Indian Roots, Ivy Admits: This book will help you get into best colleges abroad – India Today
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The Indian student diaspora numbers over 1.1 million, going by the Ministry of External Affairs. The majority are in North America, followed by West Asia, Trans-Tasman and the United Kingdom.
The Covid-19 pandemic halved the outflow to a quarter of a million students in 2020, but the top destinations are seeing an uptick in applications this year.
Imagine the readership of Indian Roots, Ivy Admits: 85 essays that got Indian Students into the Ivy League and Stanford. Every one of the 55,000 applicants who made it to universities in the US for the Fall 2021 semester would have wrestled with their personal essay. Not to mention the 67,000 who went to Canada and the tens of thousands who applied to Europe and Australia.
As every applicant knows, grades and test scores measure academic performance, but ‘soft factors’ like extracurriculars and recommendations are equally, if not more, important. To truly stand out among the best and brightest, you need a cracking good college essay. It’s easily the most stressful part of the elaborate admissions process. Applicants and their parents sweat bullets trying to get it just right, and many end up turning to education consultants.
How important a factor it is depends on where you apply (public universities will rely more on GPAs and SAT scores than private ones) and how good the rest of your application looks.
Ivy League schools in the US are highly selective and devote time and resources to the screening process, culling the truly exceptional from the high-calibre herd. Here, the personal essay carries a great deal of weight. This is particularly true if you are a borderline candidate; the essay is your opportunity to catch the evaluator’s eye by expressing something significant about yourself.
That’s where Viral Doshi and Mridula Maluste come in. As ‘how-to’ books go, Indian Roots, Ivy Admits is bang on target, a purposive and lucid guide to a well-crafted, arresting personal essay. Each example is followed by a precise and erudite commentary explaining its appeal.
The first major takeaway is that there’s no one-size-fits-all format for a college essay. If you were expecting a ‘kunji’ (literally a key; colloquially, a booklet that helps you crack exams without sloughing through textbooks), this isn’t it. There’s no standard key, because there’s no standard lock. Every individual is different, so every essay has to be.
The salient feature of the personal essay, we find, is that it should be authentic. Evaluators have seen your grades and extracurriculars; now they want an insight into your personality. So, be credible. Own your vulnerabilities, and don’t be self-conscious about your achievements. Intensity serves, as does light touch. A seriousness of purpose balanced with the ability to laugh at yourself will not go amiss.
Do the evaluators have a checklist of personality traits? Creativity, innovation, a diversity of interests, an urge to excellence, a capacity for critical evaluation, perseverance and aspiration are fundamental, judging from the book. The most important, albeit abstract factor is potential. Effectively demonstrating an ability to learn, to observe and adapt and, thereby, contribute to campus life in a meaningful way, is tricky but doable.
The authors have helpfully categorized the essays into ten sections. You can take any one of these routes. The subject need not be unique, because the narratives are personal and therefore distinct. Food is an obvious attention-grabber. Several essays revolve around culinary experiments and artistry, and the life lessons thereof. Likewise, music figures as a recurrent, life-affirming theme.
In ‘The Family Crucible’ section, an amateur writer recounts how creative gifts for her mother dovetailed into an entrepreneurial venture. Other essays in the section spin narratives on socialization through the sibling dynamic. One, on ‘being Marwadi’, celebrates the community connection. The idea is to simultaneously showcase values and skills.
In ‘Coming of Age’, we read about identity formation, epiphanies and finding inspiration in unlikely places. The House Captain/Prefect experience naturally figures in the ‘Leadership’ part of the book. We also find essays centred around dealing with health challenges within the family/friend circuit and, interestingly, on the emotional baggage of Partition.
Now for the difficult part. What does the book tell us, as readers rather than evaluators, about the students? That they are intellectually gifted, and high performers in whatever field they choose to explore, is a given. Two of them worked with Team Indus, which famously made it to the last five in Google’s Lunar XPRIZE competition, aimed at landing a rover on the moon. Several have innovated viable products, a couple have set up social entrepreneurship models. The majority are from STEM streams.
Virtually all are from elite institutions, be it the Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai, the Doon School in Dehradun, Vasant Valley in New Delhi, Mayo College in Rajasthan, or the various ‘international’ and overseas schools. Understandably, Ivy League and Stanford do not cast a wide net in India, any more than they do in the US.
The applicants, by and large, do not dwell on the larger questions: climate change (mentioned in passing), global governance, political instability, systemic inequalities, gender parity and so on. That’s perhaps how it should be. They are applying for college, not the IAS. Their problem-solving skills can be brought to bear on the future of humanity later in life. Or to quote from the book, “to work for the happiness of all living beings”.
In sum, if you are planning to apply abroad, this book is a worthwhile investment. It doesn’t matter if you are not from a big name school, haven’t been a part of a model UN or placed in a Maths Olympiad. You still have to write that make-or-break personal essay, and if you can show the evaluators what they want to see, you’re in with a chance.
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