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Chances Please - Stats Phd

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Hi everyone, 


I'm hoping I can get some feedback/realistic expectations for my graduate school application. I am planning to apply to a statistics phd program. Sry if I am a little vague since I can't give too many identifying details. 


I am a recent graduate from an ivy league school (does my undergrad institution make a difference?)


major: math, gpa: 3.98

relevant classes: lots of math (standard analysis,algebra,topology stuff), some basic statistics (undergrad stat theory, programming-in-R type classes)

honors: awards for good grades


gre (took it before i graduated): 168v, 170q, 5.5 writing 

math subject gre: 850

putnam (dunno if this matters): got a decent score one year (~top 100)


i'm genuinely interested in stats, I've started to spend a lot of time learning stuff on my own. As I read on Tibshirani's homepage, "in statistics I found a subject that combined the beauty of both math and computer science, using them to solve real-world problems." That's why I want to apply. 


However my biggest worry is weak letters of recommendation (have not asked for them yet). I'm on great terms with a humanities professor (history) but I feel like that may be of limited relevance to stats. I think I might have a decent one from a math professor.


As for the 3rd rec I have no idea who to ask, since I do not know many profs on a personal basis. Unfortunately I skipped way too many classes as an undergrad and never went to office hours, a big and immature mistake in hindsight.


No research experience either.


I really appreciate the time and input from anyone reading this, I think it could help me better evaluate my options. 

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You have a near perfect GPA as a math major from an ivy league school and an awesome GRE score for both the subject and general tests. I would say this alone would make you a strong candidate pretty much anywhere. Given your grades in math classes, why would you not have strong letters from your math professors?


Take this with a grain of salt as I will be applying to the same cohort as you, but I would say that a letter from a humanities professor, despite how strong it is, will not necessarily weight in your favor since he likely won't be able to comment on your mathematical strength. I would say get letters from professors who can attest to your quantitative ability. Just my .02.


That said, your profile is otherwise very impressive, more so than many of the profiles I have seen on here that made the top 10. See if you can get involved on some RA work and I would bet my hat you could get into at least a few of the top 10.

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I agree with footballman2399.  I think it is likely you will get into at least a few top schools. If you remind your professors of the work you did in their classes (e.g. any projects or papers you wrote) and can get them to say something memorable about you, you'll be in good shape.

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Thank you for the responses. I guess my worry is that the professors will have little to say about me other than that I got a good grade in the class. But many students get good grades every year, that would not really make me stand out. There were many classes in which I basically just showed up for the midterm and final exam (I have a hard time paying attention in class, so I usually preferred to learn the material myself from the book/notes). 


I just wonder what schools will think of a candidate with strong scores (gpa, awards, test scores) but weak letters. Would it hurt my chances significantly? I know that a phd is a research degree, and if I don't have letters really speaking to my research potential I'm not sure how well I would fare. 

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Again, take my advice with a grain of salt since I have not gone through the process (we will be in the same cohort), but I have read a lot from this forum and elsewhere. From my understanding, the adcoms take a holistic view at the application to determine research potential. The letters are especially crucial if (as in the case of yours truly) you have less than spectacular grades or test scores, or are coming from a relatively unknown university. Given that this is not the case for you, I don't think it would be absolutely vital for you to have amazing letters, as long as they are completely positive in tone (e.g., they say that you would make a poor researcher). I recall one poster who graduated from ivy league with a top GPA and top scores and got rejected across the board, which cyberwulf and biostat_prof appeared to attribute to his being an international applicant (not sure which you are). The general advice is apply broadly. I would be truly surprised if you did not make it into at least one school in the top 15, let alone the top 10.

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  • 2 weeks later...

You'll probably do okay unless there are other well-qualified people applying from your university to the same departments at the same time whose recommendations are all more excited about them than you. That's an really good GRE math subject score, really good GPA, really good transcript, good Putnam placement, so your pure math credentials are truly much stronger than the majority of American statistics applicants (and competitive with serious applicants to good pure math programs). Maybe you'll end up on a lot of waitlists, but that's not so bad.


I would not submit a letter from a humanities professor unless you were really desperate or already had three letters from more relevant faculty. I don't think statistics departments will know what to make of it because it won't provide the comparative information they're looking for about you vs. other statistics/math students. I would aim for a letter from someone you took a statistics class with, a letter from someone you took an analysis class with, and then a letter from some other math or statistics professor. Faculty are surprisingly used to writing letters for students they weren't particularly close with. Just don't be an asshole, give them a short explanation of how your interests have moved towards statistics, ask nicely for advice from the faculty who have sent other students to stats PhD programs, consider sending drafts of your statements of purpose to help them understand you and your motivations better if they agree to write a letter.

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