The IvyAchievement Counselors’ Guide to Indian College Applicants is meant for college admissions professionals, Indian parents and students, high-school counselors, and anyone curious about how and why Indian students come to the United States and Canada. It contains material already familiar to each audience, but from the perspective of an American counselor who has spent a great deal of time in India. Our founder and CEO Benjamin Stern spent May through July 2016 and November 2016 through February 2017 in India, getting to know Indian college applicants and their families.
Welcome to the third and (for now) final installment of our IvyAchievement Counselors’ Guide to Indian College Applicants! In Part I of the Guide, I discussed why Indian families send their kids abroad. In Part II, I summarized the main considerations and concerns parents and students have when choosing schools in the United States and Canada.
India, like the United States, Canada, and UK, has public (government) and private schools. (Confusingly for Americans, the most prominent chain of private schools in India is called “Delhi Public School,” which is modeled after British “public schools,” elite private schools that admit students of different religions and regional origins.) Government schools are severely underfunded and very rarely do students from government schools apply to college abroad. Private schools in India are relatively inexpensive compared to those in the West, charging a few thousand dollars per year. As in the West, India has all-boys, all-girls, and co-ed schools, and some schools are religiously affiliated (many Muslim or Christian). Many schools and chains are started by enterprising individuals. Examples include the Jayshree Periwal International School in Lucknow—named after the founder and current director—and the Strawberry Fields School in Chandigarh—named after the Beatles song (really).
In India, high school is four years, as it is in most of the United States. High schools’ curricula are structured around state, national, or international examinations, which are held after 10th grade and 12th grade. National exams include those administered by the quasi-governmental Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) in 10th and 12th grades and the private Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations, which awards the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) in 10th and the Indian School Certificate (ISC) in 12th. Most states also have their own boards of education; smaller states may be part of a regional board.
International exams include the Cambridge-sanctioned International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) in 10th and International Baccalaureate (IB) in 12th, which are also offered in the United States and Canada. A few schools also offer Cambridge AS and A-levels curriculum for 11th and 12th grades.
The prevalence of national or state curricula varies from city to city. For example, in Mumbai, most top private schools follow the Maharashtra state curriculum, whereas in Delhi, most follow the CBSE curriculum.
Students can take any combination of 10th and 12th grade boards, and students often switch schools after two years. The most common among my clients are CBSE for both, ICSE+ISC, and CBSE+IB. Indian students living abroad generally take IGCSE and A/AS-levels or IB. Formerly, an international version of the CBSE curriculum (iCBSE) was offered, but this program has been terminated. Indian students generally do not participate in the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP).
The CBSE allows students to select one of several “streams” for a two-year 11th and 12th curriculum: Sciences, Commerce, Humanities (sometimes called Liberal Arts), and Agriculture. Few schools that send kids abroad offer the Agriculture stream, and some do not even offer Humanities/Liberal Arts. The availability of these streams to students depends on their performance on their 10th grade board exams. Each stream has minimum requirements in related subjects (for example, to be able to select the Science stream, students must perform well on their science and math subject board exams). Although there are provisions in the CBSE regulations for students to create their own stream with approval, schools almost never allow this.
Commerce and Humanities students face problems in United States and Canadian college admissions because they don’t take any sciences in 11th or 12th grade, which colleges generally prefer. Some Humanities students don’t even take math in 11th or 12th, although their 10th grade math is fairly advanced compared to most Americans’ (but still short of what is required on the SAT Math I Subject Test). Conversely, Science-stream students don’t take any social sciences.
CBSE students have the option to take the board exam for a sixth subject without taking a class. The best five board scores count toward their average. It is very rare that students perform better on their sixth subject exam than on any of their other five.
Commerce students take classes such as business studies, economics, and accountancy—courses most American high schoolers do not. However, other than math, the Commerce stream does not cover any SAT Subject Tests syllabi. Because several colleges (including a few Ivy League schools) require two SAT Subject Tests, Commerce students must study an additional subject. English Literature seems to be the most popular, followed by World History. I encourage students to consider the American History SAT Subject Test in order to become acquainted with the American heritage and to demonstrate an interest in the United States and American culture. Foreign language SAT Subject Tests are rare among CBSE students.
Schools give internal grades to track student performance and generate report cards and transcripts, but the only marks that count for Indian university admissions and scholarships are 12th grade board exams. These board exams are scored on a 0-100% scale that is standardized by geographic area. Science courses include a written component and a practical component. In CBSE, the lowest passing grade is 33%. In ICSE and ISC, the lowest passing grade is 35%. This makes the grading scale quite different from that in American schools, where a 60 or 61 is typically the lowest passing grade.
Because 12th grade board results are so consequential, many schools have a very strict grading standard for 11th grade, with even the best students scoring in the 60%-80% range. In fact, one client related to me that an English teacher, by principle, does not award any mark over 70% in 11th grade. Such grade-deflation policies can be damaging to admissions prospects if colleges’ admissions officers are not aware of them. Some high school counselors are willing to acknowledge grade deflation in their school reports. Still, a 70% on a report card has a psychological effect on someone (such as an admissions officer) used to seeing 90s all day. At least two schools have “adjusted” or completely fabricated 11th grade marks for international transcripts. This, of course, gives students from those schools an unfair advantage.
For these reasons, a few schools, for example the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, do not ask for 11th grade marks. This makes it difficult to assess a student’s current performance, so they must be more reliant on standardized test scores.
Colleges generally require marks from the first part of 12th grade before an admissions decision is rendered. CBSE, ICSE, and some state board schools start in May (schools start on different dates depending on climate and local holidays). These schools conduct mid-year exams in September and “pre-board” exams in December. Pre-board results are not usually recorded on report cards, but some colleges ask for them. Like 11th grade marks, pre-board exams are graded harshly in order to encourage students to study harder for real board exams.
Many schools provide “predicted” final board scores, which are usually higher than pre-board marks. These are supposedly based on the school’s knowledge of the particular student’s performance compared to those who have previously taken exams, but they may also be arbitrary. Colleges in the UK and Canada tend to care more about predicted scores than colleges in the US do. I have not seen an American school require that final grades fall within a specific range of predicted scores, but I have seen this explicitly from at least one Canadian school.
Students throughout India attend “tuitions” outside of school, which are private classes taught in small groups or one-on-one. They are designed to prepare students for national board exams, and the vast majority of private-school students take them. Even many of the brightest and most accomplished students take tuition classes in at least a subject or two. Students spend 4-5 hours per day in these tuition classes, sometimes starting classes at 6 AM to get a class in before school starts. Tutors are graduates of top universities in India and are paid better than schoolteachers; there is essentially a “shadow” schooling system. Usually, these classes are in Hindi or “Hinglish,” primarily Hindi with English sprinkled in.
A few college applications (particularly the University of California application) ask whether applicants have availed themselves of any tutoring or enrichment classes. Indian tuitions are so common that high schoolers don’t even think to mention them. I advise all my clients to mention their tuitions because (1) it is the right thing to do and (2) it accounts for a significant amount of time in addition to class and extracurricular activities, which admissions officers should know.
The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are among the premier institutions in the world for engineering and computer science education. Admission to one of 23 IIT campuses requires taking two rounds of the Joint Entrance Examination JEE: Mains and Advanced. Both are very difficult, with the JEE – Advanced being among the toughest national exams in the world. Nearly all students who take the JEE enroll in some preparatory class, and many even enroll in “institutes” that are geared toward preparing students for the test, spending vacations and even school days receiving instruction and studying. (Schools don’t mind if top-performing students miss class to study for JEE.) Overall, it is not abnormal for Indian students taking the JEE to study over 40 hours a week for two years or more.
The competitiveness and pressure of the JEE is a big reason why students apply to schools abroad for engineering and computer science. About a million and a half students take the exam each year, and only a few hundred can study the most coveted major: computer science. I have one client who scored in the 99.9th percentile on the JEE (a rank of less than 1,500), but his score wasn’t high enough to get a spot in a computer science program. (He is studying materials science and looking to transfer to a place he can study computer science.)
Another coveted career is medicine. Most student in India looking to attend medical school in India must take the National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET). Some medical schools conduct their own entrance examinations. Positions at the top schools are as competitive as those for the IITs.
English is a national language of India and present on all government documents, but the level of English proficiency varies greatly, even among private-school students. Some kids speak primarily English at home, but most speak Hindi and/or a local language, including Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, or Punjabi. English is introduced early enough that nearly all undergraduate applicants are fluent, but English is rarely a “first language.” In most private schools, English is the official language of instruction, but Hindi or a regional language is the primary language of communication among teachers and students before and after class.
The Indian national and state boards barely teach English composition. In fact, it is not unusual for an Indian high school student to graduate without ever having written something longer than two or three pages. Students are also exposed to very little long-form literature. The CBSE curriculum includes a single novel or even just a novella. (H.G. Wells’s 100-page novella The Invisible Man recently replaced Hemingway’s 127-page The Old Man and the Sea as the longest English language item on the CBSE syllabus.) This lack of exposure to literature and composition makes writing college admissions essays very difficult for many Indian students, and even the most brilliant students have trouble. The stronger writers among Indian applicants are generally self-taught.
Not surprisingly, the writing style among Indian high schoolers has a very early-20th century British feel to it, incorporating long sentences filled with florid language and the passive voice. The tone, probably reflecting a holdover from colonial traditions, tends to be submissive and obsequious. Last year, an Indian student submitted an essay to IvyAchievement reading (verbatim), “The elite UK education erudition will guarantee my wholesome development and provide me with an enriching collegiate experience.” I did not make this up.
In addition, the English language syllabi also do not cover certain important topics. When I deliver PowerPoint presentations at schools, I’ll show a picture of an ellipsis and ask what it is and what it does. No one has been able to name it, and usually just a few correctly guess that it indicates trailing off or an incomplete thought. Only one student has identified it as serving to leave out text from a quote. These brilliant kids are never taught how to write a research paper or analytical essay; they just repeat facts they are taught about character, plot, and themes.
But they learn quickly. Usually, I’ll be the primary counselor for our clients, and students will work with a writing specialist to complete their essays. I’ve seen clients develop their writing skills tremendously. One client applied to 27 different colleges. (I advised him to apply to fewer, but he wanted to anyway.) At first, his writing was comprehensible but stiff and filled with errors. After working with me and one of our writing specialists, his writing is excellent and can no longer be distinguished from an American’s. He even knows American spelling and punctuation conventions now, all ready for college! (He was accepted to three Ivy-league schools, Amherst College, and the Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science, among others.)
When parents of high school seniors ask me what they can do to help their child do well on standardized tests, I tell them the best thing they can do is speak English at home. When a child speaks English with friends and family, he or she begins to think in English, which saves a cognitive step when taking exams. That saved step can be the difference between getting to a final reading passage and having to skip it. For Indian parents with younger children and those early in high school, I recommend reading beyond the curriculum, writing, and perhaps taking English-language enrichment classes.
Indian students tend to be very active outside of class. Many schools have a British-style “house” system with house captains and inter-house sports and other competitions and activities.
The most common extracurricular activities, at least among those applying to the United States and Canada, are debate and Model United Nations (MUN). Debate and MUN competitions are held on weekends throughout the school year, and are mostly organized and run by students. MUNs happen at the high school and college levels; sometimes high schoolers are invited to college MUNs. When I was in Hyderabad in June 2016, there happened to be a college MUN at the same hotel. The Secretary General (chief organizer) was a college student; there were no faculty, chaperones, or adults over the age of 22 to be found.
Other popular extracurricular activities include “quizzing” (academic competitions, usually more involved than American quiz-bowl/college-bowl type trivia) and computer programming, often at competitions called “hackathons.”
Popular sports among Indian high schoolers include cricket, football (soccer), tennis, and badminton. Table tennis is also very popular in India. Many Indians play basketball recreationally, but it’s not a highly competitive inter-school sport. American football is basically unrecognized. (I showed one student, otherwise familiar with American culture, pictures of professional athletes playing rugby union and American football. She could not tell which was American football.)
Business ventures are astonishingly common among Indian kids. I’m impressed by what they’ve accomplished. One client, for example, earned thousands of dollars using an online trading platform that automatically bought and sold virtual items. Another client started a venture to deliver excess stationery to needy schools around the world.
Many aspiring Indian students start non-profit organizations, or what they call “NGOs.” In American English, “NGO” (non-governmental organization) means a large, international charity with field operations, like the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders, and the Red Cross. Indians refer to any non-profit as an “NGO.” Some of these student-founded organizations are legitimate and do real work; others are merely offshoots of family foundations or entirely made up for college admissions purposes, complete with fake certificates and letters of recommendation. If a client has an NGO on his or her resume, I urge them to support their work with evidence such as social media pages and newspaper coverage. Admissions professionals should be aware of these “NGOs” and investigate if possible.
Some Indian high schools send many students abroad and have dedicated counselors familiar with the admissions process. But as in most American high schools, these counselors are usually overworked. I know at least one counselor, at a school that sends a lot of kids to top colleges, who tells his students not to use outside help from professional counselors. A few do anyway, but are afraid to tell him because of his pride.
Aside from a few of these “feeder” schools (there aren’t many, as there are in China), most Indian high schools are unequipped to handle applications to the United States and Canada. They do not realize that the American admissions process requires a school profile report, and are unfamiliar with Naviance for sending school documents. Furthermore, with the new Coalition Application gaining traction, college guidance counselors will need to familiarize themselves with this new online platform. I’ve worked with counselors directly to help them understand colleges’ requirements, and I urge international admissions officers at North American colleges to reach out to Indian high schools.
In schools that don’t have a dedicated international guidance counselor, sometimes a teacher will serve as the official “counselor,” and will often ask students to write their own letters of recommendation. I’ve even seen a few Indian high school teachers have their students set up the Common Application account and portal for them. As long as I have proof from the teacher that they have authorized this, I will help applicants complete their letters and school profile.
This concludes (for now) the IvyAchievement Counselors’ Guide to Indian College Applicants. Corrections, comments, and recommendations for content can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please don’t be shy!