Advice for Applying to Grad School in Economics
Disclaimer: These are just opinions, and some people may disagree with
the claims here. You should seek opinions from your advisors.
Graduate schools care much more about what hard classes you've taken and
how you've done in them than about overall GPA.
If you have taken difficult classes its probably a good idea to point this
out in your application essay because schools might not know what the math
classes are, which economics classes are the advanced ones, etc.
Real analysis is an especially important class because it tends to be demanding
everywhere, and forces you to do logical and formal proofs. Get a good
grade in this class.
Taking some graduate classes can be a good thing, but be prepared. You
will be at a disadvantage since the grad students will all have study groups.
Try to join a study group and devote serious time to any graduate classes you
take. More and more applicants are taking graduate classes.
Students from top universities who have the bare minimum coursework (an
undergraduate major, no graduate economics or math classes, and only basic
undergraduate math classes) will need something really outstanding -- like a
thesis that is publishable in a top economics field journal--to get fellowships
at the top two or three graduate programs. Typically the strongest
applicants have some distinguishing feature, like scoring near the top of a
graduate class at a top PhD program, very strong math (e.g. graduate level real
analysis and topology), or an outstanding thesis or coauthored research.
Undergraduate classes at most U.S. universities are much easier than graduate
classes. To be a strong applicant you should be getting mostly or all As
in undergraduate economics classes--with grade inflation even A-'s are not going
to help you. Some poor grades your freshman year won't disqualify you
though, doing really well in very advanced classes will more than compensate.
Recommendations which are not from economists have very little value.
Recommendations from economists who have contacts at the schools you are
applying to are most useful. However, one letter from someone you have
worked for after undergrad may be useful to document your work ethic, maturity,
Get recommendations from people who know you well.
Corollary: Get to know some professors well. Professors will be very excited
that you want to get a Ph.D. in economics. Don't be afraid to approach
them. Listen to their advice.
Give professors every possible opportunity to say they don't feel comfortable
recommending you to the school you're applying to. If they express any
hesitation don't have them send it. One bad letter hurts much more than
any good letters can help. A letter that mentions a poor work ethic, or
basically almost any substantive negative, probably spells death at the best
It's fine to have a letter from someone you worked for even if they didn't
teach you in a class.
If you do not have relationships with economics professors (e.g. you are a math
major) or if you attend a college or university without faculty that have
connections at the top Ph.D. programs, you still have a good chance of admission
if the rest of your application is stellar. Just be aware that objective
criteria such as GRE scores, grades in hard math classes, and essays will
receive more weight, and make sure that you do everything you can to help the
admissions committee evaluate your record.
Your professors' letters will be most effective if they compare you specifically
to other students in top graduate schools. This is especially important if
your professors do not have personal relationships with the faculty at the top
programs. The admissions committee needs to be able to calibrate the
content of the letter. To get into Harvard or MIT, the letter probably
needs to be pretty explicit that the student is comparable to other students who
have been to those programs and succeeded. For foreign students, where
transcripts are particularly hard to evaluate, these comparative statements
carry a lot of weight. The comparative statements should be backed up with
reasoning--such as comparing analytic abilities, coursework, the quality of the
thesis, etc. You can tell your recommender about this site since you don't
want to tell them what to do!
On your graduate school application its very important to write an essay
saying what kinds of areas of economics you're interested in, what questions
you think are interesting, what papers you've read that you've liked etc.
Be as specific as possible. It may be helpful to discuss your thesis or research
assistant work. Its not necessary to have a specific thesis
proposal, and odds are if you try to pretend you have one when you really
don't you'll come off as sounding naive which is a bad thing. Mostly
schools just read these to see what field you're interested in and to get
a sense whether you have any idea what you're getting yourself into. You
should therefore try to talk intelligently about your topic of interest to show
that you understand something about what research in that field would be like.
Get someone to read your essays, preferably an advanced graduate student or a
Application essays for NSF fellowships have typically been judged differently.
They seem to want a specific thesis proposal and value clear brief surveys
of the existing literature, a clear statement of what you'd like to add
to this, a discussion of datasets you might want to use etc. They don't
like vague statements about liking economics, and don't seem to mind that
people aren't really going to do what they say.
Every student applying to graduate school should apply for an NSF fellowship.
Winning one gives you a much better financial deal than any school will
offer. Even if you don't win just the fact that you applied will increase
the probability of your being accepted by graduate schools.
Don't be surprised to find that the fellowships are only weakly influenced
by grades and GRE scores. The essays matter a lot.
Even if its questionable whether your eligible go ahead and apply. The
rules seem to change a lot.
Apply from your home address if you attend college in states like Massachusetts
or California. There is some allocation by home state, since this is a
As long as its in by the deadline it doesn't matter. It is an advantage
to have your folder be complete very soon after the deadline, which means
making sure your recommenders get their letters in.
Though the test is not necessarily a good predictor of success, it matters
a lot (especially the quantitative portion). Studying for the GRE dramatically
increases your scores so you should definitely practice.
The economics GRE doesn't usually count for much, but it does give a chance
for people who haven't taken much economics to make a positive impression.
Its hard to generalize on what you should do on these. At Harvard, for
example, its always best to make it seem like you have money because their
administration has a rule that they can't accept people without offering
them enough money to come. As a result they often reject people who at
the end of the process they would have preferred to people they give money
to. At other schools, if you seem to have a lot of money it may reduce
the size of the fellowship offer you get. It may also, however, increase
the probability of getting accepted because a school with a few partial
fellowships to offer will give them only to people who seem to have the
resources to accept them.
Where to Apply
If you are well-qualified, you should apply to all of the top-ranked economics
departments (e.g. MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Chicago, Yale, Berkeley), and several
backup schools, depending on the strength of your record. You should
definitely seek advice from faculty members on this.
If you have a somewhat weaker record, there are lots of good graduate programs
out there, but you need to shop more carefully for schools that have well-known
advisors or have recently been investing a lot in graduate students. Some
middle-ranked schools (like recently Pennsylvania State) aggressively recruit
prospective students and have placed graduating PhD students in top 5 schools by
investing heavily in the students. You need to do a lot of homework, and
talk to lots of faculty about good places to apply. Information about good
places to go is likely to be dispersed.
Don't overlook the small but prestigious PhD programs at business schools:
Stanford GSB has a placement record that rivals the top economics departments,
and Harvard and Northwestern also have programs worth looking into. These
programs typically offer more individual attention and have more generous
The applicant pool seems to be getting more sophisticated and well prepared all
the time, so if you have something like a more "typical" undergraduate
background (undergraduate major, a couple of math classes, a thesis, mostly As),
you need to cast a fairly wide net. If you have more than a couple of B's
you need to cast wider still.
Visits and Contacts at Graduate Schools
- With rare exceptions, you SHOULD NOT initiate contact with faculty members
at schools you are applying to before the admissions decisions. You will
seem like a pest and like someone who doesn't understand the system.
After you are admitted there will be plenty of opportunities to meet faculty.
If you feel like you have an exceptional case for contacting a faculty member
at another school, seek the advice of your advisor first.
- After admission you should visit your top choices if at all possible.
You will learn an enormous amount then, swamping what you have managed to
figure out before then.
- Talk to the students to learn how often they meet with their advisors, who
is really accessible, and how the morale is among students. Some faculty
do a lot of aggressive recruiting but don't spend a lot of time with their
students later. The current students can tell you how advising really
- Anyone who tells you that one department is best for every student is not
being very thoughtful. You need to determine whether a department feels
right to you, and whether you feel like there are a set of potential advisors
for you. Your advisor will have enormous power over your life. You
need to be comfortable. Different departments have different strengths,
cultures, and styles. Some fields within departments have very strong
subcultures and impressive placement records. Learn about those.
- Find out about the placement records of the programs. Don't just find out
about the top 5 students--find out about how number 10 or 15 in a class did,
and whether they were happy.
Even if you are quite certain you will be a star, it's possible you
won't be the very best, and even if you are, it will be a lot more fun if your
classmates aren't unemployed, despondent and neglected.
- Don't get too caught up in overall stereotypes. Faculty and students all
get very enthusiastic about grad student recruiting and tend to over-emphasize
differences among programs. There are many more similarities than
differences across top programs, and every department has fields with very
different advising styles. In the end you need to find two or three
advisors and a couple of good student buddies. A department with more
outstanding faculty and students makes it more likely you will find your
matches, but the subculture of your friends and advisors is far more salient
to your life than the overall department.