Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Economics

If you are considering graduate school, you should talk to a faculty member or an academic advisor.

Where to apply?

For the top Economics departments in Canada, please see these widely referenced rankings. Different departments have different strengths. Depending on your interests, a lower ranking school might be a better fit. You should look at the faculty list and course offerings before choosing where to apply.

If you look abroad, the first thing you’ll notice is that most top economics departments in the United States do not offer a Master’s program in economics: these institutions often only grant a Master’s degree en route to a Ph.D. and/or to Ph.D. candidates that do not complete the program. If you are an Honours student with a very strong math background, and you know that you want to do a Ph.D. in economics, you should consider applying directly to USA Ph.D. programs. There are a number of European Schools offering Ph.D. or Master’s programs in Economics.

SFU Economics faculty, who know you and your academic work well, can give you good advice on where to apply. 

How to prepare for Graduate School

A graduate school application typically has the following components:

  • Transcript
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • CV
  • Statement of Purpose

The following may also be required:

  • Standardized Test Scores
  • Writing Sample


1.  Your mathematical background is crucial, both for admissions and to survive grad courses.

  • You need much more math than the MATH 157 requirement. At an absolute minimum, you need to also take MATH 158 and ECON 331.
  • Ideally, you take math courses for sciences/statistics rather than the version for social sciences. This means MATH 151 and 152 instead of 157 and 158, MATH 232/240 and 251 instead of ECON 331, and STAT 270 instead of BUEC 232.
  • You should also think about taking additional math courses that are proof-based and demonstrate your ability to craft mathematical arguments. Real analysis (MATH 242, 320) will especially impress graduate schools. If that’s too abstract for you, other math courses (e.g. MATH 308, 310) will still help.
  • Make sure that your recommenders understand what extra math you’ve had: some economics faculty might not know about the difference between MATH 151 and 157, or about what math course numbers mean.

2. Within economics courses, you need to demonstrate your ability to handle theory and empirics, and that you can write well.

  • Good choices beyond 302/305/333 are 402, 403, 435 and some special topics courses.
  • You need to take a course (or, if possible, multiple ones) where you write a serious term paper. Note that some “W” courses don’t qualify (you might be writing several short assignments rather than a long paper), while some non-“W” courses actually fit the bill. If you do well, you’ll probably want the instructor for this course to write a letter for you – so choose your seminar wisely.
  • All this is automatic if you’re an Honours student: you’d be required to take 402, 403 and 435, and write an honours thesis. So enroll in the Honours program if you’re serious about grad school and it’s not too late!

3.  Not all grades are created equal (even if they carry the same weight for your CGPA).

  • Your grades in courses highlighted in points 1 and 2 are the most important.
  • Next come your grades in other ECON/BUEC courses. It’s important that if there are B’s in the ECON section of your transcript, they look like exceptions.
  • Finally, your grades in anything else don’t matter that much. Of course, it’s still important to avoid a low CGPA.

Letters of Recommendation

You will need up to three letters of recommendation. The best letters contain information that adds to what’s in your transcript, and are from people that admissions committees will trust.

  • Ideally, your letters should be from Professors: they are the most likely to have a strong professional reputation.
  • Schools care about a student’s creativity, writing skills and drive, which are hard to evaluate from a transcript. So these are the things you want to demonstrate to potential letter writers. The best ways of doing this are to work for a professor as a research assistant and to write a good honours thesis or term paper.
  • How do you become a research assistant? Ask! Professors who run experiments sometimes need help, as do those who work with data. Don’t limit yourself to professors that have taught you.
  • If you want three really good letters, you can’t earn all of them in the same semester. You should start planning your letters at least a year before applying.

Whatever you do, make it easy for the professor to tell you that she or he is uncomfortable with writing a letter for you: a bad letter hurts much more than the most glowing of letters will help.

Finally, be professional when interacting with potential letter writers: make sure your emails are well-written, give at least a week when you ask for something, follow instructions carefully, and provide clear instructions for submitting the letters.


Unlike employers and some other departments/faculties, economics departments generally do not care about your extracurricular activities or employment history, unless they are research-relevant (e.g. research assistance, economic analysis for a think tank, etc.). However, if you took time off school or studied part-time in some semesters, it’s important to show what you did instead.

Statement of Purpose

You need a statement of purpose that is forward-looking and in impeccable English.  “Forward-looking” means that you should not only describe what you have done (e.g.your papers) or found interesting (e.g. research articles that you read), but also tie it to what you want to study in grad school. You are not bound by what you say, and no one will be surprised if you write about labour economics, but end up focusing on macroeconomics.

Some schools pay more attention to statements of purpose than others, but it’s never as important as the transcript or letters (except perhaps if the applicant has an unusual background). So take this seriously – and send it to your recommenders, who may find it helpful in crafting their letters and/or give you feedback – but don’t obsess over your statement.

Standardized Test Scores

These are usually used in an initial screening of applications, and then ignored. Thus, they will not really help you get into a program, but can land your application in the “reject” pile before it gets read. Almost all American programs require the GRE, where the Quantitative section is the most important: your score needs to be near perfect. Everything else is about ensuring basic English proficiency.

Writing Sample

This is rarely requested since departments usually don’t have time to review applicants’ research, but it’s another good reason to have written a strong paper before applying.

Advice from other Faculty Members (USA)