Undergrad in US? Simple TIPS to get you started

Indian students have always looked to US Universities for higher studies. In the past it was mainly for MS/Phd. But trends are changing. Of the ~ 186,000 India students studying in the US 12% are in Undergrad programs – thats about 22,000. Which implies that nearly 5000 students after their 12th head to US for college

This BLOG provides simple TIPS for a student exploring a passage to US for his/her Undergrad studies. This is based on the experience of my daughter, who has submitted her applications for Fall 2019. 

Who applies for an undergrad program outside India (Mainly US, Canada, UK) 

A large majority of students applying for Undergrad studies abroad would be from one of the 3 categories 

  • Students from International school – IB Curriculum 
  • Students who are US/UK Citizens 
  • Rich families with kids who may not want to go thru the competitive grind of India  

Five years back US was the preferred destination for ~ 80% of the students going abroad. But this is fast changing. Canada and UK have become attractive destinations. 2018 – 19 US applications saw a dip of 39% from Indian students. This is probably driven by the strong USD and current economic fear that Visa & employability for an Indian citizen may be a challenge in the US after college.  

Why are an increasing number of people applying for Undergrad studies abroad?

IISC was ranked 91 and IIT Bombay 179 in the QS World University Rankings for 2018. Cracking these for an Indian student is a dream. However bright students from good schools in India have a high probability of making it to the top 50 Universities in the world (Either by University or Course ranking) abroad. Quality of education in US University is definitely superior to that in India. Also studying in countries like Canada helps you get a Permanent Residency 

Does it make sense to shift to an IB school after 10th if your are looking at an US Undergrad Program?

The IB Curriculum is offered in most international schools. These are expensive and cost 10 – 15 Lacs / years. The IB Curriculum is supposed to be more aligned with the international system and rated better than the CBSE / ICSE board. Friends who shifted their children also claim that the program helps with a better all round development. However the brightest of students tend to stay on with the CBSE/ICSE board and still do extremely well with the US admission process.   

International schools have dedicated Counsellors and since almost 90% of the students apply to International Colleges their preparedness and level of handholding is better. 

Which are the streams to which Indians normally apply?

Earlier it was Computer Science but an increasing number of students are applying for programs in Physics, Bio Chemistry, Bio Medical sciences, Economics, Psychology, Business and even Arts. Students interested in pure Science program prefer US as options in India are limited to IISC, IITs and IISER. Most BSc Programs in India are 3 year programs which becomes a limiting factor to apply for an MS later.

Majority of students applying to US opt for courses that are part of the STEM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) International students pursuing STEM degrees will have more time to pursue an H-1B work visa

Can we apply for a Medical program in US?

Admission to Med school in US is after undergrad. So you do Pre-med for 4 years and then apply to Med School. its a longer and more expensive process. Even US Citizens in India complete their MBBS here and then take the qualifying exams in the US to become a Resident doctor. The MBBS program in India is amongst the best in the world for diversity and volume of cases.  UK is a better option for those interested in doing Medicine from abroad.  

How expensive is the Undergrad program?

Depending on the college you choose costs in US can vary from $40,000 – $80,000 a year. Add to this 10K $ for flight & miscellaneous expenses. Remember the USD appreciates normally by 3 – 4% every year and fees in the US colleges also go up by 3 – 4% annually. Canada & UK can be 30 – 40% cheaper. Also the program in UK is a 3 year program. Chances of getting a scholarship is rare.   

State Universities with larger student population tend to be cheaper – many State Universities are ranked highly (UT Austin, University of Washington Seattle, Ohio State University etc). Ivy League & Private colleges are more expensive. The total student population in UT Austin would be about 40,000 students while most Private schools would have 10 – 15 K students in campus. 

When do you start your preparation and do you need a consultant?

You need to start preparation well in advance. Eg: for a 2019 Aug admission, your journey could start as early as 2017 April. Thats more than 2 years. Yes an advisor helps – but don’t go for an overpriced consultant. The student needs to own & drive the application process with timely inputs from a counsellor. The guardian is a project manager. The best help comes from students / parents who completed the process a year before. 

There are agencies that charge 2 – 3 Lacs to help you with your admission process. In our view this is waste of money. We used the services of Spark Career Mentors. They not only provide you with guidance but also help the young adult develop the right skills and experience. Its more like teaching you to fish. 

Key timelines for the process – Lets assume a 2019 Aug admission cycle

  • 2017 : April May June – Prepare for SAT / ACT. Work on some initiatives that you can write about in your College Essays
  • 2017 : July – Dec, Complete 1st round of SAT / ACT – If you score well you dont need a second round. If you feel you need a better score apply again in Y1
  • 2018 : Apr – May – June, Complete 2nd round of SAT / ACT. Prepare a detailed shortlist of colleges that you want to apply to. 
  • 2018 : July – Aug – Sep, Complete your subject SAT’s & TOEFL
  • 2018 : Oct 1 the Application process starts, Early Actions tend to close by Oct 30th, UC Applications by Nov 30th. Target to complete all your applications by Oct 30th 
  • 2018 : If you are a US Citizen complete FAFSA/ CSS Profile by Nov 30th
  • 2018 : By Mid Dec a few college start sharing the admissions , most will share by Feb / March in Year 2
  • 2019:  May is when you commit to a college and pay the 1st instalment of fees. 
  • 2019 May is also when you start taking some AP’s that will help you get some credits in your 1st semester at college

SAT Vs ACT – Why do we need both?

If you are looking only at US you are ok with ACT. But if you are applying to Canada and UK some of them ask for SAT scores. If you are applying to Indian colleges like Ashoka you need SAT scores. And if you are a US Citizen applying to BITS you need SAT and Subject SAT scores. Choose the test that caters to your strengths – some students do well with ACT, others with SAT.

SAT, ACT, Subject SAT entrance tests have a fixed calendar and there are limited seats in each centre – please apply early to ensure that you are not wait listed. It is mandatory to carry your passport for these tests.

What is a good score for SAT / ACT?

Indian’s are super competitive – the benchmark that most students set for themselves is 1500 / 1600 for SAT and 34 / 36 for ACT – this puts you well above the 90th percentile mark. On Subject SAT many students crack 800/800. While most colleges claim that your SAT/ACT score has only a 25% weightage we have observed over the years that a good score is a must for admission to good colleges

Is Subject SAT a requirement from all colleges?

No its not. But many of the Top ranked College ask for it. Even when colleges don’t ask for it you could send your scores if you have performed well. 

Other than SAT/ACT/TOEFL what else is needed to complete your US application?

  • Your grades form Class 9,10 & 11. The 12th midterm results and predictive scores for 12th.
  • Multiple Essays 300 – 500 words. This is an area where the students struggle and spend a lot of time. Most essays are focused on trying to determine two things  
    • About who you really are
    • Why do you want to do the course that you have selected
  • The essay is a crucial part and some colleges like Stanford have 12 Essay Prompts while most have 1 – 2. This is in addition to a set of essays that you submit in Common App & Coalition App. If you are applying to 10 Colleges get ready to draft 15 – 20 essays. 
  • It will help you if you check out the essay prompts of previous years and practise during the summer vacations. Getting the 1st one right takes time – after that its get easier. Most students struggle with structure and saying what they want to say crisply. Please ensure that the essays are written by you and not by your parents / counsellors
  • You also need to have a nice profile that highlights all your accomplishments and hobbies over the years. Positions of leadership, Creativity, Teamwork & Collaborative engagements should be highlighted. Keep this ready well before submission days. All these documents will go through multiple iterations so ensure that you get the 1st draft ready early. 
  • You will also need recommendation letters from teachers / Others who have interacted with you.

How Important are Extra Curricular’s in your application

It helps if you have a passion that you have built and followed over the years. But doing something in a few months just to present it in the Application may not be a wise move. Remember the guys analysing your applications are smart and scan thousands of people every year – so don’t try to pull wool over their eyes. 

Inform your school well in advance

School Counsellors and Principals are busy people and this is additional work. When the application process starts there is a sudden rush. Keep your school and teachers informed well in advance – share with them the colleges you are applying to, deadlines and work with them to complete things on time. We did this, and our experience with NPS Koramangla was very smooth.  

How do you shortlist your colleges?

This is an important activity that takes time. About 2 hrs / college. Budget 30 – 45 days to complete this task. We tracked a few important parameters in an Excel sheet.

  • Shortlist your college based on its Global / US ranking and also your Subject curriculum ranking. For Eg, UC San Diego maybe ranked 42nd in the US but the Bio Chemistry department is ranked 6th. We used two sites to do this ranking: US News & Top University
  • Additional information can be available from the college website – so make a spreadsheet and track the following data points 
    • College Ranking / Subject ranking 
    • Type of University – Public / Private
    • Website 
    • Name of the course ( Also browse thru the content of the Course in detail)
    • SAT / ACT Cut off for last year admissions 
    • Total Cost (Tuitions+ Lodging) 
    • Acceptance rate 
    • Early Action / Early Decision deadline dates 
    • International Acceptance rate 
    • Degree (BS/BA Etc) 
    • Quarterly Vs Semester (Quarterly means more exams) 
    • Median Salary on graduation 
    • Additional Comments on Aid, Research Focus Vs Job, Internships, Undergrad – Phd etc are important points to consider

Making your shortlist

You need to define your criteria for making the shortlist. Basis that shortlist 10 – 12 Colleges and start looking for people who may have studied here or are studying currently to get deeper insights. From these you should target to apply to 7 – 10 colleges. 

  • Dream Colleges – The 2 – 3 Colleges that you think may be challenging but you would like to explore
  • Good Chance – the few colleges which meet all your criteria and may just be achievable
  • Safe Bet  – A few colleges which you know based on past precedents are an almost 100% admission zone 
  • Once you have made the final shortlist check out the additional information and the number of supplementary essays that that need to be written.  

The application process 

There are 3 Portals thru which you can access almost all the colleges in the US. 

  • Common Application
  • Coalition Application 
  • UC – Colleges in California 
  • Some colleges you can make the application directly  

80% of the information that needs to be accessed by the colleges are uploaded on these portals. This includes your marks, profile, recommendations, SAT/ACT scores etc. The only additional information could be supplementary essays. 

There are some colleges that are listed on both Common App and Coalition App, in such a case you can choose to apply thru any of the portals. 

What is Early Action (EA) & Early Decision (ED)

Early Action as the name signifies means you apply early and get to know if you are selected early. Not all colleges have EA. This is listed on their websites and you need to track this on your master XL. If your selected colleges have an EA option ensure that you submit. Thru this option you may get to know of your admission between Dec 15th and Jan 30th. Thats a big relief to students. 

Early Decision is tricky. If you get selected then that decision is binding – that’s your final college. So ED only if you are 100% sure that this is the college you want to go to. 

Is the online system 100% efficient?

Remember your application is getting triangulated from 3 systems – the Common App / Coalition App / UC portal, the College Board where the SAT Scores are housed and the University internal system. At times the college you have applied to may report that they have not received your SAT scores or your Mark sheets thru the Portal – lookout for these emails / dashboards on the college portal and act accordingly. You may have to Fedex information that they are unable to access thru the system. 

Once your application process is completed almost all the colleges will set you up with a personalised dashboard to track the status of your application. 

Whats the process of getting Aid / Scholarship? 

Financial aid in the US goes through 2 channels – the Federal government and colleges themselves. Getting aid through the federal government requires you to fill in The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), an option only available for American citizens (the student needs to be a US Citizen and both parents need to have their US SSN). In addition to this some colleges may require you to fill the CSS profile. 

Financial aid itself is furthered divided into need-based and need-blind. Need-blind admission means that the college will not take your financial status into consideration while deciding whether or not you will get in, whereas need-based schools take your financial situation into account. Need – blind is generally not an option for international students. 

In addition to aid, students can apply for scholarships to their respective colleges as well. For international students getting scholarships is rare. 

How expensive is it to apply for each college.

Each college application costs you about $75 – 80. In addition there is a nominal charge to link your SAT / ACT / TOEFL scores to each college.

A Note on Canada & UK 

The application process for Canada & UK is a lot simpler.

For Canada again you shortlist your colleges – the top 4 to which most Indians apply are UBC, U Toronto, Waterloo and McGill. These are highly rated universities. Most Canadian colleges need your SAT Score and school grades. There are usually no essays and recommendations (UBC is an exception). Many Canadian colleges offer you paid internship helping you to get job ready. Canada has a lot of positives – Affordable fees, Good Colleges, Co-op programs (work while you study), Residency permit etc – this has started attracting a lot of applications from India. The only challenge is the extreme cold and an economy that is not very hot for jobs.    

UK process is simpler. You don’t need SAT/ACT scores – you may need IELTS ( Like TOEFL to test proficiency in English). In addition to your grades and predictive you need to submit your statement of purpose & letters of recommendations.

Applications are made through a computerized national system known as Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS). Students must complete a single UCAS form which allows them a choice of six universities and courses so that they don’t have to make costly and time consuming multiple applications. UCAS forms should be ideally submitted before 15th December of the preceding year. 

For Oxford & Cambridge

Students must apply before 15th October of the year preceding their year of proposed entry. There are specific forms to be filled and sent to the universities. You cannot apply to both the colleges in the same academic year.

We owe our thanks to Neeraj & Swati from Spark Career Mentors for their guidance. ReWiser for their help in SAT/ACT preparations. Prithika Ramaiyer a Sr from school and a good friend who has joined U Michigan in Fall 2018 and Dayanand and Vishy for their valuable inputs. A big thank you to NPS Koramangla and Principal Jyotsna Nair for being so efficient and professional in helping us during the admission process. 

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