Shopping for an education abroad has never been so exciting, as parents and prospective students discover the college tour
I visited Oxford University in the summer of 1993. It would have been a great trip, except that it was three years too late. Walking along the manicured greens to Oriel College, I wished I had visited this beautiful university town before rejecting my admission to the college—also my father’s alma mater—to study English literature. Instead here I was, a banker with a business degree from IIM Calcutta, speculating on how different my life would have been had I come to Oxford to study. But then, I hadn’t done the campus tour.
Today’s parents and students don’t let that happen to them. College Web sites offer virtual tours, but many Indian families now choose to visit campuses across continents for a first-hand feel of the place that will be home to their offspring for four years or more. Planned like a summer holiday upto 16 months ahead of admission, these trips typically combine renting apartments by the week and a fun mix of activities, topped off by visits to various shortlisted colleges.
Ajay Srinivasan, chief executive at Aditya Birla Financial Services, and novelist wife Mohyna did just that in the summer of 2009. “We rented a loft in New York, which gave us a sense of being at home in the city,” says Mohyna, who visited museums and enjoyed Manhattan while Ajay attended a golf clinic. Son Aditya, then 13, went for a basketball camp and daughter Mallika, then 15, attended a course at Parsons School of Design. In between, the family rented a car and drove to various colleges on the East Coast. “It’s important to do this when you are sending a child so far away for the first time. Making a trip in person gives you a fantastic sense of the culture of a place, which Internet research simply can’t provide,” says Ajay.
Visiting colleges in person can do revolutionary things to one’s preference ratings. Siddharth Shastri, now a student at Brown, once favoured Princeton University. Over summer 2008, while he was still in Delhi’s Sanskriti School, Siddharth and his family toured the East Coast colleges. At Princeton, the then-16-year-old took the official campus tour, chatted with students in the cafeteria and visited the dorms. “Too intense,” was his verdict. Siddharth discovered Swarthmore, a college that hadn’t even been on his top 10 list, and ended up going to Brown, where he’s currently pursuing an applied maths course.
“Brown is one of the few schools that doesn’t have ‘recs’ (requirements on the kinds of courses you should take),” explains Siddharth’s mother Sudha Shastri, founder and CEO of Inputs India, an HR consulting firm. “This is something we wouldn’t have discovered had we not done the campus tours.”
The Shastris visited 10 colleges over two weeks, talking to faculty and students. “There is a lot of stuff you can’t really find out on the Internet—for instance, the strong programmes in a particular college, the companies that do campus recruitments, the specialisations that get the most jobs or the best jobs,” points out Shastri.
Then there are the intangibles. The Shastris found Harvard seriously supercilious, with even the staff acting snooty. Stanford, on the other hand, came across to them as a warm place while Berkeley was “very geeky”.
Like all parents of children with ambitions of studying abroad, Ramadevi Bommidala, a director at GMR Group, spent many hours on the Internet ahead of elder daughter Susroni’s college admissions. They also met with Prab Singh, a well-known education management consultant, while Susroni attended workshops at her school—Mallya Aditi in Bangalore—on choosing colleges and writing application essays. But, like most school kids, Susroni was confused about what she wanted to study.
Bommidala, on her part, was also not entirely confident about sending Susroni to an unfamiliar place. “I didn’t want to spend a lot of money only to send my daughter to a party place,” she says. So the family decided to catch up on a long-overdue family holiday, visiting 20 colleges over a 15-day trip. It encouraged Susroni to choose Chapman, a small private college that offered flexibility in its academic choices as well as international exchange programmes.
At the end of the holiday, it wasn’t just Susroni who knew what she wanted; the Bommidalas knew what they didn’t want. “I realised I didn’t want to send my children to a large university with an open campus like Columbia, which is spread across the city. Then, while visiting Harvard, we discovered from other parents that professors don’t teach undergraduate classes; most of them are taken by teaching assistants,” says Bommidala. The trip also inspired Susroni’s younger brother Santosh, now in Class XII at Mallya Aditi, to study hard!
The pre-college timeline is a carefully calibrated creature (see Testing Times). If your son or daughter is looking to start college in Fall 2013 or in 2014, the summer of 2012 is the best time to do the college recce trip. Sachin Shastri will go to college in 2015, but he plans a college visit this summer. “We’re visiting the US for Siddharth’s graduation anyway, so we’ll kill two birds with one stone,” says his mother Sudha Shastri
Other things being equal, though, parents favour the summer of Class XI, when the class X exams have been done with and the long SAT-essays-admissions process has just started. Taking the tests early is useful: The scores allow you to gauge how competitive you are for the colleges of your choice. Plus, it also gives you a chance to re-take the test if you want to improve the scores.
The personal visit can be a clincher during the actual admission process. Besides bringing a sharper focus to the application, the essay on ‘Why I would like to join X college’, for instance, is likely to be more compelling and convincing if you have first-hand experience of the college.
An on-site visit also gives you chance to meet the admissions staff and make a personal impression. Tanvi Gupta, who is studying for her Master’s in Finance at London’s Cass School of Business, feels it was the pre-admission tour to the college that helped her get in. “Counsellors in Mumbai had told me I didn’t have a chance of joining a business school abroad because I had dropped maths three years ago. But I was able to convince the admissions in-charge at Cass that I could cope with the subject,” she says.
To make her case, Tanvi carried her school marksheets from three years ago when she tagged along with her father Rohit Gupta, president at Sony Entertainment Television, on a work-trip to London. The frosty reception at London School of Economics (LSE) made her change her mind about studying there. “Previously, I was like LSE or nothing,” she confesses. “But after meeting the staff at Cass and talking to them, I found myself keen to study there.”
Planning for the trip should begin at least a month in advance. “Read up on the colleges and communicate with the admissions department,” advises educational consultant Arjun Seth. Most colleges conduct pre-admissions tours at specific times, which can be booked online. The interaction includes formal briefings and meeting/interviewing admissions officers.
“Additionally,” says Seth, “seek informal feedback. Plan to eat at least one meal at the college cafeteria, which would also give you an idea of the quality of the food. Visit the library, sit in on a class. Talk to students. Ask them what they like about their college and what they don’t like—it’s surprising what these sort of casual questions can turn up.”
It’s also advisable to visit the dormitories and read the campus paper. Make the time for a drive through the neighbourhood.
Attending briefing session with 50 other parents and their kids and listening to their queries can be an education by itself. “I discovered things I didn’t even know existed,” says Mohyna Srinivasan. “For instance, the suitcase college, where most of the students live a few hours away and so is deserted on weekends.”
For parents willing to spend around Rs. 1 crore to educate a child (without financial aid) in the US, the investment of a few weeks and a few lakhs of rupees for the campus tours is a really a small fraction. Combining the campus trip with an annual vacation makes the trip more economical, as does hiring your own car, staying with relatives wherever possible and, of course, planning in advance.
The time span and the number of colleges to visit depend on individual decisions. Susroni and her family, for instance, visited 20 colleges on both coasts, while Mallika Srinivasan limited her campus visits to 10-12 colleges on the West Coast. “Plan a mix of different colleges—a medium-sized college like Wellesley, a large one like Harvard and a small college like Amherst—to get a sense of the different environments in each institution,” says Seth. “Also try and see colleges in different settings, like NYU or Boston University, which have an urban setting, and Williams, which is in a rural area. Once you have seen these basic categories, you can generalise about the others.”
For students, trips like these can help them make better choices. “It was interesting for me to see the different environments that could have been my potential home for four years,” says Mallika, who says actual visits dramatically changed her preferences for the colleges.
The flipside, though, is a possible reliance on superficial parameters: After all, the colleges that market themselves the best or have the friendliest admissions officers and staff may not be the best value propositions. Schools are rated on many parameters, many of which—students debt-rates, for instance, or post-college success—are not measurable in a day-long visit. Personally speaking, I know I am glad somewhere I wasn’t beguiled by the buildings and boats of Oxford into doing an English literature degree. An MBA was the smarter thing to do career-wise.
There are also those that disagree with the expense of a real tour. “If you do a good Google search, you can find anything,” says Natisha Saraf, who majored in history and international relations from the University of Pennsylvania. “I did do the campus tour, but I think it’s overrated; plus it adds on expenditure of Rs. 3-4 lakh at a time when money is tight anyway. Instead, I suggest subscribing to the official paper, their unofficial or alternative paper and the student forums. It gives you a real sense of the college vibe.”
College tours have long been an institution for American families, an annual rite that entire families embark on before the admission process. And now as international students and parents discover the advantages of the look-feel-talk experience, they are clearly becoming an important part of the college admission process for these students too.
Two years before session starts: Determine your priorities: A particular geographic area? Public college or private?
Colleges that give aid? Draw up a longlist of possible colleges. Register for tests.
Upto 20 months before session starts: Take the tests required. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is conducted in January, May, June, October, November and December. Some schools may also require subject SATs, the Advanced Placement (AP) exam and the Test of English as
a Foreign Language (TOEFL).
Between 19 and 17 months before session starts: Consult the experts: Pay upto Rs. 1 lakh for a basket of products, including tests to determine colleges that suit your profile, help with applications, planning the campus tours et al. Visit college and research Web sites, including the admissions blog at The New York Times (thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/ ) and the discussion group www.theu.com .
16 months before session starts: Shortlist 10-15 colleges, including a mix of your dream colleges, the target colleges (in which you’re reasonably sure of admission) and the safe choices, and book pre-admission tours.
15 months to 9 months before session starts: Start working on college applications and essays.
8-9 months before session starts: Submit completed applications. Certain schools offer optional interview programmes conducted by alumni. Opt for these if interested.
4-5 months before session starts: Await acceptance letter. For the Fall semester, starting September, letters should arrive by April.