Building the perfect theme for future math majors

Settle in, all you math wizards, because this is a long one. If you are interested in attending college to major in mathematics, then there are many things you can do now to prepare yourself for admissions. Like every IvyZen theme, your plan of attack will be divided into these categories: academics, leadership, academic extracurricular activities, competitions, and supporting documents.

1. Academics

Take the most advanced math courses you can. The most ideal course path looks like this:

• Freshman Year: Pre-Calc

• Sophomore Year: AP Calculus BC

• Junior Year: Multivariable Calculus/Linear Algebra

• Senior Year: Linear Algebra/Multivariable Calculus

Note, this course outline is the highest one will find at the high school level and most schools do not even offer advanced math courses beyond calculus. If you’re interested in advanced courses and qualify but your school does not offer them, look around your city for colleges that do. Many colleges will allow advanced math and sciences students to take classes for credit. Your parents will have to get involved and work out the paperwork and logistics with your high school administration, but it is definitely worth the effort to do so!

If you have no options and cannot take an advanced math course, have your counselor explain this fact in his recommendation. Then do your best to shine in these other areas.

As IvyZen’s resident STEM consultant, I have had numerous students who looked around and found advanced math courses at nearby colleges. Top science schools, such as MIT and Caltech, and top engineering programs, such as Carnegie Mellon and U of Illinois, look very favorably at transcripts with college level math classes. There is also a section on the Common Application asking specifically about any college level classes you took. Another benefit is that if you do well in that class, you can ask the professor for a recommendation; how many high school students do you know have college professors recommending them?

2. Extracurriculars – Club/Leadership

Think of yourself as an intellectual leader, a thought leader. Not the type of leader that gives firebrand speeches with tons of charisma, but a leader who understand the foundations and teaches that to others while also learning about more advanced areas to help contribute to the general field of mathematics.

Captain/President of the Math Club is the obvious choice here. As the club leader, there are many things you can do to stand out; most importantly, make your club better. Studying together for the AMC is one thing you MUST do. You can find sample questions online and organize workshops to help each solve the problems. If you’re having any difficulties, ask a math teacher at your school for help. You should already have one as a club sponsor, but some do not. Worst case, raise some money and hire a tutor to come by once a week to help you out. Going through the logistical difficulties to help your club in this way will make you look great on the college apps.

The best way to shine with your math club is to lead it to victory at local math competitions. Many regions have regular math competitions. And school rankings are very important. To be able to say that you helped your team go from #5 in your region to #2 is one thing college love to see. If your school is not involved in math competitions already, work with your math teacher to find out what opportunities there are in your area.

3. Extracurriculars – Academic/Scholarship

It was almost unthinkable at one point that high school students could write research papers. Most college students don’t even write research papers! But with a little guidance and hard work, you can do it and many students do. More than anything, a research paper is your chance to explore some area of math that weren’t covered in class but that you’re curious about. Writing a paper shows your initiative and intellectual passion; it will go a long way toward making you stand out in the eyes of admissions officers. Still need convincing? For the past few years, many top schools have added an option to upload an abstract (summary) of any research papers written by the applicant. These schools include Harvard, Columbia and Northwestern.

Furthermore, writing a research paper will give you an opportunity to enter some of the most prestigious competitions in the world, like Intel Talent Search. Winning an award at one of these competitions will put you at the top of the list of many top schools. More on this subject below.

Writing a research paper is not an easy task. The best way to do it is to take an independent research class if your school offers one. A class like this allows one-on-one guidance from a teacher at your school to work on a research project of your choosing. But these classes are few and far between. Another way is to attend a summer college program. There usually aren’t any research paper writing classes specifically, but taking an advanced math class there will give you access to a professor or graduate student from whom you can receive some extra help. Being away from home at a college for several weeks can help you focus as well, not to mention all the resources a campus can provide. Most of the top schools offer summer programs, but they can be a bit expensive.

There are also many math-specific summer camps/programs that can be utilized to help write a paper. Here is a guide to some of the most well-known summer programs (most run from mid-June to mid-August):

Research Science Institute (RSI)

Held usually at MIT, RSI is the crème de la crème of math/science programs for high school students. Acceptance is extremely difficult to gain. But once there, you will work with a graduate student 1-on-1 for 6 weeks on a research paper. Participants regularly win the Intel Talent Search and the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.

SUMAC (Stanford University Mathematics Camp)

A six-week program held at Stanford, SUMAC provides an opportunity to be mentored by faculty of the program in writing a research paper on a chosen topic. Admission is difficult, but coming away with a high-level research paper is well-worth the effort.

Ross Mathematics Program

Held at Ohio State University, Ross has been around since 1957 is one of the most famous math programs of its kind. The program’s motto is “Think deeply of simple things.” It’s a 6-week program that primarily focuses on number theory.

PROMYS (Program in Mathematics for Young Scientists)

PROMYS is a 6-week program held at Boston University. They select roughly 80 students and admission has become tougher over the years. Number theory is the primary subject here as well.

For a more extensive list of programs, check out these links:

4. Competitions/Achievements

Let’s get real: the top schools want winners. It’s just a reality, even for math geeks. Luckily there are a plethora of math competitions to show your stuff. Start with local competitions. If your school is active, chances are there is a ranking system. As mentioned above, helping your school improve its rankings is a big plus. In addition, your own accomplishments there are critical. Winning, medaling or placing at competitions starting in the 9th grade all go towards improving your college application. Usually these competitions will gradually widen geographically, proceeding from local to regional to national. The further you can go, the better.

The most prestigious and noteworthy competitions are the national ones. Some of them you can take at your school or by yourself. Others you must travel with your team and a sponsor teacher and compete with other students directly. By far the most important competition is the set of competitions know as the American Mathematics Competitions (AMC). The AMCs include AMC 10, AMC 12, the All Integers Mathematics Examination (AIME), the USA Junior Mathematical Olympiad (USAJMO) and the USA Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO).

This test is a necessity if you want to create a math theme. If you talk about math in your essays and express your intention to become a math major, top school admissions staff will wonder why you did not participate. You can take this test at your school if its registered, if not, there should be a facility nearby you can go to to take it. Students who are serious about this test are usually preparing for it year round. Counselor Edward Northington advises, “Students who think that because it’s a competition, you cannot prepare yourself for it are putting themselves at a distinct disadvantage. The test is designed to test aptitude or math skill sets. The more you learn and practice, the better your AMC score will be. Period.”

The AMC’s main purpose is to find the best candidates for the USAMO, that is the best math students to represent the US in the International Mathematics Olympiad. But just getting a high score on the AMC and AIME can be a big boost. Northington also points out that the top math & science schools such MIT and Caltech are on the hunt for students who do well on the AIME. Several schools have a space on their supplement applications for AMC and AIME scores.

Here is a list of other highly regarded math competitions:

Harvard-MIT Math Tournament (HMMT)

HMMT is held every February and November. On even years it is held at Harvard, and on odd years at MIT. Your school must register and can send up to 3 teams. Each team is made up of 8 students. Think of the February test as the AIME and the November test as the AMC. In other words, the February test is much harder.

The American Regions Mathematics League (ARML)

ARML is held annually simultaneously at four locations (the University of Iowa, Penn State, UNLV, and the University of Georgia). Each comprises of 15 members and two coaches are required. It is a large competition with over 140 students.

The Mandelbrot Competition

The advantage to this prestigious test is that you can take it alone at school. The hard part is that there are five different parts spread out through the year. Your math teacher will have to play the role of school coordinator and enroll at the regional level first.

Also, check out these opportunities:

• PUMaC – The Princeton University Mathematics Competition

• Caltech Harvey Mudd Math Competition

• Continental Mathematics League

• USA Mathematical Talent Search (USAMTS)

• Mu Alpha Theta

5. Major and Supporting Documents

Obviously, a student with a math theme would want to major in math. Don’t fret too much about this choice as most colleges want you to study a variety of subjects before declaring a major. And no, admissions offices don’t check after you get in to see whether you followed through on your commitment! The truth is college students are free to change their major throughout their college careers.

Where this choice becomes important now is in the essay section of the college application. Many schools will ask you why you chose math as a major. Caltech usually asks something along the lines of “Tell us about your passion for math and science.” In writing this essay, talking about your feelings is not enough. Your efforts, achievements and awards will form the content of this essay along with some personal insight into what you find so fascinating about math.

In keeping with the theme, remember to make sure that you get your math/science recommendation from your math teacher (rather than your science teacher). Also, be sure your college counselor talks glowingly about all your math-related activities and accomplishments.