Decisions from the most prestigious overseas schools arrive this week. Mint checked in with its Class of 2011—six Indians winding down their first year at Princeton University—to see what advice they might have for both those applying and those deciding. Since the group first met last summer in Mumbai, Mint reporters and photographers have been following their journey, part of the series “Class of 2011: The Indian Education Dream”. We asked three—Jahnabi Barooah, Rohan Malik and Shiv Mohan Dutt—to take what they’ve learnt and answer questions students applying to US schools and their parents may have. Excerpts:
How important is the SAT? Do you recommend taking a prep course?
Rohan Malik: So the SAT is very important...especially if you’re doing an Indian education board. It’s the standard way US universities have of knowing how good you are, because grading systems vary across countries. It might be a good idea to take a prep course for the reading and writing sections. If math is hard, do that, too. The SAT graders appreciate a particular type of essay format, good to learn. The big prep courses aren’t necessarily the best. Smaller ones have better teachers, and get you more personal attention, important for essays.
Learning curve: Jahnabi Barooah, Rohan Malik and Shiv Mohan Dutt, three first-year students of Princeton University, offer advice to students applying to US schools.
Jahnabi Barooah: It’s not the deciding factor of your education, but definitely one of the things considered during the admission process. However, I don’t think a prep course is required. Just go through the SAT prep books. The one by the College Board is helpful.
Does the brand/reputation of a school matter? Are learning methods compatible here and there?
Shiv Mohan D utt: It is probably less the “brand” of your school than what it has to say about you that counts. What your teachers say should complement your application.
Learning systems here are not as different as I had imagined. One thing new is writing long essays. There is certainly more emphasis on understanding. For example, in physics we never have to derive results that are derived in the book, unlike the Central Board of Secondary Education physics, where one can just learn up derivations.
JB: Although I can’t be sure, I don’t think the “brand” and reputation of the school that I went to India mattered in my admission process. For instance, I studied in Holy Child School, Guwahati, till class VII; in Army School, Guwahati, till class X; and in Delhi Public School, Faridabad, in class XII. I am the first person from these schools to get admission in Princeton which leads me to think that it doesn’t matter.
RM: Although colleges try to say that the school doesn’t matter, that’s not entirely true. Although the difficulty of courses and other activities matter more, colleges feel safer taking kids from schools they’ve heard of. Doing an international board helps, as does going to a popular school. If you feel like your school is small but good, get that across in an essay. Learning methods aren’t incompatible, but different. If you prefer learning books by heart, you might have a hard time.
My child is in class IX. Can you tell me what sort of extracurricular activities we should be looking at?
RM: Get your kid to do what he likes, and do it well. A kid in class IX may still be trying out lots of different stuff to figure out what he likes. Eventually though, it’s good to narrow down and get good at a few things. Sports, music, social service all look great...
JB: Colleges aren’t particularly impressed by any extra-curricular activities. What matters is the dedication and time commitment to each activity. Do one or two well. Given the academic pressure in India, it is not easy to be able to do a lot of activities well.
Although extra-curricular activities play a substantial role in the admission decision, it does not by any means substitute a good transcript. The only exception might be when one is exceptionally gifted at that particular activity.
How important was the interview?
RM: Interviews are very important, unless your grades are way over the college’s average. Good interviews and essays distinguish you from 10,000 other kids with the same grades, and really get you in. If you don’t have the grades, you have a serious problem, but even if you do, you really need good interviews/essays...
And the essay?
RM: Make every essay really personal and heart-felt. Safe colleges are determined by your grades and the college averages. If you’re well above average, then you’re probably safe. If you feel like your essays aren’t very convincing (borrowing other people’s ideas...very bad idea), then you need higher grades.
JB: Essays in general should talk about things that you haven’t had a chance to talk about in the rest of your application. You can also elaborate on specific details that you think the admission committee should be aware of in making decisions. Remember, the essay is your one chance to tell the admission officers anything. Choose the topic wisely.
I am debating putting my child in boarding. Did it help prepare for the separation from your families?
JB: After graduating from Delhi Public School, Faridabad, I have to say that the two years I spent in the hostel there are some of the most memorable years of my life. I loved boarding life! And it did help me prepare for the separation.
How many schools should one apply to? How do you determine “safe” bets?
RM: Apply to as many schools as you really want to go to, with an upper limit of about 10. Don’t apply for the sake of it, because there’s no point getting in and not going... Don’t apply to more than 10, though, because you need to give every application your best, and you don’t want to overdo it.
What are the must-bring items to campus?
RM: Pictures, or other things that will remind of India.
There’s a culture difference in the US, and not every kid loves it. It’s nice to have stuff that reminds you of home; sometimes food is a good idea —even soan papdi or something! More practical items depend upon where you’re going to be in the US. Buying winter clothing is really important, but best done in the US. A coat, gloves, earmuffs, maybe snowshoes, if you’re really far north. Bring stuff to decorate your room with. It’s nice to have it looking cheerful during the winter. Maybe medication, if you like specific ones from India. You get everything else here though. Shop!
I am very worried about how I can afford an education in the US. But if I tell the admissions people this, does that matter?
RM: If you feel like you want to apply to the very top colleges, a lot of them are need-blind. This means they won’t look at how much money you can pay when admitting you, and they’ll pay everything that you need if you get in. Princeton and a few others do this.
Other colleges decide whether or not to give you admission based on how good you are and on how much money you want. This means that if you have scores that are average for the college and need financial aid, your chances of getting in are lowered. Applying to colleges that are lower on the rankings is one way to get aid. If you’re above average for the college, they’ll pay to get you there. Lastly, look into work-study and loan options. They’re not as good as grants, but they can be worthwhile. Education is really worth it, and most kids earn back much more than what they put in.
My younger son is in class XI and he appeared for the December SAT exam after studying on his own for a month. His scores were: Critical Reading–640; Math–630; Writing–690, for a total of 1,960 out of 2,400. Does he have a chance of entering a US university?
SMD: He could certainly enter a good university. I know people with similar scores who have been admitted to very good places, like University of Pennsylvania, New York Univ-ersity, the University of Chicago. If your son thinks he can do a lot better, and also has time, it may be worth taking it again.
Do you think visiting colleges between class XI and class XII in the US is a good idea? How does that work?
SMD: I visited colleges in summer of my 12th year. It was a great experience, but not necessary.
I am in class X and want desperately to study in the US. My parents say India has more opportunities and I should stay put. I am an only child, so, any tips or ways to convince them?
RM: First off, stop and make sure you really want to come to the US for the right reasons. Figure out what you think you can get here that you can’t get in India, and you’ll have half your argument. If you can’t find one, maybe your parents are right. Try to explain to them that India has opportunities, but education abroad doesn’t close them. The US has a great system of college education, and learning here and working in India can be a great combination.
Just because there are good jobs there doesn’t mean that education is necessarily great. We’re Indians anyway. No one knows India better than us. Study here if it’s the best for you, and then go back home and grab those opportunities.
JB: Higher “education” for the very best and brightest of Indian kids in IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, etc., is definitely at par with the best in the world.
However, education is not merely about excelling in academics. Well-rounded education is the process of self-discovery; being able to study and learn about anything that may fascinate you and also being in close proximity with outstanding individuals. And the best thing about being in a place like Princeton is that it is almost like a melting pot of global cultures. At the end of almost six months at Princeton, I know people from five different continents! This is certainly something I wouldn’t have had anywhere in India. In addition to that, the quality of intellectual debate is what distinguishes a top-class education from all others. Even over dinner or while working in the dish room, I have quality debate with my friends on various topics ranging from religion to the international market to the theory of relativity to homosexuality to race and class. I never had the opportunity to engage in such discussion back in any of the schools I attended in India.
My Princeton education has definitely made me aware of life outside the “bubble”.
Although I am studying in Princeton University and receiving the best in terms of education, I do not intend to settle down in the US. I feel that my heart lies in India. So, in the end, you must always do whatever makes you happy.