Tips on Applying to Top Graduate Programs in Economics

By Yixiao Sun, Ph.D.

As 2010 comes to a close, many graduating seniors and new alumni may be considering graduate school. Below are some tips on how to strengthen your application to make it stand out from others at top Ph.D. programs around the country.

Disclaimer: These are personal opinions and do not represent the department’s admission policy.

All top graduate programs look for and compete for essentially the same type of applicants. These applicants stand out for the following reasons:

Stellar GPA
An overall GPA of at least 3.5 is a prerequisite. It is not uncommon to see an almost perfect GPA among top candidates. A borderline GPA has to be compensated by other exceptionally strong supporting materials. A degree in economics is not necessary, but a few courses in economics, especially at the advanced level, will give the admission committee a positive impression.

Solid Math Background
Since mathematics is the language of economics, top candidates are expected to take quite a few math courses, such as advanced calculus, linear algebra, probability theory, mathematical statistics, real analysis, stochastic processes and differential equations. Great grades in math courses are almost necessary for admission. They are also signals that you’ll be able to handle the rigors of graduate training in economics.

If you take graduate courses in economics, make sure that you stand out. To some extent, all top programs hope to get the top tier of their application pool. If you can only show that you are an average student in an average graduate program, then chances are that you will not be offered admission.

Strong Recommendations
All letters should be very strong. One lukewarm or weak letter can offset the effects of other very strong letters. Ideally the letters should be from your economics professors who have contacts at the schools where you are applying. Letters from others are less helpful. One exception is a letter from a math professor who is willing to rank your performance relative to a large comparison group.

Letters are especially useful if they are not generic. Try your best to assist professors with personalizing their letters. It is especially helpful if the letter writers compare you to students who graduated from or are currently studying in top programs. If a professor is reluctant to write a recommendation letter, try to find another professor who appears to be more supportive.

Effective Statement of Purpose
It is hard to say what constitutes a good statement of purpose. In the statement of purpose, you may want to highlight your preparation in economics and mathematics, your future research interest and your passion for academic research. All top programs hope to place their students in prestigious academic or research institutes. For applicants it is especially useful to emphasize the research experiences you have had, such as being a research assistant to professors or working in a research environment in the private sector (e.g., an economics consulting firm) or public research institutes, such as the Federal Reserve System, the International Monetary Fund or The World Bank. It is helpful to relate your future research interest to your past research experiences and to the research interest of the faculty at the schools where you are applying. Reading and discussing working papers of some faculty members may help, but be sure to talk intelligently. Superfluous discussion may appear to be too naive and may hurt your chances.

Decent GRE (TOEFL) Score
Different programs put different weight on the GRE. Some programs use the GRE to prescreen applications. So, it is of vital importance to pass their prescreening threshold. In general, top candidates are expected to have a GRE score in the highest 10 percent of the applicant pool. Other programs may put substantially less weight on the GRE, as the GRE is not always a good predictor of future success.

Outside Financial Support
All programs have budget constraints. You can significantly increase the probability of being admitted if you can secure financial support from outside agencies such as the National Science Foundation (for domestic applicants) or your home country’s central bank or other government agencies (for foreign applicants). In general, foreign and out-of-state students are more costly to a public university. So, it is especially helpful for these applicants to secure their own financial support.

There is no right way to apply for graduate school. It’s a good strategy to apply to a range of schools: Take a few long shots but have a few backups, too. Students often ask how many graduate schools they should apply to. Many students apply to about 10 schools. From an economist’s perspective, the answer lies in the following optimization problem: Apply to as many schools as to maximize the chance of being accepted into at least one school that you want to attend, subject to your budget constraint.