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Thread: B- in Linear Algebra - retake?

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    B- in Linear Algebra - retake?

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    I didn’t do well in my undergraduate Linear Algebra II class and got a B- - mainly because I bombed my final exam. Anyways, I just graduated and am now working as an RA, and have the opportunity to take post-bacc classes at a local university (different form the university I attended). Should I retake Linear Algebra, or should I just leave it and take other classes like stochastic processes or the statistics version of Linear regressions? Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks!

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    Re: B- in Linear Algebra - retake?

    You should probably retake it. If you want to take another course instead, it should be a proof-based course. That usually means real analysis.

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    Re: B- in Linear Algebra - retake?

    Thanks! I actually did take real analysis the following semester and got an A. Should I just go ahead and retake Linear Algebra then? Are there any other undergraduate classes that I should take (eg. analysis 2) or should I get ahead and take a graduate economics class in the spring? Thanks again!

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    Re: B- in Linear Algebra - retake?

    Linear algebra isn't a signaling thing, you really need to know it. I would probably recommend retaking, but if you are absolutely sure you really know the material then it might make sense to take a more advanced math course (and get another A).

    In most places it's hard to pick up a first graduate course in the spring, but perhaps it's possible at your institution.

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    Re: B- in Linear Algebra - retake?

    Quote Originally Posted by columbia View Post
    Don't retake it. Most of the people who are giving out advice on urch are likely to be people who (1) are not in any top departments (2) do not know the admissions process for doctoral programs in economics. There's a running joke already within the field about clueless wannabe advisors on urch who won't stop traumatizing young prospects by saying that you won't stand a chance without analysis. Please take the advice you get from this forum with a grain of salt. A lot of people responding to questions on here are still undergraduates.

    I hadn't taken Real Analysis, and I know a few people in my cohort who hasn't. I also happen to know a few people at Harvard and MIT who hasn't taken any math beyond multivariable calculus and linear algebra.

    If you already gotten an A in Real Analysis, then stop there. If you're passionate about math then go ahead and take a few more. But you don't need anymore.

    What you NEED are good letters. And I can't stress this enough. Letters are the only thing you need to get into a top program. How do I know that? My relative is on the adcom at Chicago.

    Yes, if you are an undergrad in a top program, have access to well-known faculty who send students to top 5 programs every year, and have proven to be a brilliant research assistant, a B in linear algebra, or the lack of real analysis, or an awful GRE score won't stop you from getting into a top 5 program. But no one is pretending that linear algebra is a make-or-break factor. The typical applicant doesn't have access to the (unconstrained) signals of quality; the best letter they may theoretically be able to obtain could be a highly enthusiastic letter from a professor with no track record of sending students to top programs - in which case, it's limited in upside, and the student would need to do equally well in less important - but standardized - signals like GPA, GRE or sheer amount of math coursework. OP's previous thread seems to indicate that he doesn't have access to the highly valuable letters that you would refer to; and additionally, he probably has diminishing returns to investment in RA work because he has already spent 2 years on RA work for those professors. Finally, as startz mentioned, mastering the subject of linear algebra has significant intrinsic value (compared to, say, a course in topology or grad analysis, which would mostly be signaling). Given all that context, retaking the linear algebra course seems a justifiable investment of his time.

    In short, I think students like OP are competing in a different pool of students than those you're referring to, and you might be excessively generalizing from your own successful case.

    I'm guessing you're probably a 1st/2nd year PhD student, which means I probably know at least twice as many students from the top 10 PhD programs than you do, and I've also closely mentored around a dozen students applying to a wide range of programs in this forum over the years - and have received detailed feedback about their successes and failures. I think it's your advice that's idiosyncratic, not startz's. Throwing your pedigree around doesn't impress anyone; several of us on this forum are significantly more involved than you are in grad admissions if the most relevant experience you can cite is having a relative on an adcom committee.
    Last edited by chateauheart; 08-22-2018 at 03:25 PM.

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    Re: B- in Linear Algebra - retake?

    Quote Originally Posted by chateauheart View Post
    Yes, if you are an undergrad in a top program, have access to well-known faculty who send students to top 5 programs every year, and have proven to be a brilliant research assistant, a B in linear algebra, or the lack of real analysis, or an awful GRE score won't stop you from getting into a top 5 program. But no one is pretending that linear algebra is a make-or-break factor. The typical applicant doesn't have access to the (unconstrained) signals of quality; the best letter they may theoretically be able to obtain could be a highly enthusiastic letter from a professor with no track record of sending students to top programs - in which case, it's limited in upside, and the student would need to do equally well in less important - but standardized - signals like GPA, GRE or sheer amount of math coursework. OP's previous thread seems to indicate that he doesn't have access to the highly valuable letters that you would refer to; and additionally, he probably has diminishing returns to investment in RA work because he has already spent 2 years on RA work for those professors. Finally, as startz mentioned, mastering the subject of linear algebra has significant intrinsic value (compared to, say, a course in topology or grad analysis, which would mostly be signaling). Given all that context, retaking the linear algebra course seems a justifiable investment of his time.

    In short, I think students like OP are competing in a different pool of students than those you're referring to, and you might be excessively generalizing from your own successful case.

    I'm guessing you're probably a 1st/2nd year PhD student, which means I probably know at least twice as many students from the top 10 PhD programs than you do, and I've also closely mentored around a dozen students applying to a wide range of programs in this forum over the years - and have received detailed feedback about their successes and failures. I think it's your advice that's idiosyncratic, not startz's. Throwing your pedigree around doesn't impress anyone; several of us on this forum are significantly more involved than you are in grad admissions if the most relevant experience you can cite is having a relative on an adcom committee.
    Didn't mean to step on your toes, chateauheart. I wasn't referring to you in my tirade. A lot of people on here do emphasize the importance of math to a genuine fault. The fact is, if you're not from a target undergraduate school, your chances at being admitted to a top 5 program, regardless of how much math you have, is minimal. Having perfect grades and perfect test scores would not change that. I have a first-hand account of this being the case.

    I suspect you probably go to Harvard or MIT, chateauheart, and I suspect you're probably from a non-target school. However, you are not necessarily accurate in your assessment of the level of meritocracy that goes into PhD admissions in economics. The truth is, the way departments select students from non-target schools are more random than objective. It works sort of like this:

    A particular top 5 department receives applications for the year. Certain members of the adcom will set aside applications of their RAs or their pet students. Then they will start setting aside those applicants whose recommenders have made phone calls. Not all phone calls are credible, so applicants would have to have a recommender or recommenders in the inner circle of those on the adcom. Then, there are a few seats reserved for international students. Usually, these seats will be filled up by graduates of Beijing, Tsinghua, Bocconi, your French écoles normales supérieures, or Oxbridge/LSE. In most years, one or two token admits from South America.

    Then it's the NSF people. Finally, when it's down to just a handful of seats left, those students from non-target universities get to fight it out in the only meritocratic part of the entire process—filtering based on grades, test scores, math courses, grad-level courses, publications, research experience etc.

    It is an illusion that top economics departments offer all applicants equal opportunity. THEY DO NOT. And your advice to the "typical" applicant from a non-target school is helpful, but not useful. OF COURSE you should maximize your chances by getting As in all your math classes, get a 170 on the GRE. It's actually a no-brainer advice and I wonder why some people get a kick out of stating the obvious. The point is, regardless of how marginally you increase your chances, your chances are still marginal. It's like saying you should stop eating processed meat altogether because it raises the risk of cancer by few percentage points. It's true, it's factual, but it still wouldn't matter. It's statistically significant, but not meaningful.

    The more helpful advice you should give to any top economics department aspirant from a low-ranked school is just to give up.
    Ph.D. (Candidate) Princeton University M.A. Columbia University B.A. Columbia University

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    Re: B- in Linear Algebra - retake?

    I agree with the gist of what you are saying -- that admissions are far from meritorious and that it is difficult for people outside of select "target" programs to get into a top 10 school. I also agree that many people on this forum grossly overestimate their odds of admissions. However, I think that your main message of "giving up" if you are from a low ranked school is wrong.

    I am at a top 5 PhD and I came directly from a top 100 school, a school that you most likely have never heard of. Moreover, I know quite a few students (classmates and from visit days) that were also from very low ranked schools that made it into the top 10. So again, not impossible. (In fact, look at the graduating CVs of candidates the past few years, there are more than a few people that come from top 80 ish undergraduates from the United States). I also did not get the NSF and have somewhat unknown letter writers.

    The point is that it is very difficult for people like us -- but not impossible. Flawless grades, glowing recommendation letters, and perfect GREs are needed. But it is also wrong, not productive, and may discourage competitive applicants from trying when you say stupid things like "the most helpful advice to give to an applicant from a low-ranked school is to give up". Instead, you should caution them and be honest about their odds and then direct them to competitive MA and RA positions (if they stand a chance).

    When I was applying, there were many people that shared with me unproductive sentiments like yours. I am glad I did not listen to them.



    Quote Originally Posted by columbia View Post
    Didn't mean to step on your toes, chateauheart. I wasn't referring to you in my tirade. A lot of people on here do emphasize the importance of math to a genuine fault. The fact is, if you're not from a target undergraduate school, your chances at being admitted to a top 5 program, regardless of how much math you have, is minimal. Having perfect grades and perfect test scores would not change that. I have a first-hand account of this being the case.

    I suspect you probably go to Harvard or MIT, chateauheart, and I suspect you're probably from a non-target school. However, you are not necessarily accurate in your assessment of the level of meritocracy that goes into PhD admissions in economics. The truth is, the way departments select students from non-target schools are more random than objective. It works sort of like this:

    A particular top 5 department receives applications for the year. Certain members of the adcom will set aside applications of their RAs or their pet students. Then they will start setting aside those applicants whose recommenders have made phone calls. Not all phone calls are credible, so applicants would have to have a recommender or recommenders in the inner circle of those on the adcom. Then, there are a few seats reserved for international students. Usually, these seats will be filled up by graduates of Beijing, Tsinghua, Bocconi, your French écoles normales supérieures, or Oxbridge/LSE. In most years, one or two token admits from South America.

    Then it's the NSF people. Finally, when it's down to just a handful of seats left, those students from non-target universities get to fight it out in the only meritocratic part of the entire process—filtering based on grades, test scores, math courses, grad-level courses, publications, research experience etc.

    It is an illusion that top economics departments offer all applicants equal opportunity. THEY DO NOT. And your advice to the "typical" applicant from a non-target school is helpful, but not useful. OF COURSE you should maximize your chances by getting As in all your math classes, get a 170 on the GRE. It's actually a no-brainer advice and I wonder why some people get a kick out of stating the obvious. The point is, regardless of how marginally you increase your chances, your chances are still marginal. It's like saying you should stop eating processed meat altogether because it raises the risk of cancer by few percentage points. It's true, it's factual, but it still wouldn't matter. It's statistically significant, but not meaningful.

    The more helpful advice you should give to any top economics department aspirant from a low-ranked school is just to give up.
    Last edited by Zubrus; 05-11-2019 at 01:35 PM.

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    Re: B- in Linear Algebra - retake?

    Given that views are somewhat split here, the most sensible thing for OP to do is probably to note all advice on this thread, from all members. Then (1) ask current PhD students who graduated from your school. Ask them which faculty places students into PhD programs regularly. Then (2) go talk to those faculty.

    Simply soliciting more advice from other people will help you distinguish which views are sensible and which are not. That being said, the experienced posters on Urch are usually on spot in my experience. (there are also novice users and prospective applicants here who also give advice. I’d always double check these opinions with faculty if I were you)

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    Re: B- in Linear Algebra - retake?

    Quote Originally Posted by columbia View Post

    The more helpful advice you should give to any top economics department aspirant from a low-ranked school is just to give up.
    A little data taken from a sample of one year of graduating PhD students who graduated from an American undergraduate program. Graduate program ranking is from USNews. Undergraduate ranking is either ranking as a national university or liberal arts college.

    Fraction of students from undergrad program ranking or better Grad program rank Undergrad program rank
    57 5 10
    83 5 30
    51 10 10
    81 10 30
    35 20 10
    63 20 30
    34 30 10
    60 30 30

    There are very few students from unranked programs in any economics PhD programs and in this year there were none in the top 20.

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