Could Steve Levitt get into a top economics Ph.D. program today?

That’s a good question, given how competitive it seems to have gotten and how little math preparation I had. Just this year we saw a 20% increase in applications to the U of C program (my colleagues blamed me for all the extra work that made, saying it was a Freakonomics effect).

The question of whether I could get into grad school today is being debated in the following thread.

I think the answer is that MIT and/or Harvard might still take a chance on me today, but not the other top places including the University of Chicago. At U of C, my application would be thrown out before ever getting to a faculty member, just as would have been the case 15 years ago.

I am lucky that MIT was willing to roll the dice.


Well, to support your colleagues' claim, Freakonomics was the primary reason I applied to Chicago. (Though the writing sample almost scared me away!)


Isn't uchicago asking quite a lot to expect both strong math preparation and a twenty-page writing sample?

I think most of its own econ undergrads would have trouble meeting that requirement. I graduated from the uchicago math/econ program and don't recall writing anything longer than ten pages.

Is the faculty also upset about the Friedman and Becker effects?

Robert Schwartz

Could you enlighten us outsiders on what it takes to get into grad school in econ? Grades, test scores, majors?


To be a shoe-in at a top school, you'll probably need a high GPA (> 3.7), high GRE (800Q or maybe slightly less), good math prep (coursework in real analysis a must, functional analysis or metric spaces even better), three good letters of recommendation from economists, and proven research experience.

I'd say it's pretty competitive. I had the GPA, GRE, and math prep, plus unrelated (math) research experience and just two letters of recommendation from economists, and I went 1 for 10.

I think that's maybe a little too competitive.


based on my experience, i agree that MIT is still more willing to take chances relative to other top schools. i didn't have nearly as much math as my classmates (i was an engineering major, which my classmates continually remind me is not the same as math). i didn't have any real analysis coursework, but MIT still "rolled the dice" while harvard said no. twice.


Of course, if Levitt had gone to a second-tier school, he could have distinguished himself with his writing and gotten where he is anyway, right?



What would you have done if you had not gotten into a PhD program in Economics? Or had not gotten into one of the top programs?



What does it mean to say the admissions process is "too competitive"? Isn't the "price" of getting into a top Ph.D. program objectively set by supply and demand factors.

Maybe you would rather they choose out of a hat?

Robert Schwartz

What options are open to people without the grades?


"What options are open to people without the grades?"

Get an MBA instead? (hahaha)

Letters of recommendation from Harvard carry more weight than ones from a second-tier college. I don't think a 4.0 GPA and three years of math are as competitive.


I'd also like to know more about getting into a good PhD program. I'd really like to hear about your experiences and any recommendations. Telling us that Harvard kids have it made doesn't help.


I thought Chicago had (has) that reputation. Their official website says that they accept about 100 people out of 500 that apply.

That was my hope, since I don't need funding anyway. I didn't make it.

Ah, I should've tried MIT! :(


For students thinking about graduate school in economics, go to It has a wealth of very useful information.

Things are certainly much tougher than they were 20 years ago when I got into chicago with tuition but no stipend (and that announced with just a form letter - none of the calls and lobbying and visits that one gets now).

One thing that no one has mentioned yet is the value of taking graduate courses in economics at your undergraduate institution. Getting A's in one or more of these (usually people take micro for some reason) sends a very strong positive signal that you have what it takes to get through the first year of a tough program.

Keep in mind that even if you do not get into a top program, you can go to a program in public policy (these have lower math requirements but may give you access to some of the same faculty) or to a second tier program. For highly motivated students, second tier programs have the benefit that you may get more attention from faculty than you would as a middle-of-the pack student at a top school. I saw this with the best grad students at Western Ontario.



I have a mathematician's question for all the economists? To what use does an economist put real analysis? I studied it as an undergrad and grad student, but I don't see the connection to economics.

anonymous economist

What I find odd is when an economics PhD program (or other graduate/professional program) doesn't provide much information concerning how it will internally grade/rank applicants. If you think of the school as auctioning off seats into the class and applicants as bidding for these seats based upon their grades/scores/recommendations, theoretically wouldn't the school be best served by being open about its scoring process? Wouldn't this help prospective students optimize/raise their bids through preparation and help the program find the types of applicants it wants?


To mathking: Take a look at MasColell for Micro and Lucas and Stokey for Macro.


Right now,i am taking mathematical application in economics and finance with hope to get into econ graduate school.Basically i am taking most applied maths courses like optimization,partial diff,and all stuff plus basic econ courses.Are my chances increased in getting into one best school like MIT??Plus my financial background is not that great???


WHy oh why not just have another adam smith write another treatise so that all these mathemtaicians who think that social science can only be so if you put in in proofs cann all emigartae to the maths and engineering depts.


I would have loved to pursue econ. Although I got A's in micro, macro, business finance, and four statistics courses, I don't have the math chops. I made A or B in pre-cal algebra, pre-cal trig, and calculus.

Honestly I don't understand who has time to take all those additional math courses unless you are an undergrad math major- and take no other electives or essentially any interesting subjects.

Are we breeding economic calculators who only do econometrics? I believe so. There should be a deserved division between the metrics and social science realms. If schools are taking in human calculators, I assure you they are sacrificing other skills. No one is a "right brain" and "left brain" genius.

My PhD pursuit, given the above, will be in Management, Organizational Behavior.


credit you for your dope and it helped me in preparing my college assignment.