Four tips for applying to economics graduate school

economics graduate admissions
By Tim


So you’ve decided to get an advanced degree in economics. Congratulations! You’re well on your way to obtaining one of the most challenging and worthwhile degrees the world has to offer. While economics graduate programs are known for their mathematical rigor, you will be rewarded for your efforts with better job security, autonomy, and intellectual fulfillment. But first, you have to be accepted into a program and, depending on the caliber of the school you’re applying to, that’s easier said than done. How might you maximize your chances of being accepted? A simple Google search reveals plenty of information on the subject, but here are four points I think are the most important:

1. Demonstrate that you are prepared mathematically. I mean really prepared.

One of the big misconceptions about economics graduate school is that it’s simply an extension of what you learned in your undergraduate economics courses. The truth is that unless you’ve completed a quantitatively heavy economics undergraduate degree (e.g., similar to the A.B. Economics (mathematical version) at Princeton University), this is likely not the case. So the first step before applying to economics graduate school is to ensure you are mathematically prepared to succeed in the program. How do you do that? While programs differ in their admissions requirements, the website puts it this way,

“Two or three terms of calculus, and often linear algebra, are deemed minimum preparation; similarly, a semester of mathematical statistics. First-year graduate courses draw heavily on real analysis. Background in real analysis is highly valued and indeed almost expected of a strong applicant.”

2. Take the GRE early, focusing your efforts on the quantitative section.

Take the GRE early enough (i.e., July/August) so that if you don’t get the score you want the first time, you have time to take it again.

What’s considered an acceptable score? That depends on the caliber of the school you’re applying to. For example, the University of Cambridge says it will typically not consider anyone who scores below the 90th percentile (i.e., below a 166) in the quantitative section or below the 50th percentile (i.e., below a 4) in the analytical writing section of the test. Now, the University of Cambridge ranks 10th in the world for economics and econometrics according to the 2016 QS World University Rankings, but my sense from talking to others in top programs is that similar scores are probably required for any program in the Top 10.

Outside the Top 10, if you score anything below a 160 in the quantitative section, strongly consider retaking the test. Anything below a 155, and you’ll definitely want to retake it.

3. Have good letters of recommendation.

Outside of mathematical preparation, this is probably the most important part of your application. 

Most schools will ask you for 2-3 recommendations. Importantly, make sure your recommendations come from individuals who have advanced degrees in economics (preferably a PhD). Letters from individuals with degrees from other disciplines carry very little weight since one of the things admissions committees use recommendation letters for is to gauge your likelihood of success in their program. So who should you get a recommendation letter from? Preferably someone who is well-known in the economics community and can speak to your abilities as an economics student. This will likely be your academic adviser, thesis adviser, or department chair. 

4. Craft an exceptional and persuasive personal statement.

Out of all four tips, I’ve listed your personal statement last. That is not because it isn’t important! A strong personal statement can be the difference between your application going into the acceptance or rejection pile. That said, it probably doesn’t top the list of application components that admissions committees care about.

Your personal statement should focus on your passions, specifically the areas of economic research you are interested in pursuing further. Preferably this will line up with the research interests of someone on the faculty since one of the considerations the admissions committee will need to make is whether a faculty member is available (and willing) to work with you (this is less important for those pursuing Master’s degrees). Some schools may ask you to list the individuals you want to do research with. For this reason, it is important to do your research here. Most professors have a copy of their resume or CV online. So look them up and see if they’re working on anything that interests you. If you find someone, mention this interest in your personal statement. Admissions committees love to see that you’ve done your homework, and the fact that you’ve taken the time to do this shows that you’re serious about the program.

The tips above are far from a comprehensive list, but follow this advice and you will vastly improve your chances of being accepted into an economics graduate program.


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