A Survey of Harvard Undergraduates in Math

Analysis by Meena Boppana, Kate Donahue, Domniki Georgopoulou, and Caitlin Stanton
Survey design contributions by Rahul Dalal, Ellen Robo, and Isabel Vogt
November 20, 2014

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Introduction

In May 2013, a small group of students in the undergraduate math community wrote and conducted a poll
of Harvard undergraduate life in the math department. The questions were designed to help provide answers
to questions the students believed were of importance to the Harvard math community. The survey was sent
out through the math department and HUMA (Harvard Undergraduate Math Association) mailing lists.
130 students completed the survey, while 155 partially filled it out. At the time, math concentrators (both
primary and secondary) were 150. Out of the respondents, 50 were concentrating in math, 11 in applied
math, 21 in physics, 13 in computer science, 3 in statistics, and 3 in engineering, while 8 were pursuing
concentrations in other natural sciences, 2 in humanities or social sciences, 10 in math and a natural science
(math first), 15 in math and a natural science (math second), 1 in math and humanities or social sciences,
with 4 undecided. 24 were seniors, 34 juniors, 47 sophomores and 36 freshmen. 82 were male and 40 female.
While an option was offered for an ”Other” response on the gender question, no one chose it. Over the
following months, the group of students analyzed the results of the survey. This analysis is presented below.
Central topics of study are high school math preparation, freshman year math class taken, self-perceived
rank within the department and the math advising system. These are investigated and presented below,
frequently in combinations of one or more topics. We hope this poll will be of interest and use to the Harvard
math community.

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Breakdown by Gender

We are interested on the effects of gender on students’ level of involvement in the math department,
future plans, and perceived rank.

Women entering Harvard participated in math competitions in high school at roughly the same rate as
men: 80 percent of males participating in math competitions at at least the local level and 76 percent as
women. Yet only 7 percent of females participate in math competitions at the college level, presumably the
Putnam exam, while 28 percent of males do.

Despite the seemingly equal levels of preparation, female math concentrators tend to take less intense
freshman year math classes. Of math concentrators, 50 percent of women took math 25 or 55 freshman year,
while 72 percent of males did.

On average, female math concentrators feel less involved in the math department than males. 45 percent
of female math concentrators feel very uninvolved in the math department, whereas only 12 percent of males
do. When you include “somewhat uninvolved” the numbers are 54 percent of females feel somewhat or very
uninvolved, 33 percent of males feel somewhat or very uninvolved. 82 percent of female math concentrators
would like to be somewhat or very involved in the math department, and 73 percent of male math concentrators would like to be. Male math concentrators feel that they can ask, on average, 1.6 professors for a
letter of recommendation, whereas females feel that they can ask 1.0 professors on average.

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Females also very much notice the gender gap. 54 percent of female math concentrators report feeling
somewhat or very uncomfortable in the math department as a result of the gender gap. (Only 3 percent of
males do.)

When it comes to future plans, we see that fewer females plan to continue on to math grad school and
academia. Of math concentrators (including joint concentrators), 49 percent of men plan on writing theses in
math while only 26 percent of women do. Moreover, 27 percent of female math concentrators currently plan
to attend graduate school in pure math, whereas 65 percent of male male concentrators plan to. Long-term
only 18 percent of female math concentrators plan to stay in pure math academia, whereas 47 of male math
concentrators do.

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Preparation in high school and freshman year

Students at Harvard arrive with widely different levels of high school math preparation. These differences
might be expected to impact a student’s choice of freshman math class, perception of math ability and even
choice of concentration. This section investigates these connections and attempts to discover patterns behind
the choices students make.

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Firstly, it helps to get a sense of how students’ high school classes are correlated with their self-perceived
ranking within the school. The two questions are compared in the graph above: “What math
courses did you take or self-study in high school?” and “How good do you think you are at
math compared to your peers?” The resulting trends might be expected: those who had taken AP
Calculus AB tended to think they were “average” in math ability. The plurality of those who had taken
Calculus BC ranked their ability as “upper third” or “average”, while those who had taken multivariable
calculus displayed a more pronounced tendency to rate themselves as in the “upper third”. Finally, those
who had taken some other advanced math course overwhelmingly considered themselves in the “upper third”
or “top 10%”. Interestingly, 20% of them still ranked themselves of “average” math ability. Note that respondents could select multiple categories, so those who had taken AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC,
for example, were counted in both categories. Given these results, it is likely that the differences in
perceived ability varies strongly with high school preparation. However, it’s worth noting that
those who took a less rigorous math class in high school are not necessarily weaker math students, even if
they consider themselves to be. The next section investigates how high school math class and freshman year
math classes are related.

The next question investigates the high school background of students in four of the introductory math
classes. These math classes were selected because they are the ones that potential concentrators most fre4

quently take. This shows a few interesting results. First, in every class over 80% of the students
had taken Calculus BC. However, the percentage of students having taken AP Calculus BC
actually decreased as you transition from Math 23 to 25 to 55. One potential reason could be
students taking more unconventional math paths in high school. One distinguishing characteristic between
freshman math classes was the percent of students having taken multivariable calculus. The percent rose
steadily across the math classes.
There appear to be slight but clear differences in the background of students who take each freshman year
math class. However, how does the choice of class influence each student’s future math career?

The answer is, it depends. Very few students who took Math 21 ended up concentrating in
math. By contrast, roughly equal percentages of students who took Math 23 and Math 25
concentrated in math. Students who took Math 55 overwhelmingly concentrated in math. One potential
explanation could be Math 21’s lack of proofs, which makes entering the next sequence of math classes
difficult. As opposed to students who took Math 23 and above, who can immediately take Math 122, Math
113 or other advanced math courses, those who took Math 21 must take Math 101 first to obtain exposure
to proofs. This could discourage undecided students from concentrating in math.

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The choice of freshman math class also is correlated with how many math classes each
student will take over their freshman year. Again, Math 23 and 25 show similar patterns: a large
majority will take 1 class per semester, on average. However, a large percentage of students who took Math
21 will take 0 math classes per semester. On the other end of the spectrum, most students who took Math
55 will take 2 math classes a semester, on average.

Finally, objective differences in classes taken can influence subjective views of math ability.
Whether students had taken Calculus AB or BC (percentages separated by slashes), they had similar opinions
of their ability relative to other students in the department: 9/6 percent placed themselves in the top 10
percent, 20/31 percent put themselves in the upper third, 36/29 percent considered themselves average,
29/28 percent put themselves in the bottom third, and 5/7 percent put themselves in the bottom 10 percent.
These percentages shifted slightly upwards for students with experience in Linear Algebra, Multivariable
Calculus or Differential Equations, with a plurality of students placing themselves in the upper third, and
with students with other math experience, of whom 55 percent considered themselves in the upper third and
15 percent considered in the top 10 percent. In addition, respondents showed that they experienced
different levels of respect from their peers. For students with every level of background except ”other
math classes”, about 25 percent felt very respected, while roughly 45 percent felt somewhat respected. Less
than 10 percent of respondents felt somewhat not respected or very not respected. However, for students
with ”other math experience”, 40 percent felt very respected, 35 percent felt somewhat respected, 20 percent
felt neither respected nor not respected, and only 5 percent felt somewhat not respected.

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Self-perceived rank

We were most interested in the effects of self-perceived rank in the department on other experiences with the
department. In particular we looked at overall happiness, involvement in the math department, and average
number of math courses taken per semester.

Those who ranked their mathematical ability higher also felt that they were more involved in the math
department. While those who considered themselves to be “very good” (in the top 10%) gave themselves
on average a rating of 3.13 for involvement in the department (where 3 denotes “neither involved nor
uninvolved,” 4 “somewhat uninvolved,” and 5 “very uninvolved”), those who ranked themselves lowest (in

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the bottom 10%) ranked their involvement at 4.86 on average.

Not surprisingly, those with higher perceived rank tended to take more math classes per semester. The
results for this crosstab are shown below.

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Advising

Students tend to feel that advisers are not sufficiently involved with undergraduate concerns.
Even though 25 percent of students are undecided about this issue, only 4 percent feel that advisers are very
involved with undergraduates.

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It is also important to note in this section that undergraduates do not generally pursue meetings with
their professors.

We saw, however, that independent of how often students seek out meetings with their professors, they
still thought that the department advisers are not particularly involved. This indicates that the perceived
quality of advising is independent of how involved the students personally are with faculty.
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When the students were asked if, in retrospect, they would like to change their current concentration,
the majority replied that they would not. 12 percent said they would consider such an option, but only 2
percent mentioned the quality of advising as their primary reason.

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Conclusions

In conclusion, we hope that this survey has helped math concentrators be aware of what some of the concerns
of the community are. We noticed a dropoff of women continuing to pursue math, in particular between
high school and freshman year math class, and between being a math concentrator and pursuing graduate
school. This may be related to our finding that women are on average less comfortable and less involved
in the department. How involved one is in the math department is influenced by one’s self perceived rank.
Moreover one’s self-perceived rank is influenced strongly by one’s high school preparation upon entering
college. Students feel that their advising experience could be better; this impression is shared by the student
body, independent of how proactive students individually are about pursuing relationships with faculty
members.
We want to end with our opinions about what students can do to enhance their experience in the math
department:
• Get involved in HUMA (Harvard Undergraduate Math Association) if you’d like to get more involved
in math at Harvard (math@hcs.harvard.edu)
• Be proactive and reach out to professors.
• Keep in mind that the freshman class that you take, as well as your high school background, is not a
direct reflection of your potential to be a math concentrator.
• Join the discussion of how to make the math community even better. If you have any specific issues
that you feel passionate about, start a dialogue.
If you have any comments regarding this survey, please reach out to Meena Boppana (boppana@college.harvard.edu),
Kate Donahue (kdonahue@college.harvard.edu), or Domniki Georgopoulou (dgeorgopoulou@college.harvard.edu).

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Harvard math department for instrumental support of this survey. We are very
grateful to Prof. Benedict Gross for his guidance, and to Cindy Jimenez for helping publicize our survey to
the undergraduate math community.

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