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No idea what schools are reach/target/safety + Feeling lost

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A little about me: I'm a rising senior interested in an ML-focused Stats PhD 

  • Education: HYPSM Undergraduate in Statistics with CS minor (Has a great stats program)
  • GPA: 3.6 (I have a documented disability that impairs my ability to function. I've had to take a gap year due to it and it's had an effect on my grades) My lower grades are mostly in  challenging cs/stats classes and they're in the B range. I can maybe get this up to a 3.7 my senior year.
  • GRE: I haven't take a practice test, but I did really good on my act (36) so not sure if that means anything?
  • Type of Student: asian woman, first-generation college student
  • Research Experience: 1.5 years in computer vision research my freshman and sophomore year,  1 year theoretical statistics research (diffusion models), summer REU research in ML at a T5 CS/Stat Institution, and will be doing a year of MCMC research over the course of my senior year. no pubs sadly. three internships.
  • Letters of Rec: Maybe one really good one and one pretty good one. I'm hoping to get my last rec letter from my senior thesis advisor
  • Research Interests: ML-related sounds cool, but overall figuring it out

I'm thinking of taking a gap year and applying 2025 instead. That way, maybe I can figure out what research I enjoy the most, boost my GPA with better senior year grades, get a publication/ some more research experience, and chill out a little lol.

My questions:

  • What schools are reach/target/safety? I'm really hoping to have a good shot at Columbia's or NYU's program, since it's close to home.
  • How can I boost my application? What are some options for what I can do over my gap year? I'm thinking a post-bac. Masters is not really an option financially.
  • General advice/rant I'm overall just feeling really lost about grad school. I love research, and I absolutely love statistics, but I don't know what niche I like the most, I don't know anything about which professors are at which schools studying which things, and I'm worried I'll end up at too stressful of a program or one I don't like. Some general tips would be much appreciated, thank you!
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How is your math background/grades in math classes?  Have you only taken through linear algebra, or do you have some more advanced math including real analysis?  Do you have below a B in any math classes?  Provide some more details on your math classes/grades so we can get a better idea - this will especially matter for the top programs.

Overall, I think you'll be in pretty good shape.  If you got a 36 on your ACT, you'll probably get a 169-170 on the math GRE which will help your application, and even if you don't have a 3.9+, I don't think anybody is going to be too concerned about your ability to handle the classes if your math background is strong (up to real analysis).  I don't think publications matter that much, but if you can get 3 positive letters from HYPSM-level stats/ML professors, most/all of whom you did research with, that's going to be huge regardless of publications.

Depending on your math background, I think you can shoot very high.  Columbia's statistics program is pretty intense in terms of requiring very mathematical probability classes, which could be quite stressful for many people (curricula change all the time, so please check the details, but many top 10 programs like Chicago/Columbia/Stanford have pretty intense coursework).  NYU's program is quite small and only admits 1-2 students per year, and I would not bank on getting into it.

Have you considered biostatistics?  Columbia has a good biostatistics program, and you'd be a very good applicant for biostatistics programs and could definitely apply to any program.  You don't need to be particularly interested in biology, and it's a good option for people who are really interested in doing anything applied.

Gap year: I don't think it matters a lot, but if you haven't taken real analysis, you should.  If you get to wrap up any research projects and get publications, or can improve your letters, do so.  If you can get any type of job in data analysis and make some money, you can do that.  Or just do something that you enjoy.  

Again, give some more info on your math background (and how much math you really want to do in grad school!), and feel free to ask any follow-up questions and we can help you narrow down some options that fit with your geographic preferences.

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