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Undergrad studies in America

by Rishabh Khosla

So you’re working feverishly towards completing your Twelfth Boards, your IB Exams, A-Levels – and now it’s time for you to look forward into the future and make that fateful decision: where do I go to college?

Do you join the mad frenzy of marks and ranking obsession to get a good place in an Indian University, or do you delve into the confusing, fluffy mess of applying to a foreign University?

I’m here to try to give you a perspective on undergraduate studies in the US. I’ll hopefully clear up some of the murky confusion and the ambiguity surrounding the style of education, the academics, the application process, the finances, the lifestyle, and other such common questions we usually face when applying abroad.

Why the US?
What exactly is an American education?
The Structure
Finding the Right School
How to Apply
What Schools Look For
Finances
About Me (Rishabh Khosla)

Why the US?
Simple: Having been exposed to the American system of education, I sincerely believe that this system offers an unparalleled experience.

The American University style of education presents not just an opportunity to learn about a specific subject or field; it gives you an opportunity to learn about your self and your own goals in life. An American university does not prepare you for a career, it prepares you for life. So much of your learning happens outside the classroom, with the people you meet, the professors you interact with personally, the activities you engage in. The liberality, openness, independence and support that an American education gives you are simply worth every second and penny that you spend.

What exactly is an American education?
When I told people I was going to the US to study, the first question they would ask me was, “So you’re going to do liberal arts?” Most people don’t understand that you don’t “do” liberal arts; it’s not a program, or a major, or a course of study: it’s a style of education – and by and large the American system of education is conducted in the liberal arts style.

Liberal arts has very little to do with the arts in act, liberal arts is centered around the idea that students at the undergraduate level should be allowed to experience and try out as many different fields as they want, to explore what they would want to do in life. So a liberal arts education would allow you to take courses in Economics, Psychology, the Natural Sciences, Political Science, Anthropology, Humanities, Literature, and of course, the Performing and Visual Arts.

An American undergraduate education, by and large, does not prepare you for a specific technical field such as a doctor or lawyer, but rather it equips you with the tools to be a success in any field you may choose to pursue later on.

However, that is not to say that it is not possible to receive some sort of professional qualification at the undergraduate level – engineering being the noticeable exception. There are many undergraduate institutions in the US which confer, upon graduation, a B-Tech, or an engineering degree. Some colleges also offer certification in fields such as teaching or nursing.

An American undergraduate education, by and large, does not prepare you for a specific technical field such as a doctor or lawyer, but rather it equips you with the tools to be a success in any field you may choose to pursue later on.

Another characteristic of the university system in the US is that colleges are very prone to “trends”; they often get excited by the “latest” educational ideas. Fortunately for us the latest educational idea that is very big in American universities is the idea of personal student-to-professor contact. All American universities these days, from big-name universities to smaller colleges tout their small class sizes, their accessible professors, and their programs to bring the faculty and students together.

Many classes are taught in small seminar discussion style rooms, with the professor and a maximum of 15 students around a table. Even lecture classes which are unavoidable at times for basic introductory courses are conducted with teaching groups that meet regularly outside lecture to clarify and discuss the lecture material. Most professors have open office hours where students can ask them questions about the material covered in class. It is also not uncommon to have professors inviting some of their students to their home, or out for a meal, or to collaborate on their independent research projects.

The other big draw for students to the US is the sheer intellectual and scholarly preeminence of US universities. The best minds in the world congregate at these institutions. To be a part of and take advantage of this continually evolving body of scholarship is an opportunity of a lifetime. These modern research institutions often give their students access to facilities and opportunities that you would simply not find anywhere else.

The philosophy of an American university is balance. So to balance the academic facilities they offer, American universities are committed to building the social environment of their campuses – they are committed to building a community. Bigger universities have literally hundreds of student groups – from journalism, to political action, to sports, to cultural; almost every interest group is represented on an American campus – and if it isn’t, it’s often easy to start such a group. Big name American schools pride themselves not just on the academic rigour of their curriculums, but on the all rounded achievements of their student bodies.

Speaking of curriculums, one final thing that sets American universities apart and that many Indian students who take Indian board exams are often not used to: students are expected to write papers, attend class, and participate in discussion throughout the year. Although most classes have final exams and mid-semester exams and tests, many classes assign papers that are written throughout the duration of the class, as well as having mandatory class attendance and participation. The purpose of this is to foster a healthy environment of year-round work, instead of two weeks of cramming at the end of the semester for final exams.


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The Structure
Prospective students are often confused by a whole range of confusing words and phrases that are used to describe American universities. For example, the difference between a college and a university is important. I have used them interchangeably until now, because words like college, university, and even school are commonly used interchangeably when talking about higher education.

However, specifically, there is a key difference: An American University includes a graduate school, with graduate programs for professional and master’s degrees. A college (or liberal arts college, as it is sometimes called), meanwhile is specifically for undergraduate students who wish to receive bachelor’s degrees. Universities have within them an undergraduate section, sometimes called its “college”, which is administratively distinct from its graduate schools.

Universities are generally bigger, and the facilities and faculty are often shared between its undergraduates and graduate students. As a consequence, undergraduates at universities often have access to better and more world class facilities, but there is a trade off. In undergraduate-only colleges, professors and facilities are reserved exclusively for the undergraduate population, and are therefore more accessible.

The other big draw for students to the US is the sheer intellectual and scholarly preeminence of US universities. The best minds in the world congregate at these institutions, and to be a part of and take advantage of this continually evolving body of scholarship is a lifetime opportunity.

The difference between a private and public school is important for some. A public or ‘state’ school is one that is funded by the government. Private universities of course, are not. Public and Private universities vary greatly, and it is hard to generalize, but a couple of the key differences are: 1) public schools tend to be much larger and 2) they tend to be less diverse as they usually have a quota to fulfill for students who come from within the state.

Lastly, an American undergraduate degree, unlike those in India (and England and Australia), takes 4 years instead of 3. Following their undergraduate education or their “college”, American students may then pursue a master’s degree at a graduate school, which is what we refer to as post graduation.

Now lets discuss the actual structure of a curriculum within a liberal arts college or a college within a university system. Students who wish to pursue a liberal arts degree (ie. not engineering, or architecture or something similarly technical), the process is relatively similar. Most students are required, as per the liberal arts philosophy, to fulfill certain “core” requirements, which in fact require students to experience as many different fields as possible.

You will spend the first two years fulfilling these requirements and deciding what field you want to be in. By the third year, a student is required to declare a “major”, which is their intended concentration, such as Literature, economics, theater, mathematics, etc. Students then have to take a certain number of classes that are within that major, and depending on the major, they may have to write a senior thesis, or fulfill some other requirements. Students then graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree, having majored in a specific field. There is no major such as “liberal arts”.

Students who wish to pursue a more technical approach, and are more certain of their career can apply to a specific school in the undergraduate program, but outside the liberal arts program. The most common technical undergrad fields include teaching, business, engineering, architecture, and pre-medicine. Such undergrad schools can only be found in universities, and not all may be available in each university.

Within the technical degrees it is important to understand that not all of these will qualify a student to be a practicing professional. Only the engineering degree will certify you as an engineer. Architecture and teaching will, in some cases, allow you to teach and design, depending on the employer. A business or pre-business degree at the undergraduate level will not result in an MBA, but it might be an added advantage when applying to business school at the graduate level.

Pre-medical degrees will certainly not allow you to become a practicing physician, but it is a requirement for med schools. Finally, to become a practicing lawyer, there is often no undergraduate preparation for law, but rather, prospective graduate law school students are sometimes encouraged to take relevant majors, such as history, or political science at the undergraduate level.


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Finding the Right School
I won’t spend too much time in this section as there have been entire books written about this subject, and there is no end to the exhaustive advice I can give you about choosing the right school. However, one of the first things you need to do when starting your search, it to narrow your choices by figuring out the basic characteristics of your preferred school.

You need to think first of all, whether you want to go to a liberal arts college or a large research university (you should have some idea of the pros and cons of both by now). You then need to think about the location in the US. The weather in the US varies greatly from region to region. The culture and experience in different regions (East Coast, West Coast, Mid-West) varies a lot. You also need to ask yourself whether you want to be on an urban, suburban, or rural campus. Again the experience varies greatly.

An urban campus will have access to all the resources of a large city, but this sometimes leads to urban campuses that do not have a sense of community within the school. On a rural campus, meanwhile, often the only people you will interact with are students at the school. Suburban campuses are somewhat a cross between the two. Of course, the situation varies entirely from campus to campus, and you can definitely find urban campuses in which there is a strong sense of community, etc. You also need to get some idea of the size of the school you’re looking at. American universities vary in size from under 1,000 students, to over 50,000. The size of the campus greatly affects the experience. They are of course other ways to narrow the universities you’re looking at, such as through the kinds of academic programs they offer, the quality of their facilities, and other such considerations. What has worked best for me in the past however, is to shortlist the descriptive, physical characteristics of a school that I would like, and then from there, match my preferences to the best ranked schools that I can realistically expect to get into.

What has worked best for me in the past however, is to shortlist the descriptive, physical characteristics of a school that I would like, and then from there, match my preferences to the best ranked schools that I can realistically expect to get into.

When I say use university rankings, I don’t mean allow that to be the sole deciding factor in your college decision, because choosing a college in the US is so much more holistic than its academic ranking. What you should do is use the rankings as a rough guide for yourself to make sure you are applying to schools that you can realistically expect to get into, without selling yourself short and applying to schools that may not be as academically rigorous as you would like.

The rankings are generated by a combination of characteristics of the schools: the academic rigour of the curriculum, the quality of the students (their grades, their test scores, etc.), the facilities it has, the eminence of its professors, how hard it is to get into (as more students wish to go there and the university gets the pick of the best and brightest students). So generally the higher on the rankings, the better it is academically.

When this information matches with your own preferences for a school, you will move closer to finding the right school for yourself. (There are many rankings and guides for colleges on the internet, but one of the most well known is the US News website: www.usnews.com/ usnews/edu/college/rankings/rankindex_brief.php)

Once you have narrowed your list and short-listed schools that you would be interested in, be sure to continue your research. Visit each school’s website to learn more about them and the programs and aspects of community life that you’re interested in. Coming from abroad, it is important to research the programs and support available for International Students. Find out how many international students there are on campus. Are there separate orientations for international students? Is there an international student organization or an international student center? This will help you make a further final cut in your decisions.

Finally to have your “college list” finalized, use the rankings once more as a guide to try to find a good balance of schools between those you have a long shot in getting into (reach), those you have a good chance of getting into (match), and one or two which you will definitely get into (safety). This is probably the most challenging and tricky part, since the university application process is so subjective, it’s hard to say what you might get into or what you definitely will get into.

My best suggestion is to realistically look at the kind of candidate you are (I will discuss this later), look at the acceptance rates of the schools, and the types of students they accept (average test scores and class rank of admitted students), as well as asking around; you undoubtedly “know someone who knows someone” who goes to school in the US, so find out how challenging the application process for specific places are.


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How to Apply
For most colleges in the US, the application process for admission to a Fall (September) term begins in the fall of the previous year. The application deadlines are usually at the end of December the previous year. There are usually two types of applications to a school: regular decision and early decision.

Regular Decision is the later application in which you can apply to a school in late December and receive a response Spring of the following year. Regular Decision is non-binding – that is, you can apply to several schools and choose between the offers they give you freely in the Spring. Early decision is more complicated and the specifics vary from school to school, so be sure to inquire about the exact process for each school.

The basic idea behind early decision is that if there is a school that you are absolutely set on going to, you can apply there early and get their response sometime in early December. However, with most early programs, if you get into the school, you are obliged to go there – your acceptance is binding.

However, the basic idea behind early decision is that if there is a school that you are absolutely set on going to, you can apply there early and get their response sometime in early December. However, with most early programs, if you get into the school, you are obliged to go there – your acceptance is binding. Some schools have variations on this called early action, which is a non-binding version of early decision – again read the specifics of the early action programs if you choose to apply early action. There are many pros and cons of early decision, and you should consider all your options before deciding to apply early or regular.

Once you have decided whether to apply early or regular, you should visit each college’s website to determine the specific requirements they have for admission. Many schools nowadays have an online application. College applications are usually in two parts:

1) The basic information and the essays section (this is the part that can usually be sent online) and
2) The documentation section, which includes your transcripts, recommendations, and other official information (this must be sent by post as it requires signatures, stamps, and seals for authenticity). Many schools also use what is called the common application (www.commonapp.org). This is a standard format application which counts as the first part of your application which I described above.

In general, the typical college will ask for the following things: Basic biographical information, a transcript for high school, any predicted grades for board exams you might be taking, 1 or more essays, a description of your school and the courses offered by it (your school counselor usually prepares this), a letter of recommendation from your school counselor, one or two letters of recommendation from your teachers, a list of your activities in high school, SAT 1 scores, 2 or more SAT 2 scores, proof of English proficiency, and proof of finances (I will discuss this later). As this is a lot of things to prepare for, and different colleges will have different requirements, you should start getting organized early, to firefight unexpected surprises later on.


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What Schools Look For
So, what is the admissions officer for when he/she reads your application? What makes the difference between an acceptance and a rejection? Again, there have been countless books written on the subject, and everyone has their own opinion on how colleges come to the decisions they do. However, I have some simple and general advice, something that worked for me, and something you should keep in mind throughout the application process: Colleges look for students who can and have challenged themselves, for students who demonstrate passion, and for students who they believe will make maximum use of the resources the college offers. So what does this all mean, and more importantly, how do colleges actually figure all these things out from your application?

Colleges look for students who can and have challenged themselves:
How much you challenge yourself becomes clear when your admissions officer compares the classes that are on offer in your school, and the classes that you took. Colleges prefer that you take harder classes above scoring well in them. So they would prefer that you would take a higher level maths course and get an 82% instead of a lower level maths course and get a 98%.

Colleges look for students who can and have challenged themselves, for students who demonstrate passion, and for students who they believe will make maximum use of the resources the college offers.

Colleges look for students who demonstrate passion:
Colleges want passionate and driven people. They want to be the college that educated national politicians, CEOs of multinationals, leaders in the arts etc. Therefore they need to be able to see that you’re worth it. The only chance you get to show them your passion is through your application, since they never meet you face to face (except in the case of an interview).

What you need to do is make sure that your application is a reflection of yourself. It should show you as a complete person; your essays, resume (list of activities), your recommendations, and even the classes you take, should all paint the same picture of you as a person. Think of it as if you’re trying to tell a story – the story of you as a person. So everything about the story has to be consistent and clear.

Your resume should reflect how you have developed your interests in a few areas (not just superficial activities which span a whole range of experiences, which are meaningless to you). Your essay should further build on the story that you begin to create with your resume (it doesn’t have to be about your activities, but it has to be consistent with what you are passionate about). Your recommendations then should corroborate the rest of you story, basically telling it from the perspective of an outsider.

Colleges look for students who will make maximum use of their resources:
Through challenging yourself academically, and getting involved with your interests outside school, you will demonstrate to colleges that you go out and get the things that you want. Colleges want to see that you will bring something to their community, and make it more vibrant, lively, interesting, and driven.

In general, your SAT scores and grades will not guarantee that you will get into the college of your choice, however if they are well below the expected levels, they will keep you out.

Practically speaking however, colleges are looking at the few pieces of information that you send about them, your transcripts, you resumes, your essays, your recommendations, and your standardized test scores.

Most colleges nowadays claim to use a holistic process to take into account all the information. In other words, there is no set formula – a specific GPA or SAT score on which they may reject you outright – rather they will take the time to evaluate all your strengths as fairly as they can. In general, your SAT scores and grades will not guarantee that you will get into the college of your choice, however if they are well below the expected levels, they will keep you out.

For more details on how colleges evaluate the materials prospective students send them, you should visit the colleges website, or contact the admissions office directly, as practices vary from school to school.


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Finances
Attending college in America is out of the question for many people primarily because of the financial considerations. Fortunately for dedicated students, there are many opportunities for scholarships, grants, working, and loans that will make studying in the US less financially daunting.

It is important to know that most colleges in the US don’t offer generous packages of financial aid to international students. Funds available for foreign nationals are often limited. There are generally two types of financial aid that are available: Need-based and merit-based. Need based is the idea that the college will attempt to fund your education if your family is unable to fund your education. Basically, they will attempt to pay for what you cannot afford. The catch is the college financial aid office often disagrees with what you can or can’t afford. This is especially true again for international students, where colleges are particularly frugal with handing out aid.

Merit based aid is basically scholarship money. These include academic scholarships for talented students, or athletic scholarships, or other kinds of scholarships. Again since merit scholarships might be limited only to domestic applicants, you might have to be especially committed research scholarships not necessarily associated with the school (run an internet search for scholarship for undergraduate study in the US).

Another term you might come across is need-blind. If a school has a need blind application process that means that they do not consider your financial status when they are actually reviewing your application (ie, your essays, your recommendations, grades, etc). The admissions office will make its decision independent of financial considerations. Once they choose to accept you, they will then pass on your file to an independent financial aid office, which will then make you an offer of aid based on needs and any other scholarships you might apply for. However, very few schools in the US are need blind for international students. Currently, among Ivy league colleges, only Harvard, Princeton and Yale offer ‘need blind’ admissions to foreign applicants. These policies may change from year to year – check when applying.

Finances and Financial Aid is probably the area of greatest variation amongst schools. This is why I will not say more here. I recommend then, that you visit the websites of the schools that you’re applying to and navigate through their financial aid pages. Most schools have extensive information about this on their websites. Also remember, that applications for financial aid involve their own sets of forms and deadlines.


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About Me
I just wanted to tell you a little bit about myself so that you would know where my experience on this topic comes from. I’m currently a Freshman (Year 1) Student at Yale University’s undergraduate college of Arts and Sciences. I am a prospective Political Science Major. I have lived abroad for many years (in Malaysia, Singapore and Japan), and have attended American style schools in these places.

I returned to India for high school (9 – 12) at the American School of Bombay. My experience in the American system has given me a great appreciation for the style of American education. University in the US was just a natural continuation of my education in the American system. I did however attend Cathedral School in Bombay until the 3rd standard. I have had many friends who remained in the Indian system with whom I have been able to compare and contrast my experience.

When it was time for me to apply to university, I first got the chance to visit a lot of schools in the US the summer before applications were due. I attended the walking tours and information sessions at these schools, and this gave a me a strong sense of what American schools pride themselves on, and what kinds of things I should look for when applying to universities. Of course, then there were the applications itself, which gave me further opportunity to familiarize myself with all the procedure and details of the application process. At Yale, I have continued my involvement with the university application process. I tutor high school seniors in New Haven in the techniques they should use when applying to college. I am also involved with the admissions office at Yale with their International Ambassador program, with which in my winter break, I will travel to several schools in Bombay and talk to students about applying to Yale.

I do hope this (very long) article has helped in clearing up some of the confusion you may have had about studying abroad. I hope that you now have the confidence and inspiration to begin your own college search, and eventually put together an application. I wish you all luck and success in your further studies.


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