A Guide to PROMYS
When preparing for college application season, it’s important to make effective use of your time, both in school and out of it. Summers are no exception. While it’s a good idea to take some time to rest and recover from the stresses of the school year, it’s wise to spend much of your summer on activities that contribute more directly to your college goals.
Your personal summer options will depend upon a number of factors, including your location, your resources, and your field of interest, as we’ve covered in our blog’s Summer Activities section. If you happen to be a student between the ages of 15 and 19 who is deeply interested in math, however, one program that you should definitely consider is the residential program known as PROMYS.
Here at the CollegeVine blog, we’ve briefly described the PROMYS program before, in our post How to Spend Your Summer as a Prospective Math Major. In this post, we’ll provide more information about PROMYS, from the practical details of applying to the program to the daily experiences you can expect as a PROMYS participant.
Ready to take your interest in math to the next level? Read on!
An introduction to PROMYS
PROMYS, or the Program in Mathematics for Young Scientists, is a six-week residential summer mathematics program for teenagers that’s held each year at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts. The program is open to students between the ages of 15 and 19, and has a competitive admissions process, which we’ll describe in greater detail below.
As the title of the program indicates, PROMYS is all about math. While daily work is focused on topics in number theory, other mathematical avenues are explored as well. As a participant, you won’t spend most of your time in a classroom listening to lectures; rather, you’ll be encouraged to develop your own problem-solving skills and creatively investigate challenging problems.
Each year, around 80 students attend PROMYS, some of whom travel from outside the United States in order to participate. Around 20 of these students are returning PROMYS alumni who have chosen to go through the program again. These returning students have access to additional advanced seminars and opportunities for independent research.
PROMYS is partially funded by sponsors, so it’s more affordable for participants than some other residential summer programs. The base cost per student is $4,200, which includes tuition, room and board, and round-the-clock support and supervision by counselors.
However, not all participants will pay this much; substantial need-based financial aid and merit scholarships are available to make the program more affordable. For instance, students whose total family incomes are less than $60,000 per year have their tuition waived entirely and can apply for additional aid to cover room and board. (To learn about other affordable summer options, check out our blog post on Affordable Academic Summer Programs for High School Students.)
The PROMYS experience, day to day
Mornings at PROMYS start out with a daily lecture on number theory, given by a member of the program’s faculty or a guest lecturer. These guest lecturers may be professors from Boston University’s math department, professional mathematicians from other institutions, or scientists who use math heavily in their work.
The rest of your time at PROMYS will be relatively unstructured. Instead of attending classes, you’ll be assigned advanced number theory problem sets, which you can work on independently or in small groups. Your problem set responses will be evaluated by the program’s counselors, undergraduate mathematics students who will also be available to provide guidance and hints.
In addition to these problem sets, students undertake small-group “exploratory labs,” which allow them to work on particular open-ended problems with the guidance of their counselors. Both problem sets and exploratory labs are designed to be extremely challenging, so you’ll have no shortage of work to do.
Returning PROMYS students can participate in more advanced seminars on specific topics, which are offered through a partnership with the Clay Mathematics Institute and are taught by professors at Boston University and by visiting faculty members. They also have the opportunity to conduct independent research under the guidance of a faculty mentor.
In addition to giving students the opportunity to focus on mathematical problem-solving, PROMYS gives its students practice in writing about and sharing their mathematical work—an essential skill for those in math-heavy professions. At the end of the six-week program, students present their work to the group, as well as writing up their findings for online distribution to the larger PROMYS community.
Residential life at PROMYS
PROMYS is a residential program, so you’ll live in dormitory housing at Boston University with the other participants for the six-week duration of the program. Meals are provided, and you’ll also have access to athletic facilities and space to practice a musical instrument.
Housing is divided by gender, and you’ll have a roommate. Your counselors—the same undergraduates who assist with your daily math work—will also live with you to provide support, supervision, and additional assistance with your problem sets. Generally, there’s one counselor for every three to four students.
At PROMYS, there isn’t generally a clear distinction made between “class” time and “non-class” time, and you’ll have a great deal of freedom to arrange your own work schedule. Outside of specific lectures and seminars, you’re welcome to work on your problem sets how, where, and when you please, whether that’s alone on a weekend afternoon or with a group in your dorm hallway at 3 AM on a Tuesday.
However, you’ll also have the opportunity to participate in other group activities organized by your counselors, which have earned the tongue-in-cheek name of “mandatory fun” within the program. These might include museum visits, college tours, and other trips to Boston attractions, depending on student demand.
Getting admitted to PROMYS
Because of the small size, prestige, and generous funding of the PROMYS program, admission is quite competitive. During the application process, you’ll be evaluated on your mathematical accomplishments so far, your ability to handle higher-level investigations into mathematical topics, and whether you’re a good fit for this type of intensive, immersive summer program.
You don’t have to be a math prodigy to get accepted to PROMYS. Students come to the program at different levels of mathematical achievement. What’s most important is that you have, in the words of the program’s website, “the desire and ability to think deeply about fundamental mathematical principles.”
The PROMYS application, which you can find on the program website’s Student Application page, requires an appreciable amount of work. In addition to providing basic information about yourself and answering several essay questions about your interest in math, you’ll be required to submit an official transcript, a recommendation from one of your math teachers, and a financial aid form filled out by your parent or guardian.
You’ll also need to submit an assigned number theory problem set as part of your application. This problem set is designed to be quite challenging, and applicants don’t always fully solve all the problems they’re assigned, but not finishing the problem set doesn’t mean you won’t be accepted. Whatever work you do toward finding a solution will show off your math skills and creative problem-solving abilities to those who will evaluate your application.
If you’re considering applying to PROMYS, but you’re unsure if the program is right for you, PROMYS advises that you give the application problem set a try. Your everyday work in the program will be similar to this problem set, but much more challenging, so working on this problem set will help you evaluate whether you can handle material at the appropriate level for PROMYS.
The application problem set is not just a measure of your mathematical ability; it’s also a way of gauging whether attending PROMYS will be an enjoyable and enriching experience for you. If you don’t enjoy working on this problem set, you’re probably not going to enjoy this type of immersive math program.
We can’t emphasize this enough: if you attend PROMYS, you really will be doing math all day, every day, within a group of people who are also doing math day in and day out. If this is too much math for you, or if the idea of spending six weeks out of your summer break doing math doesn’t strike you as a worthwhile use of your time, this is not the summer program for you.
If you really are that interested in math, however, PROMYS can be an exceptional opportunity for you to deeply engage with that interest in a close and supportive community of like-minded individuals. You’ll get to experience math in a way that’s far beyond what’s accessible to you during the school year, when you have to balance a full load of academic courses and extracurricular activities in addition to your mathematical interests.
More resources for prospective math majors
Is math your favorite subject? Are you considering becoming a math major when you head to college? It’s never too early to explore this interest in greater depth, and summer programs are a great way to do so. For more information about summer math programs for high school students, check out the CollegeVine blog post How to Spend Your Summer as a Prospective Math Major (And Why Math is a Great Career Path).
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