Monday, February 28, 2005

What Isn't in the Limited Application Materials

Recently we've been reviewing applications of students for our research-based summer program. They submit some basic information (name, address, etc.), a statement of interest, a transcript, and two or three letters of recommendation. (To be 100% clear: I am making most of this up. And I did not share these musings with the people who actually make the decisions.)

Letter of interest demands acceptance into our program. He has earned an A in every class except for a C- in "Politics and the Media."

An aggressive Republican, fiscally conservative; bright and quick, capable of following in the footsteps of Karl Rove. Love of math (and the power that comes from doing it really, really, really well) propels him to grad school. Patriotism sends him to an internship with you-know-which federal Agency. Recognizing the typical salary of a mathematician in an academic or government setting, he goes into mathematical finance. Ten years from now I run into him when he gives the ubiquitous "How to Price an Option" talk at an MAA sectional meeting.

Very bright and hard-working foreign student with amazing computer skills. Attends Hibiscus College.

Colleges like this recruit heavily in Eastern Europe, as people there have no real sense of the relative qualities of American colleges (and what passes for a college education these days). Making the best of the situation, he commits to getting the best education he can in the small pond where he's landed. Gets a summer internship at a major software company. Meets a combinatorist in their theory group who serves as a mentor, giving him better advice about grad school than the out-of-touch professors at his school.

The hardworker with pretty good grades from a mediocre school.

She wanted to be a high school math teacher, so she became a math major. Her professors urged her to apply to our program, to consider becoming a research mathematician (they would explain away non-A grades as "rough starts" to the semester). Instead of our program she ends up in one of those feel-good women-in-math summer programs and is convinced that she should go to graduate school. She goes to a top-25 school, and the weakness of the coursework she took at her mediocre college trips her up; she gets a rough start to the semester, and struggles all year in real analysis, crying often. After earning a "masters pass" on her quals, she leaves the program to teach at a community college. The professor of her real analysis class nods knowingly: women can't do math.