Do’s and Don’ts of MFE Applications

This article appears in QuantNet 2013-2014 International Guide to Programs in Financial Engineering.

When applying to a master’s program, it is not possible to specify the exact requirements necessary to be accepted, because there is flexibility in the process. An application that is weaker in one area might be accepted because of strengths in other areas.

For the most part, the standard of the applicants is very high; however, in some cases, it is apparent that a capable applicant would have fared better with more careful preparation. There are things that candidates could do to improve their chances of admission, especially if they give some thought to this well before the application submission. The purpose of this article is to help prospective applicants to improve the principal components of their applications.[prbreak][/prbreak]

Course Work
Your undergraduate and graduate course work is shown in your transcripts. You do not need to have majored in mathematics since many successful applicants have an undergraduate degree in economics, engineering, physics, statistics, or some other quantitative field. Neither is it necessary to have graduated from a top-rated university. Many offers are made to fine applicants from less well-known schools.

However, a strong mathematics background is needed. At the very least, an applicant should have a course in calculus (including multi-variable calculus), linear algebra, and calculus-based probability. If you do not have these, you should be aware that you will stand a much better chance if you take courses (either online or at a local college) to remedy that deficiency.

This is the minimum but most applicants have more than that. Some helpful courses include ordinary (ODE) and partial differential equations (PDE), and other subjects such as real variables, and other courses that show evidence of interest and ability in mathematics. Additional courses in programming, finance, and economics will also help your application.

Also, you will have a better chance of admission if you have a depth of knowledge in one quantitative area rather than a superficial knowledge of several areas, even if they are all relevant to a career in finance.

All these are not necessarily requirements of the faculty but rather a practical reflection of the competitive nature of the process. No matter how strong your application may be, if there are others which are exactly equal to yours but with more and stronger course work in relevant subjects, then those will obviously have an advantage in the admissions process.

Most applicants have very good grades for all their undergraduate coursework, mostly A and B, especially in the quantitative subjects. An occasional C in a subject not related to mathematical finance such as painting or music will not hurt the application. But the hard fact is that you are competing with applicants who have no C grades in any quantitative subject. Similar comments apply to graduate coursework for applicants who have a master’s degree.

If you think the program’s faculty might have difficulty understanding your transcript (for example, if your courses are called Mathematics I, Mathematics II, etc., rather than Calculus, Linear Algebra, etc.), it can be helpful to provide more detail about the topics that were covered and textbooks that were used.

Helpful Tip: If you have taken a course with a generic name, such as Mathematics III or Computers I, and you think the program’s faculty might have difficulty understanding what topics the course covered, provide a cover sheet that lists the topics for each course (e.g., probability, linear algebra, differential equations, etc.), and the grade you received, books used, any additional materials covered, and so on. This will be more helpful to an appraiser than just knowing that you received an A in, for example, Engineering Mathematics.

Statement of Purpose
The Statement of Purpose should be a simple essay that describes why you came to choose this field and what you hope to do with your master’s degree after completing the program. It should be clearly written and have a logical construction. It is not necessary to re-state your course work and grades because these are shown on your transcripts. Some applicants lavish praise on the program and the faculty or the university. This will not hurt nor help your application; it just is a waste of space.

Although some international students might not yet have perfect command of the English language, make sure your ideas come through, because that is what is important. Ask a friend who is a native English speaker to proofread the essay.

Helpful Tip: Customize your essay for each program that you apply to, and make sure you answer the questions specific to each university. Many students use a general format for each program, which may not include the detail the reviewer is seeking.

There is no specific requirement for the sources or content of letters of reference. Ideally, your references should be from your undergraduate teachers who demonstrate that:
  1. They really know you well.
  2. They have worked with you in a relevant subject.
  3. They have observed your outstanding ability and accomplishments.
People who know you through projects or advanced classes are better choices than those who know you only through basic courses. At least one reference should be from someone who knows you in a highly quantitative context such as your professors in mathematics courses. For graduate applicants and others who have been out of school for some time, it is important to have at least one reference from an individual who currently knows you well.

Helpful Tip: Your references should not come from friends, neighbors, relatives, or anyone who has not supervised you in a professional capacity.

GRE Quant Score
The GRE Quant score is a measure of the quantitative ability of a candidate. Clearly, students need to have quantitative ability if they are to benefit from a master’s program in mathematics. The GRE quant exam has recently changed to a different structure based on a maximum score of 170 instead of 800 before. Because of this, it is more convenient to discuss this topic in terms of the percentile quant score. At many top programs, it’s usual for more than 50% of applicant pool to score 94th percentile or above on the Quant GRE. This is by no means an absolute indicator since candidates with lower scores have been accepted in the past when they have presented strongly along other dimensions. So you do not need to have a percentile score of greater than 94% in order to stand a chance, but you must remember that your application will be compared with others who do have a high score. If your GRE score is low, you will stand a better chance if you take the GRE a second time and try for a higher score.

Programming Skill
You will need some familiarity with computers and programming in order to complete this program. Most applicants have at least one course in computer science but many have more than that. In addition, it is helpful to show evidence, from projects or work experience, of programming ability, particularly of object-oriented programming. Lack of experience in programming will not exclude an application, but once again, it will be competing with many others that do demonstrate such skills. If your computing skills are weak, you should take at least one programming course. Competence in C++ or Java or MATLAB is definitely an advantage.

Helpful Tip: Be sure to describe your programming background. Some applicants don't bother to mention their technical skills. You can use your essay or resume to elaborate on which languages you are familiar with and the kind of projects you have done in these languages. This will give the reviewer a better idea of your skills.

English Language
Many schools have students from non-English speaking countries and the faculty understands very well that a student with weak English language capability usually learns quickly after moving to the United States. However, once again, no matter how capable you are, you will be competing with other international candidates who do have very good English language skills. It is expected that many applicants to top programs to score above 100 on the TOEFL. Although this is not a requirement, especially if your application is very strong in other areas, the fact is that if your score is less than 100, you are at a competitive disadvantage. It might be worthwhile to improve you English skills and then take the TOEFL a second time to try for a higher score.

This should be a clear record of your education and accomplishments; however, the educational and work experience you present should be supported by the transcripts and reference letters.

Helpful Tip: Use a professional format and standard fonts to make sure that the final document has a professional appearance. Have your resume reviewed by someone with experience with these tasks.

It is a good idea to participate in a professional organization such as IAFE or SQA. Also, join a website such as QuantNet. This will show that you have taken the time to learn something about the industry and understand that this is something that you really want to do.

I hope that these guidelines help you to ensure that your application does fully reflect your abilities and your accomplishments so that you obtain the highest ranking possible in a very competitive admissions process.

About the author
Bill Stanley earned his M.A. in mathematics at the University of Oxford in England. On moving to the U.S., he completed an M.S. in Operations Research at New York University (NYU), while working for JPMorgan Chase. Later, he worked for Citigroup where his role was to document various kinds of derivative securities. Bill is also a C.P.A. in New York State. For the last three years, he has appraised more than 1,500 applications for the MS program of Mathematics in Finance for NYU’s Courant Institute. Mistakes-to-avoid.jpeg
If i recently made the decision for graduate school and my marks are now very high but last year my marks were less than impressive is this still alright?
I'm doing my MFE and one of my colleague actually majored in Biology from her undergraduate... Having related/mathematical major is definitely plus, but I guess it's not a 'must'.
I regret not having read your post earlier. I made a couple of mistakes from the ones you mentioned - 1) i failed to include a Cover Sheet with details on my coursework (yes, they had generic names), and 2) I did not highlight my limited (but present) coding experience.
Thanks for this article, Bill. I am going to be applying to a bunch of Spring semester programs for Spring 2015. My applications have to go out in a few months. This definitely helps.

Hi, Can you suggest some official online math courses to pursue that would be of good relevance to grad schools when considering your application?
Hi Bill.
Thank you for your post. I have taken most of the mathematics courses you have mentioned(Calculus, Linear Algebra, Differential Equations and Statistics), but my grades aren't very competitve. I come from an Economics Honrs and Electrical Engineering background, and I have a good curriculum record in Economics and Finance courses(including C Programming, Econometrics and Applied Econometrics). Could you tell me please, how bad is it going to hurt my chances, considering my weak grades in maths courses? I have a good programming experience though.
Hi Bill.
Thank you for your post. I have taken most of the mathematics courses you have mentioned(Calculus, Linear Algebra, Differential Equations and Statistics), but my grades aren't very competitve. I come from an Economics Honrs and Electrical Engineering background, and I have a good curriculum record in Economics and Finance courses(including C Programming, Econometrics and Applied Econometrics). Could you tell me please, how bad is it going to hurt my chances, considering my weak grades in maths courses? I have a good programming experience though.
Bill Stanley was last seen: 1y 48w ago
Hello Everyone,

I'm from India. Can an international student take the membership of professional organization such as IAFE or SQA?