of the world. Many mathematicians (recently see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liu_Lu who solved the Seetapun Enigma) did not come from the best of universities. Even Galois was rejected from Ecole Polytechnique -- twice.

Ultimately, I think it is the individual that matters most; the university is important but still a secondary matter.

Wishing you all the best of luck. I need it too -- I am in the same situation as you, only worse as I am not studying in U.S.

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    $\begingroup$ Galois was rejected because he was smarter than the person evaluating him and that person didn't understand Galois. It's not exactly a good example. $\endgroup$
    – GeoffDS
    Jul 7, 2012 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Graphth: That's not exactly what happened. From my understanding, he was frustrated with the oral examiner, and threw something at their head. They then rejected him from the school. $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2012 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ @EricNaslund Sorry for my bad French. I visited the wikipedia, and there is a footnote which seems to me second what Graphth said: Plusieurs récits circulent sur cet examen. Selon le mathématicien Joseph Bertrand, l'examinateur à l'oral est Dinet, qui pose des questions classiques pour lesquelles il exige des réponses détaillées, type d'examen peu adapté à Galois, que les exercices trop scolaires impatientent : une légende raconte que Dinet lui ayant posé une question trop simple sur les logarithmes, Galois lui aurait jeté une éponge à la figure (Verdier 2003, p. 13-14). $\endgroup$
    – Yai0Phah
    Apr 19, 2016 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ And the example of Galois isn't a good one from another aspect: finally Galois succeeded in concours and was admitted into École Préparatoire, which would been renamed as École Normale Superieure later. $\endgroup$
    – Yai0Phah
    Apr 19, 2016 at 19:25

Haha, you're worried waaay too much! If you're studying out of those books and have a good solid foundation on what you've learned, then you should be fine. However, the probability of you being accepted, and as a consequence passing, any PhD program in Mathematics is up to you. Allow me to explain what I mean (though this was posted 3 years ago, it may be beneficial to anyone who has the same question now).

You're an undergraduate now. What do you have to show for the fact that you are actually a mathematician and that you can not only pass graduate course classes and advance the field? Here are just some example questions you may want to consider:

  • How are your grades in your courses? Is your GPA high?
  • How much did you retain from your courses? For example, if I asked you what the definition of a vector space is, could you list out the criterion for me?
  • What research have you done in the field? This is often a really big determining factor on acceptance in graduate school, especially if you've done research and made rediscoveries of your own.
  • Was your research useful? If you're working in a particular field, did your rediscovery contribute to the field itself?
  • Could you actually handle the course-load? This isn't just a factor of timing or difficulty. Recruiters will base this off of your GPA, and your GRE, since those are the most official ways to test your knowledge and ingenuity. However, you will be asked what you're going to shoot for in the future. Make sure you do your homework on the school, what kind of mathematics the school mostly centers around, and the results they've recently ascertained through research. Speaking of which,
  • Are you up-to-date on the most recent mathematical discoveries and unsolved mathematical problems? This isn't necessarily a big issue, but it may help out with decision making, along with some of the factors above.

Most students do not have all of this criteria, and make it into graduate school in mathematics, but the biggest things are your thesis and your GPA. The books you're using is fine. If it helps, talk to your research advisor and get his/her advice on it as well. Hope this helps!


Your brain does not function like a computer program that crashes if some detail of some course prerequisite is missing. There is a huge latitude concerning what can and should be presented in any undergraduate course, and what you take away is a general sense of familiarity and comfortableness, and, to put it simply, the ability to look stuff up. So, if you've been working hard and haunting the library, dipping into lots of texts, then there is a decent chance that you can fill in the gaps as they arise, even if your courses covered less than those in some fancy big-name school.

There is often a big gap between undergraduate and graduate courses, in terms of prerequisites, and the size of this gap varies widely across institutions. Some schools just dump you in the water and tell you to have a nice day, others guide and mentor you to a degree that some might even find annoying. Make sure you assess this quality when you are choosing a school.

As far as which school will accept you, what's the point of worrying? Apply and see what happens. No matter where you go, there will be just a few people who are really important, and you can find such people pretty much anywhere, especially these days when serious mathematicians are waiting in line for jobs at community colleges.


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