Monday, 30th October 2017

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Be a Frosh

That is what first-year college students are called in the US. Sonali Mohan tells you how to win the undergraduate admission game

  • Published 29.10.18, 10:37 PM
  • Updated 29.10.18, 10:37 PM
  • 4 mins read
Indians comprise the second largest international student community in the US, both among postgraduates as well as undergraduates. Shutterstock

Students from India have, historically, dominated the postgraduate landscape in the US. In the last few years, however, there has been a steady stream of students heading for American shores to pursue their undergraduate degree. Despite the recent political uncertainty, Indians comprise the second largest international student community in the US, both among postgraduates as well as undergraduates. And that is an endorsement of the US academic system.

It is common knowledge that the US has a wide spectrum of world renowned institutions. But the uniqueness of US education lies in the fact that its four-year undergraduate programme —compared to India and most parts of the world — has flexibility and emphasises the pursuit of knowledge as opposed to a just a degree. Art, music, sports, theatre and writing are not mutually exclusive and independent areas of study but can be combined with the study of Science, Mathematics, Social Science and literature. There are undergraduate programmes on offer across more than 900 fields of study in 4,000 universities. The best part is you can apply to a college declaring your preferred major (subject) as undecided. In fact, the most popular major in the first year in many colleges is “Undecided”. There are no straitjacket streams of Commerce, Science or Arts.

A high school student in India is usually under a lot of pressure, especially if there is a conflict between conventional choices and his or her passion. A brilliant child may be expected to take up Science or Economics as opposed to creative writing or gender studies, or even dance — in most cases, the latter may not even be available in colleges here. An 18-year-old may not always be sure of what he or she wants, and the US system gives the liberty to adapt, combine and, if necessary, change many of his or her choices. The best part is that the applicant gets his admission results by end-March, before the board exams end and the numerous entrance exams start. Even if your child is contemplating acing one of the entrances in India, a secure admission is a real boost to his or her confidence.

As you start researching the admission process, or talk to an admission advisor, you will encounter unfamiliar, and at times confusing, terminology. Here, I decode some of them. Students are referred to by their years –first-year students are called Frosh, second year Sophomores, third-year students are called Juniors and fourth years Seniors. University, institute, college and school are often interchangeable terms — you can graduate from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rhode Island School of Design or Wellesley College. Major is another term that causes confusion — an Indian equivalent would be the “Honours” subject or area of specialisation. Typically, a student has to declare his major by the end of his second year.

Perhaps the biggest misconception I have encountered is of the term Liberal Arts. To many, it implies an education in Arts. In reality, Liberal Arts is the shortened form of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, colloquially shortened to Liberal Arts College. A liberal arts college is usually smaller in size, a residential experience may be mandatory — the students are exposed and encouraged to participate in a variety of cultural, intellectual and social activities. Its curriculum is holistic, covering a wide variety of subjects from the fields of humanities, arts, social sciences and physical sciences. The class sizes are normally small with an emphasis on dialogue, debate and classroom interaction. The entire US undergraduate experience will have liberal doses of the above — smaller the college, greater the emphasis on this pattern of learning.

The US undergraduate experience is pocket-heavy. However, there is some amount of financial aid or scholarships woven into the academic system. It is beneficiary if a student is aware of the eligibility criteria much in advance so that he or she can work towards fulfilling it.

Unlike college admissions in India that are based on a single examination, the US admission process takes a holistic view of the applicant and is multi-layered. It therefore requires research and some amount of pre-planning. The application form takes into account an applicant’s journey from Class IX onwards but looks beyond just academics. It’s an opportunity to showcase an applicant’s academic strengths, extracurricular activities, leadership skills and community initiative. As the Dean of Admissions of an Ivy League college remarked, “I know his academic strengths, but I am more concerned about whether he is the right kind of person who could live in our dorms.”

So what are the components of an application?

It stands on four pillars of equal weightage — the Scholastic Aptitude Test popularly known as SAT, American College Testing (ACT) and English Language Tests; school grades and board examinations from classes IX to XII; extracurricular profile which includes demonstrated interest in performing arts, sports, leadership initiatives, community service and writing skills via the essay. Many of you would have been unknowingly strengthening your profile over the last four years. The music or dance examinations you have taken; the times you represented your school in sports or theatre, quizzing and MUNs; the charity initiatives you may have undertaken via the Interact club; the leadership post you have been vying for — school captain, house captain, economics society president — all count and give an integrated portrayal of your persona. And if you haven’t been doing any of this, it is time to start.

A US college gives us the opportunity to look within and connect with our potential. Isn’t that what education is meant to be?

  • The writer has co-authored The Updated Comprehensive Step-by-step Guide to US Undergraduate Admissions