We are in the midst of exam season and soon many students will start thinking of going to college. It is a period of stress and excitement for parents and students alike as they chalk out their plans for the future. It is no secret that lakhs of students are going to go abroad for their studies. This article highlights some of the more frequently asked questions about studies abroad and what does it entail. US continues to be the biggest destination and admission to colleges there would be the main focus of the article.

Q. Where I should go to college – US, UK, Canada, Europe?

Ans. Most of Europe is generally in a tough place besides Germany. UK is also struggling due to BREXIT uncertainty and firms are fleeing to other parts of Europe. However, the bigger issue is getting a work Visa following your studies. All these countries in Europe welcome students since you are contributing to the economy. International students will be allowed to stay in the UK for two years after graduation to find a job, under new proposals announced by the Home Office. The move reverses a decision made in 2012 by then-Home Secretary Theresa May that forced overseas students to leave four months after finishing a degree. This should boost the number of applications to the UK from this year. As an international student studying in Canada, you are considered a temporary student. The Canadian government expects that you will leave Canada once you have completed your studies unless you apply for PR or a work permit. Getting these is relatively easier than in US or UK.

This brings me to the destination I recommend- the US. It is the biggest economy in the world and has by far the best resources/people in the field you want to study. Furthermore, it is more welcoming of foreign students and also the opportunities are vast. In the US, you have 1 year to 3 year (for STEM subjects) to find a job after you graduate. However, it is to be noted that in general the wave of nationalism that we are witnessing is a global phenomenon and has made it more challenging to continue in these countries post your education.

Q. What colleges should I apply to and what should be my major?

Ans. I will state the obvious -Go for a major which you are passionate about because you will be good at it! However, be aware of what is in demand. If you look at India today, almost 90% or greater jobs are in technology, data analytics/AI and consulting. Most of their revenues are coming from overseas. The world is increasingly gravitating towards expertise rather than a general degree. A technical/quantitative skillset will only help you in your job search after you graduate. Even a History major should learn some technical skills which will make them stand out.

Regarding choices of colleges, it is important to consider a few things. Remember there are thousands of schools/boards in the world. In India, you have primarily CBSE, ICSC and the newer IB. Admissions committees generally have a very hard time determining which students are better or worse from a particular board. There are multitudes of schools whose performance vary even under the same board. So, what they tend to do is that as long as you are in top 10%-20% of your class, the very best colleges are satisfied. However, they pay a considerable attention to your standardized tests like SAT/ACT. The reason is quite simple it is the same for EVERYONE regardless of what board/country you come from. So, the first step is to see whether your application is competitive for your dream college. What makes a good SAT score for you personally, depends on the schools you are interested in? Every school publishes a 75% percentile score in SAT which means that 75% of the students who got admitted were below that score. If you are in the 75% percentile ranking you are competitive for that school provided the rest of your application supports it.

Q. Getting admission is relatively easy but scholarship needs serious work.

Ans. In 2017, applications to colleges dropped by 3-4% even at the very top universities. The reason being that spending $200,000 for a college degree is simply not worth it for many people. In the US, student loan debt is in trillions of dollars as they are having a hard time paying their loans. The jobs they are getting is simply not paying enough. Is it possible to get a scholarship? Absolutely! Here I am going to start using the term – Extreme Resumes. All the very top schools and students wanting scholarship have to have a resume which truly stands out. It is hard to create an extreme resume – it needs serious preparation over a period of time. Unfortunately, most people in India do not understand the concept. Your resume should have one to two things which truly stands out. It should impress not only the admission committee but professors in the department you want to major in. Good grades, Good SAT/ACT scores, being part of council, debate teams, blogs, AP courses all help but you have to go a step higher.

I am of the opinion that everyone is capable of getting a scholarship not necessarily the brightest but rather the smarter kids who go about it in an organized fashion and work on putting substantive additions to their resume. The application process is intense and if you are smart about it than most of your work on getting a scholarship should already be done. In other words, your application should be a mere formality.

Q. Don’t be jack of many things but rather a master of one or two.

Ans. A common mistake people make is that they have their kids do many things, play a musical instrument, debates, sports, social causes etc. There is nothing wrong with doing all these things and is rather commendable. However, what is more important is that you excel at one or two things. If you claim you are great at all these things- admissions committee know that is only possible by Bollywood heroes! Colleges want to see you go very deep in one or two areas at the highest possible level!

Q. When should I start preparing for college admissions?

Ans. Ideally, you should start preparing your resume by the time you are in 10th grade or even earlier. This will give you ample time to focus in doing one or two things exceptionally well. This is besides getting good grades, good SAT/ACT scores, AP courses …. I never said this is going to be easy!

Q. No sat scores, super scores or just one sat score which is preferred?

Ans. From this year, University of Chicago which is a top school has said that they do not require a SAT score. However, I maintain that they are very important. A recent phenomenon has been the concept of super scores where they add your best math + English scores from two or more tests. While many schools say they accept super scores, it is my opinion that if you get a higher super score than you should be able to get it in a single test. Your preparation needs improvement! A super score might be sufficient to get admission but for scholarship it might not be enough. In terms of importance, One SAT score > Super score > No SAT score

Q: What is a Good Sat score, Average Sat score or Bad Sat score?

Ans. It all depends on your field of study and target college. The rule of thumb is that your target college should have admitted 75% percentile of the students near your SAT score. Some field of study require higher scores. Computer science is a hot area to study and Foreign languages or History is not. Colleges report average scores so there is some amount of variability among your field of study.

Q. Is partial financial aid possible?

Ans. Absolutely. It all depends on your resume and approach to application. The smarter candidates who go about it the right way have a great chance.

Q. What is need based financial aid as opposed to merit based?

Ans. Based on your income, it is possible to get need based financial aid. For example, if your earning is less than $48000 there are good possibilities. You will have to file ITR returns in the applications.

Q. Beware of colleges advertising 100% job placement after graduation

Ans. When colleges advertise like that as many do, it makes me wary. There are many details missing. First of all, how has been the placement of foreign students versus the citizens of that country. None of the details are provided. What kind of jobs are the students doing? What about foreign students? Are they the one going to graduate school.

Q. Are scholarships available for Indian citizens to study abroad?

Ans. Absolutely, it depends upon your field of study and destination.

Q. Scholarship is harder in undergraduate and gets easier in graduate school. Is it possible to get scholarship for MBA?

Ans. It is a fact that getting a scholarship for undergraduate is harder than in graduate school. Although universally, MBA schools don’t provide scholarship. However, there are ways of getting around that and spend no money for MBA. For that you got to have a solid academic background and good GMAT scores and business/economics major background.

Q. Is it possible to improve my sat scores when my first diagnostic test was poor?

Ans. It is indeed possible to improve your SAT scores by 200 to 300 points. However, you need to be very analytical and thorough. Identifying your weak points and only practicing on actual SAT questions. Do yourself a favor and meticulously plan and work at improving your score for at least 12-18 months. There is no substitute for hard work.

Q. What should I take SAT or ACT?

Ans. They are mostly equivalent in terms of admissions. ACT is more science focused in the reading sections and has a lesser weightage on MATH (~30%) compared to (50%) in SAT. Take a diagnostic for each and see which one you are most comfortable.

Q. Are only the Ivy leagues schools or top name colleges the best to go or any school in top 100 is good?

Ans. This is a very important question. A big-name college gives you advantages. However, if you are planning to go to graduate school then the advantage is not that much. Remember it is much easier to get into a big-name college in graduate school with scholarship than undergraduate. The pool is much smaller for students applying. If you get admission to an Ivy league school with no financial aid and a top 50 college with financial aid. I would prefer to go to the Top 50 College. After finishing your undergraduate, go to graduate school with scholarship at a top school. Any top 100 college in the US is better than what you get in India. The professors are better, the altitude is better and resources are great. Also, your skill set that you bring to the table is important. Look at the consulting companies in India, they are hired on a contract basis to some of the best companies in the world. There employees have graduated from ordinary colleges in India but have much desired skill set. Therefore, what you bring to the table as an individual is important.

Q. What should be my timeline for college admissions?

Ans. Plan on taking SAT/ACT by middle or end of 11th grade. Devote part of 11th grade and 12th grade for subject SAT. Plan to take at least 6 AP courses by grade 12. Colleges want to see you can handle an extreme work load and be challenged. In the 10th grade, work on optimizing SAT scores and create an extreme resume. The college application process is intense and you have to write an essay, extended essay etc. Start planning your essays early with the theme of what makes you unique and why you want to pursue the field of study. Good writing is an art and takes time. So the more planning you do and the more time you spend on it the better it will get. Identify one or two areas to excel in. It is a 2-2.5-year process and if you are focused and work hard, the reward is a free education!

Q. How does the visa system work in the US?

Ans. After you get admission, you have to get a student visa (F1) from the consulate. The better the college the easier it is to get the visa. If you are paying your way through college, your financials should be in order otherwise you might get a rejection. After the election of Trump and the winds blowing in Europe, the Visa getting process has become more challenging. However, if you have a scholarship than you should have no issues getting a student Visa. You get a year or 3 years (STEM subjects) of practical training upon graduation and you can work wherever you want – no questions asked. However, after that that period if a company hires you than they have to sponsor you for an H1 B visa. Based on some anecdotal data, the current environment of getting an HIB visa is getting harder. You can hold an H1B Visa for years till your company sponsors you for a green card.

(Author Pankaj Jha is the founder of makeageek.com. He works closely with schools, teachers and students to help them achieve their potential. Views expressed here are personal.)

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