Choosing school for math major

My son is a rising senior and is looking to apply to colleges with strong math programs. He plans to major in math with the intention of attending a PhD program in math. We have heard varying opinions about the availability of research for undergraduates and the focus of faculty on undergraduates at different schools. He has already completed Calculus 3, and has participated in math summer programs for 5 years. I would say right now his favorites are Brown, University of Chicago, Harvey Mudd, and Pomona. Does anyone have any insight into these schools or have suggestions for other schools? Thank you.


Mudd has a very intense core which includes a lot of rigorous lab sciences and intro classes in engineering and CS, in addition to math. If that appeals to him, then it’s a fantastic school.

His list is very reach-heavy at this point. What are his matches and safeties? What’s your home state? Are the schools you list affordable for your family?

Look at the list here (especially the size-adjusted list since he seems to prefer smaller schools) to see which colleges produce the most future PhD’s in math. Top Feeders to Ph.D. Programs

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I did my master’s degree in a subfield of math (Operations Research) at a highly ranked university (Stanford). The other students there had done their bachelor’s degrees at a very, very wide range of universities. There was only one university (Rutgers) that I noticed had sent several students to the program that I was in for that particular year. Certainly a large number of the other students had done their bachelor’s at an affordable in-state public flagship, and then spent the big bucks for their master’s.

There are a lot of universities that have very strong math programs. There are not a lot of secrets that any top university is going to teach an undergraduate student that are unknown to faculty at other schools.

I would focus first on figuring out what your budget is, with the understanding that a master’s degree is likely to be full pay and you want to be able to afford it. Then I would pick out two solid safeties. It is entirely likely that one or both of them will be an in-state public university.

After that the biggest problem might be that there are so many universities that are really good at math that your son might have to think quite a bit about what he wants in a university.

What state are you from?

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I think the intense core scares him off a bit. That’s why he is considering Pomona. He definitely likes Brown’s lack of core requirements.

His full list right now is:
Harvey Mudd
University of Chicago
University of Michigan

We live in Missouri, but he has no desire to stay here. We know that those are reach schools, he is trying to decide if he wants to apply early decision to one of them. We have been told that SLACs focus more on undergrads than larger universities since they don’t have grad students. However, we want to make sure that the schools have enough higher level math courses for him.

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The OP said the goal was a PhD, not a Masters, and those are funded (though even at top schools the stipends are not as generous in Math as in some of the other STEM subjects).

As you can see from the list @aquapt shared, you can get into Math PhD programs from a lot of different types of school. During the application process, check that there are enough math classes to keep the 4 years interesting (looking at the pre-reqs for different PhD programs can be interesting in identifying useful courses to have available). As soon as the student gets to college, talk to his advisor about research opps on compus. There are also REU opps in math for the summers. Those research experiences will be the make-or-break for PhD admissions.

Why not MIT and Cal Tech? Hey, if you’re going to shoot for the moon…

This topic offers a range of further suggestions: For Students Seeking a College Strong in Mathematics.

We’ve been told that MIT and Caltech don’t focus as much on undergrads, and that math really takes a back seat to CS and engineering.

But a lot of students get a master’s first. PhD admissions can be tough and some go straight from a bachelor’s to a PhD but some do not.

MIT and Stanford are both very good for mathematics. I never felt like math was taking a back seat to anything at either school. They would both be reaches for almost anyone, and it is not obvious to me that a bachelor’s degree is the place to spend the big bucks.

Is he interested in math competitions? You can also look at which schools invest heavily in preparing their students for the Putnam competition. Carnegie Mellon is very strong in this regard. Also U of Waterloo in Canada, which is a powerhouse math school and relatively more affordable than similarly top-tier schools in the US.

Barrett Honors College at Arizona State could be worth a look. ASU makes the top 20 in total math PhD’s produced, and many or most of these are probably concentrated within Barrett. Affordable option with great merit awards.

Amherst College seems like it could be great for what he wants. It’s a top-20 PhD feeder school in its own right, plus it’s in the consortium with UMass Amherst which provides access to cross-registration if he needs more grad-level classes, and additional research opportunities. Access to flagship-university resources while still attending an undergrad-focused LAC could be best of both worlds.

Given how advanced he is in math (already completed calculus 3, presumably will take more college math while in high school), he should consider a college with a strong graduate program in math, so that graduate level courses and graduate level research opportunities in math are readily available.

Most LACs are likely to be limiting in this respect (analogous to a high school whose most advanced math course is precalculus). Harvey Mudd does have some graduate level math courses, although not as many as a large math department in a large research university.

Also, LACs are commonly cited as being advantageous for smaller faculty-led classes at the frosh/soph level, but your student will be more advanced than that in math, where upper level courses usually are smaller faculty-led classes anyway.

Note that some colleges like Chicago, Harvey Mudd, and MIT have extensive general education requirements, while some like Brown have far fewer.


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While I can’t speak to the availability of professors to undergrads, Johns Hopkins has a reputation for supporting undergrad research and for allowing students to earn a BS/MS in 5 years. Many students with advanced math from HS, complete the BS/MS in 4-4.5 years. JHU also has a great need based financial aid program and several merit type scholarships. Financial aid is available for all 4-5 years of the BS/MS program.

We’d like to keep it under $100k/year. lol College is ridiculously expensive.

I have a child that just finished up at U Chicago (Econ, which is math heavy) and another doing math at Harvard so I can fill you in on those schools. But as others have said, your list is very reach heavy. Have you considered adding NYU? Its Courant Institute is world class in math, but NYU has considerably easier admissions than most others on your list.

Can you provide some more information about your son’s math abilities? Are his strengths in competition math, research math, or knowledge from advanced courses? That may help to set the level a bit better.

You might add Rice University, in Houston. They plan to increase their class size over the next few years which could help in the short term with the selectivity issue.

Another important question for college admissions would be what his overall academic record is like. E.g. unweighted HS GPA, courses taken, etc…

Many state flagships are worth a look for large and strong math departments but less reachy admissions. In your region, you may want to consider schools like UIUC, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin. Further way, you might want to look at schools like Maryland, Rutgers, Stony Brook, Washington, and others. UCB, UCLA, Michigan, and Texas are probably more difficult admits among the state flagships, but probably less difficult than most of the private schools that have been named here so far.

Parent of a former math major at MIT. There was never an instance where grad students leapfrogged over the needs of undergrads; this is a myth that just won’t die. Kid got staffed on a research project just because the professor said “If you’re interested in a research project, stay after class”. Got hired on the spot (and kid was NOT a superstar in MIT’s math world). The semester long project turned into a summer job. The professor was available, intensely interested in the undergrads working on the project, always willing to answer questions, even the dumb ones. There are many reasons that MIT might not fit the bill (urban, the number of required courses in and outside the sciences is big compared to other schools) but the needs of grad students vs. undergrads is not one of them. For many faculty members, they could be at a research facility in industry, a government lab or agency, etc. They CHOOSE to be in a place where they will teach undergrads.

My kid was present the day after a professor won the Nobel prize (the guy was teaching freshmen in a required course, for god’s sake). The entire lecture hall jumped to their feet for a standing ovation-- the guy blushed six shades of red according to my kid- and then everyone sat down and got back to work.

Agree that UIUC, Rutgers, Maryland, Stonybrook should be on the “list to explore” if he’s willing to consider East Coast. All great options.

And MIT is NOT a CS school, and not an engineering school even though both disciplines are strong. The language of the place is math, math and more math-- and then it gets applied in various ways, whether economics, political science, or any of the engineering/pure science fields.


Thank you. His stats are: 4.0 GPA (school does not do weighted gpa), 36 ACT, 1480 PSAT. He does competition math, qualified to take USAMO this year, but that is not his main focus. He has attended AwesomeMath, MathILy, and Canada/USA Mathcamp.

Got it. So very strong in math. I know a few dozen USAMO qualifiers and about 60% were accepted to at least one HYPSM, so aiming for reaches makes sense. But be sure to also have a good list of matches and safeties.

I recommend applying EA to Michigan two weeks ahead of the deadline as they get so many applications that the can’t respond to all of them in time. And if you can, visit Michigan and ask to meet with a professor there. My son got a tour from the head of the department and some nice SWAG, and mentioned that in his application (the meeting, not the SWAG). Based upon his AIME, he will probably get a letter asking him to apply there.

Then pick a EA/ED dream school. Assuming the rest of his app is good, no school is out of reach, although none are guaranteed. If accepted to his EA/ED dream school then he might be done in December. If no acceptance from the dream school but Michigan comes through, then is in a top math program already and can aim higher for RD.

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Given his stats, AMO qualification, ability to afford full pay, and lack of interest in taking courses other than math, then applying to Oxford could be considered, and would have a strong likelihood of admission. The teaching is absolutely oriented towards encouraging the best students to do a PhD.