Make Best Out of Your College Years while Studying Economics

While at the college studying for economics major keep following discussions in mind to get the best out of your college years and benefits in future.

Factors that will make you successful for candidate for graduate school include your personal statement, recommendation letters and math GRE score.  Admissions committees pay particular attention to your performance in hard math and economics courses. These courses also allow you to gauge your own fit for graduate school: if you enjoy and do well in them, you are likely to be a good candidate for graduate school.

Do as much research as possible: work as a research assistant for a professor, do a summer research project, and write an honors thesis.  This will give you an idea of what academic research is all about.  It will also let graduate schools know that you have an idea of what research is all about.  Finally, it will allow you to develop a relationship with a professor, who can then write you a recommendation.

Your recommendations matter a lot.  These letters should come from your professors. Letters from other sources are not given as much weightage as this. By your senior year, you should know which professors are likely to make the strongest statements about you.  Choose professors who know you well and in whose classes you have done well to write your recommendation letter.

Study for the math GRE.  It used to be that a perfect score (800) was necessary for admission to a top program; however, this no longer appears to be the case.  Admission committees now generally have a threshold math score of around 750 to 770.  You must meet the threshold to be competitive, but exceeding the threshold doesn't add much value. Your verbal score is not very important – unless you are really terrible in verbal, you are generally better off allocating your time towards studying for math.

Your personal statement is not a place for flowery prose.  Economists appreciate good technical writing.  Describe why you are interested in graduate school, how your academic experiences have helped to prepare you, and what research topics you might pursue when you get there. Write it right and it should get you there. According to one member of the AEA panel, "No epiphanies, please!  No stories like: I was driving down the freeway and then the sky opened up and I heard a voice saying you should go for the PhD!"  Also, in describing your research interests, try to stay away from the hot topics of the day (e.g., the financial crisis). 

A topic that does not appear to come from news headlines signals a serious, thoughtful, long-term interest in that issue.  Your statement should communicate to the committee that you understand what graduate school is all about and that you have carefully thought through your decision to pursue a PhD  If there are special circumstances that you need to explain (e.g., poor academic performance during a particular semester), this is the place to do it.  Don’t be overly dramatic or apologetic – just state the facts.

A panel discussion organized by American Economic Association once suggested, “an internship or job at the Federal Reserve (Board of Governors or regional branch) is a good signal that a student knows what s/he is getting into by going for the PhD  Another good signal is taking rigorous science classes (physics or chemistry).”

You and your faculty advisor should decide which schools you should target based on rankings of economic programs, your interests and academic records. You should generally aim to attend the highest ranked program possible because Employers will pay attention to the quality of your graduate program.

A lot of what you learn in graduate school will be from your classmates, as graduate students generally study together in groups and give each other feedback on research.  Therefore, it helps to attend a high ranking program that tends to attract high-ability students. 

If you can't get into a highly ranked program based on your current record, an alternative approach is to spend a year or two working at the Federal Reserve or doing another job that involves economic research, or getting a respectable master’s-only program in economics available at many universities. This will give you a better shot at a top PhD program.
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