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Thread: How will low grades in these math courses affect my chances at top masters/PhD/RA?

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    How will low grades in these math courses affect my chances at top masters/PhD/RA?

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    Hi All,

    I'm currently a third year at an okay university (~50 US News, lower in Econ) double majoring in Math and Economics. For the math major, I have to take a math modeling class (more of an engineering class than math imho) and PDEs. In the math modeling class I'm doing poorly, and will probably end the semester with a B-, but a B isn't out of the question (neither is a C+ ). I'm obviously trying to bring this up as much as possible, but it's too late to drop the course or take it pass/fail. In PDEs I'm in the B/B+ range, so not horrible but not amazing. Keep in mind that my math department strictly curves even upper level courses to a B- (at least that's what the modeling professor said). These courses aren't the traditional litmus test for success in Econ grad school, but it seems like the conventional wisdom is that if you take any math class, you're expected to do well. My other math grades are:
    Calc 1-3: AP, A, A
    Intro Stats with Calculus: A- (Econometrics: A)
    Linear Algebra: A
    ODE: A-
    Math Reasoning (Intro to Proofs): B+
    Real Analysis I: A

    So how much are lower grades in these courses likely to affect my chances at getting into grad-school or getting a position as an RA, assuming all other Econ classes are A's or the occasional A-? The other math courses I'll be taking before graduating are Numerical Analysis, Topology, and potentially Math Logic or something similar.

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    Re: How will low grades in these math courses affect my chances at top masters/PhD/RA

    in terms of being competitive for an RA position--your grades are fine. I had very imperfect grades and I got multiple RA offers at top-5 programs. In my experience, professors cared a lot more about previous research experience and programming skills than my grade in some random math class.

    since I haven't gone through the phd application cycle I can't comment on your chances at grad school admissions.

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    Re: How will low grades in these math courses affect my chances at top masters/PhD/RA

    If you're taking super difficult math courses and only getting sub-par marks because of the school's curving policies, try to think about ways to communicate this, and also communicate that the "average" in these classes comes from students very strong in math. Some schools ask for a full spreadsheet of courses in which you also include your position in the class distribution. There might also be space to indicate that your position is relative to very strong peers.

    Probably the most helpful thing, however, would be if you can get a letter writer who will vouch for your quantitative skills and explain that they may appear weaker due to grading anomalies at your school. I specifically asked one of my references to emphasize that I had the quantitative skills for course work (as I had others to vouch for my research ability), and I had fairly good outcomes.

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    Re: How will low grades in these math courses affect my chances at top masters/PhD/RA

    I think that might be a good option. In your experience, is a B- class average in upper level math courses a harsh curving policy? Obviously there is the understanding that STEM courses are graded harder than, for instance, the humanities, but I don't want to seem like I'm griping over a standard practice.

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    Re: How will low grades in these math courses affect my chances at top masters/PhD/RA

    While lower-level STEM courses tend to have harsh curves, upper-level electives are often curved at B+/A- in American universities regardless of discipline. Department policy of B- seems very rare. You are ​unfortunately going to be at a slight disadvantage because of it. In fact, I'd recommend minimizing the number of additional math courses you're going to take, because you already have a nice A in real analysis and you don't want to risk a B in topology. Is it possible to get a major without topology?

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    Re: How will low grades in these math courses affect my chances at top masters/PhD/RA

    Yes I can complete the major without Topology, though I do feel that I'm stronger in pure math than applied. I don't know how much variability there is between instructors in regard to grading, I just know that both my modeling and PDE professors have said that the department tries to make the class average a B- by the end. I've heard other professors talk about aiming for a third-A range, third B-range, third C/D/F range, which probably ends up being about a B- mean too. I'm interested in theory, and want to give myself as strong a pure math background as I can, there just isn't a lot I can do about the department's grading policy.

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    Re: How will low grades in these math courses affect my chances at top masters/PhD/RA

    Some topological concepts might be passingly discussed in first-year grad econ, but at most programs, you're not going to need it until you take second-year micro/macro theory courses. That gives you plenty of time to learn any topology on your own - such as in the 5 months between admissions and matriculation, or in the summer after the 1st-year grad exams, etc. There's no need to worry about it at this point. While there might be some benefit in learning it through a rigorous course, it's not hard to self-study topology after having real analysis under your belt, and it's arguably easier to learn it from a book than from lectures. You might as well spend your elective on another undergrad econ field course, just to get a better idea of other kinds of research.

    In any case, it's not going to be important for your admissions, and anything less than an A/A- would hurt more than it helps.

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