Dear fellow Aksharites,
Warm greetings! It is your senior, Kushagra, this side. I graduated from Akshara in April 2019 and will be joining the University of Toronto in the fall. I’d like to share some experiences and insights regarding applying to universities and colleges outside of India. I mainly focused on institutions based in the North American continent, but please remember that countries and their institutions have their own guidelines for applicants from other countries, which should be read very carefully. Additionally, many students decide to take the help of a counsellor while applying. It definitely helps to do so, but be wary of the heavy costs involved in that route.
Now, let’s examine the factors which lead to a successful application.
- The Why Factor:
You must be extremely clear on WHY you want to pursue an education abroad. This is the statement which ultimately keep you going through the tough and gruelling process of applying, as you’ll see below. This “why” statement should also reflect in your essays, which are an integral part of your applications as well.
If you are aiming for universities that rank amongst the top institutions in the world (e.g. Ivy league, OxBridge), you definitely need to have top-notch academics. Work a little harder each time to maintain your grades. Beware of the academic drop that students generally face while in 11th grade.
Colleges in North America generally ask for 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade’s half yearly transcript as a predictor of future academic success. Basically, you want to ensure that you are maintaining a rising or steady graph of A1s throughout these 4 years.
Here is where Indian students generally get confused on what to do. Due to academic pressure from 9th onwards, we usually start drifting away from all our hobbies. This is something you want to avoid, as it can have a detrimental effect on your applications. Extracurriculars are as important as your academics. This is because extracurricular activities are usually built in the school system abroad. To compensate for this, take one or two things that you are passionate about, and continue them in a serious and formal manner.
For example, I had been learning and practising on the piano for 14 years when I applied. I also had a waste-management related start-up in which some governments had expressed their interest.
Internships can be a very viable way to fulfil this requirement. For example, if you are medically inclined, try interning at a hospital. They are usually receptive to this type of help.
Just like academics, the key here is to be consistent and ever improving.
There are numerous exams which you can take to prove your academic proficiency. The main exam that you take will be the SAT or the ACT. Both are equally prevalent. However, some colleges may accept one and not the other. Please read their guidelines very carefully. These exams usually test your English and Mathematics skills. There is also an essay writing section on these exams which is optional and may or may not be required by your college.
The second type of test you will be taking is called the SAT subject tests. These are subject specific tests which can greatly boost your application and, in some cases, are even required by universities. It is recommended that you take at least 2-3 subject tests, with one being in Math and one in a science subject.
The third type of tests you will come across are called AP tests. These are subject specific also but differ from SAT subject tests in the sense that they are college-level tests. This means that they test material which is taught in college. These tests greatly boost your application as they convey that you are ready for a college-level education. These tests can also grant you credits in some subjects, which means that you might not have to take courses at university which overlap with these tests in terms of syllabus. This can bring down college costs and even speed up your degree.
In my case, I took 9 exams spread out over 3 years. It goes without saying that a lot of planning will be needed here, as exam syllabuses may not align to what is being taught at school.
Essays are the most important part your entire application. They allow the admission officers to judge your mindset and decide whether you are a good “fit” for the college. There is usually a main essay which is sent to all the universities you have applied to. Naturally, you’ll want to display your best self. The available prompts for the main essay is released in February every year, which gives you ~10 months to work on it. Please make use of this time. In addition to that, universities may or may not ask for additional essays. Students have chosen to write about almost everything imaginable. Try searching up “<Your college name> + successful essays” on the internet for some examples. Many students choose to invest in professional editorial services for this, as did I.
- Letters of Recommendation
This is another tremendously important part of your application. Many colleges ask for at least 2 letters of recommendation from academic teachers. They might also ask for letters from non-academic mentors. This is radically different from the type of LORs we expect to receive and submit in India. Try searching for “successful recommendation letters for US undergraduate programs” to get an idea of the format and the word count expected.
Please get started on these early on, to give teachers some room to wok with you on them and make the process less stressful for everyone. I’d recommend asking for LOR’s in mid-August for the October (Early action/decision) and December(regular) deadlines.
LORs are basically meant to show the colleges that your teachers approve of your mindset, behaviour and performance in class. They can also mention some of your larger achievements and projects.
These are just some of the aspect of applying to universities outside of India. Accidents and emergencies do happen, so a lot of planning is required before undertaking this venture. I’d personally recommend getting all your testing out of the way in 9th and 10th, so that you have room to focus on your extra-curriculars and school studies in 11th and 12th, which are much more important.
As I’ve mentioned before, it is a tough process gathering all the required qualifications and documents. It is easy to get demotivated and depressed in between. Just remember your “why” statement and know that you will definitely be rewarded for your efforts in late March/Early April, which is when the application cycle ends,and colleges release their decisions.
If you are ever in doubt, Google is your best friend and please try to stick to official sources only, instead of relying on someone’s opinion. Don’t hesitate to reach out to colleges via phone or email. They are usually very warm and helpful with students looking to apply.
Wishing everyone all the best!
Aksharite batch of 2018