Recommendations for a Pure Math University?

Hello: My son is very passionate about studying pure math. He has been taking college and graduate level math classes since he took the AP Calculus test in 7th grade, so we are probably looking for a university with graduate math classes. He has earned great grades and test scores, but he has few extracurriculars, so I know the most selective schools like MIT, CalTech, Stanford, etc. are not an option. Can you recommend a university that would have other students and professors who are passionate about pure math? We are considering Rice, NYU, UCIC, maybe U Chicago (though I think he’s unlikely to be admitted); Duke (another long shot but he’s a legacy); U Waterloo. What would you suggest?

P.S.: A school with students who love ridiculously complicated board games a big plus!!

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I know this isn’t a school you would probably consider, but last year’s Fields Prize winner teaches at CUNY - his last name is Sullivan. I know someone who graduated from Rice and is profoundly gifted in math. He taught for many years at Indiana and is now teaching at CalTech. Otherwise I can only offer best wishes since I know nothing else about this.

Your state flagship university?


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Thanks for the tip! We will check out CUNY too!

Some of these schools may be of interest: For Students Seeking a College Strong in Mathematics.

Really you start with MIT, Harvard and Princeton. That is the top of the pack for undergrad. And then add the other guys.


Good point: we are fortunate to be from California, so we will definitely apply to the main UCs (Cal, UCLA, San Diego, etc.) A friend of our son who took similar classes (one year ahead) will attend Cal in the fall. Our budget is flexible.

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Thank you!

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Given how advanced the student is in math, it would be a good idea to check faculty rosters and upper level and graduate course offerings to see what areas each department emphasizes.

But also consider each school’s general education requirements in the context of the student’s interest and academic strength in those areas.


I’d say, first start with identifying and falling in love with an affordable school that has a strong math program and where your son has an extremely high chance of acceptance.
Then look at MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Caltech - but carefully consider fit. Especially at MIT and Caltech.

Has your son done AIME, AMC or USAMO?


The UK / Ireland / Netherlands: he will be evaluated on his math, and that’s all he will study. Have him take a look at the MAT:

This is what maths at Oxford would look like for him:


Second the recommendation for leaving the US. Waterloo in Canada is known for math, and I’m sure Toronto and UBC are fine as well. Oxford and Cambridge are quite good. If your son is interested in math and not frats (MIT), final clubs (Harvard), or eating clubs (Princeton), and your son is more interested in math than in converting math skill into a high perch on the financial pecking order, then you may save a lot of grief (and money) by crossing a border.


British people would say “not bad” rather than “quite good”…(Chart shows 'what the British say, what they really mean, and what others understand' | The Independent | The Independent)

I would definitely recommend Oxford and Cambridge. In the UK, Cambridge is thought of slightly more highly, but there’s not much difference. However, Cambridge admissions are complicated by the required STEP exam, which is taken in June with results in mid August (the same as British A levels). This is so late (after UCB starts fall semester) that it makes it all but impossible for a US student to do what is usually recommended and hold a US backup. It is possible to take STEP as a junior if you are very advanced, but be aware that it is an extremely challenging test (About STEP | Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing) well beyond anything covered in US high school courses. But if he’s a rising senior, then it’s too late for that.

For that reason most Americans choose Oxford, where the only requirement is to take the MAT prior to interview. You do need 5s in AP plus a high SAT score (single sitting strongly preferred), though other grades are less important since everything is based on exams. Be aware that there’s no flexibility in the first year so even if you’ve taken college level courses already, everyone starts with the same set of classes (though having seen some of the material before is an advantage).


Look through some of the College level Math Competitions and see how many students attend from each school. Carnegie Mellon has a great Math Department. For state schools out here in the East, look at Rutgers and UMD

What are his actual stats? How does he feel about other subjects? At a place like UChicago, he would have a robust set of requirements outside of math. How does he feel about those type of requirements?

If cost isn’t too much of a concern, I would look at some of the Big Ten schools. Many of them have highly regarded math graduate programs.


Two threads that you may be interested in perusing are:

Help find math heavy colleges for math head (jr)? (student who is a rising senior this year…and a resident of California, too!)

A place to study pure math— for the love of it (someone from the high school class of 2022)

There are potential schools but also some questions about math (that I am too ignorant to really know about) that you may want to consider as you go through this process with your student.

+1 on looking at Oxford. My son read maths/computer science there and loved it. As @collegemom3717 said, he will take nothing but math for 3/4 years. That’s why my son chose Oxford over US schools. My son did a lot of competitive math in HS (ARML, HMMT, PuMAC) and was challenged by the Oxford math curriculum.

And no shortage of complicated board game players there either. There’s a store at Gloucester Green (right across the street from Worcester College) that specializes in them and hosts game evenings.


I agree with other posters, for a kid who knows exactly what he wants, going abroad or to Canada seems like a very good option. He can start checking out the requirements. One thing is, he really needs to start looking as a Sophomore/Junior as there are many tests and requirements which are non-standard in the US and well beyond even kids performing at the highest levels. It takes times to schedule them or make sure you have this or that qualification.

He should be able to ace the SAT (Hopefully in English as well as Math). Has he done specific math programs at an advanced level in a particular area? That could help him for UK schools during the interview process. Some of the other schools mentioned U Amsterdam are also good choices. And he might like being in Holland on the continent as opposed to the UK ( esp. post Brexit have to consider work/travel options differently). And the costs might be lower. All things to check. Some of the Canadian programs are also strong. You can check each out individually and it’s closer to home.

One thing about some of the US programs. There will be kids with talent equal to his own. But many of these kids will not have had the early exposure to some of the classes he’s already taken. That might not be an issue. It certainly isn’t an issue once the basic courses have been taken. But it may be an issue in the beginning. Just something to think about.

And finally, math can be seen by some schools as an EC. If he’s joined the math club, or done things related to math, it’s an ec like any other. There are many math ec’s in addition to math contests. And there are related interests as well ( robotics, CS, gaming).

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As others commented, hopefully he is doing AMC/AIME/USAMO competitions. For my son, the math competitions were a great avenue for him to find kids that also loved math. Although if you are in a larger area then perhaps he can find that more easily.

If he is a true math genius as it sounds, go ahead and apply to selectives like MIT. I wouldn’t let lack of ECs discourage him - a true spike like this is in a different bucket from the normal brilliant kid bucket. The two math geniuses I knew as kids went to MIT and Princeton. UChicago is another one but need to Ed it.