Preparing for graduate studies

If you are considering graduate studies in economics, you should speak to a faculty member or an undergraduate advisor.

Where to apply?


There are a number of high-ranking economics institutions in Canada, among which SFU Economics ranks competitively. However, it is important to consider the faculty and course offerings provided at each school, before you choose where to apply. To see a listing of top economics schools, see the RePEc or Tilburg rankings.

United States

Many top economics institutions in the United States do not offer a master's program in economics. These institutions often grant a master’s degree en route to a PhD. If you are an honours student with a very strong math background looking to do a PhD in the United States, you may consider applying directly to PhD programs.

How to prepare for graduate school

A graduate school application typically has the following components:


It is crucial to have a strong background in mathematics, both for admission into graduate school and to be successful in graduate economics courses.

  • You will likely need a stronger mathematics foundation than is provided by the minimum MATH 157 requirement. At minimum, it is recommended that you also take MATH 158 and ECON 331.
  • It is recommended that you take MATH courses for science or statistics, rather than for the social sciences. Specifically, this means taking the following courses:
    • MATH 151 and 152 instead of 157 and 158
    • MATH 232/240 and 251 instead of ECON 331
    • STAT 270 instead of BUS 232
  • It is recommended that you consider taking additional MATH courses that are proof-based and that demonstrate your ability to craft mathematical arguments. Real analysis (MATH 242, 320) may improve your chances of impressing graduate schools. If you find those courses to be too abstract in nature, other math courses such as MATH 308 or 310 may still be helpful.
  • Ensure that those making recommendations or referrals for you are aware of what extra mathematics schooling you have taken. Some economics faculty may not be aware of the differences between certain MATH courses or the specific course numbers. It is best to clarify the actual subject matter of the course.

When taking economics courses, it is important to demonstrate your ability to grasp theory and empirics, and that you have good writing ability.

  • Beyond ECON 302/305/333, recommended options include ECON 402, 403, 435 and some special topics courses.
  • It is important to take at least one course, ideally more, where you complete a term paper. Please note that some “W” courses do not qualify as a proper term paper (they may include several short assignments rather than a long paper), while some non-“W” courses actually do correspond with this requirement. If you do well in such a course, you may want to ask the course instructor to write you a letter of recommendation.
  • These requirements come as requisites of the honours program, in which you would be required to take ECON 402, 403, and 435. If you are seriously considering graduate studies, consider enrolling in the honours program.

Some course grades may be more impactful for application to graduate schools than others, even if they carry the same weight for your cumulative grade point average (CGPA).

  • Your most impactful grades will be those obtained in the courses highlighted above.
  • Still important but slightly less impactful are your grades in other ECON and quantitative courses.
  • Finally, your grades in the remaining courses are least impactful. Of course, it is still important to be successful at your courses in order to avoid a low CGPA, which may hinder your applications to graduate schools.

Letters of recommendation

You will need up to three letters of recommendation. The most effective letters add to the information provided by your transcript, and are written by individuals likely to be deemed trustworthy by admissions committees.

  • Ideally, your letters should be from professors: they are likely to have a strong professional reputation, and are also likely to be well-acquainted with your academic background.
  • Many admissions committees put weight in an applicant's creativity, writing skills, and academic drive, which can be difficult to evaluate based on just a transcript. Ideally, it is recommended that you demonstrate these qualities to the individuals who will be writing letters for you, so that they can address these qualities in the letter. A great way of achieving this is 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. Do not feel the need to limit yourself only to those professors who have taught you.
  • To obtain truly excellent letters of recommendation, it is difficult to earn all of them in the same term. It is recommended that you start planning your letters at least a year prior to applying for graduate school.

Curriculum vitae (CV)

Unlike employers and some other departments and faculties, economics departments generally put less weight into your extracurricular activities and employment history, unless they are research-relevant (e.g. research assistance, economic analysis for a think tank, etc.). However, if you took time off or have gaps in your schooling, it is important to demonstrate what you were doing instead during those gaps.

Statement of purpose

It is important to provide a statement of purpose that is polished. You may find it helpful to describe what you have done (e.g. your papers) or what you have found interesting (e.g. research articles that you have read), and to relate those topics to what you would like to study in graduate school.

Some schools put more weight into the statement of purpose than others, but it is never as impactful as the transcript or letters of recommendation (except perhaps in cases where the applicant has an unusual background). You may also wish to provide your statement of purpose to the individuals writing letters of recommendation for you, as they may find it helpful and/or may be able to give you feedback.

Standardized test scores

Standardized test scores are usually used to screen applicants, and then may not carry much weight once the application is under review. Thus, they may not help bolster your application significantly, but can prevent your application from being considered if your score does not meet the admissions threshold of the school you to which are applying. Almost all US programs require the GRE, where the Quantitative section is the most important: your score should be near perfect. Other standardized test requirements are mostly to ensure English proficiency.

Writing sample

Writing samples are rarely requested, but it is another reason why it is important to have prior strong papers on hand in case a writing sample is requested.

Further information

For more information and advice on applying for economics graduate studies, take a look at these guides written by economics instructors at various US institutions.