How applying to college abroad is (and isn’t) changing

With a complete college admissions cycle running its course during the pandemic, experts weigh in on an admissions landscape that is more competitive than ever before

Namita Mehta, President of Mumbai-based education consultancy The Red Pen, says that her advice to students has changed because of the pandemic. “There is so much uncertainty now, so I recommend that they apply to universities in more than one country abroad in addition to institutions within India,” she says.

Three years ago, 90 per cent of The Red Pen’s applicants applied only to the United States. Now, the number is down to 30 per cent because of COVID-19 and a host of other reasons, she notes. “The reintroduction of the UK two-year work visa in 2019, Canada’s work opportunities and citizenship pathways, and India’s new liberal arts institutions mean that the US will continue to lose its market share,” she says.

Meanwhile, Mumbai-based education counsellor Karan Gupta says that although students are increasingly exploring education opportunities in India, they still want to study abroad. “Some are considering studying in India for a year and then transferring to universities abroad when the situation is better. In the end, students still want to graduate from well-known international universities,’ he adds. Gupta, too, encourages students to diversify their applications across countries and says that parents are keen to send their children to countries closer to India like the UK and Singapore.

The pandemic forced zoom conversations to become the new normal. At The Red Pen, this meant an expansion within India and increased engagement with students abroad. “Earlier, when we worked with families from outside Mumbai, our interactions were hybrid,” Mehta says, “The first few consultations were in person and then we would transition to zoom. But now, everything is done online and everyone is comfortable with it.”

Rohan Ganeriwala, Co-Founder and Director at e-learning and career counselling platform Collegify says his company has experienced an uptick in demand from Tier II and III cities. “The change in mindset about online learning and interaction meant that students from all over India wanted to use our services. More students were interested in applying to the US because standardised testing was no longer a barrier,” he notes.

Ganeriwala is referring to more than 1000 institutions of higher learning in the United States that changed their policies regarding the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) and ACT (American College Testing) during the pandemic. Ivy Leagues like Harvard and Cornell waived testing requirements for 2021, while the University of California announced it was phasing out standardised testing requirements over the next four years. The outcome: skyrocketing numbers of applicants to top universities. While applications to Harvard surged by 43 per cent, Yale received 38 per cent more, and the University of California system received 16 per cent more.

CommonApp, the portal through which students apply to most American universities, reported that students applied to nine per cent more universities this time and applications from India were up by 28 per cent.

The pandemic has also brought big changes to the way students are differentiating themselves outside the classroom. “The transition of online means that students have to find creative ways to pursue their passion and build their extra-curriculars,” says Mehta, “For students who want to study medicine in the UK, a major application requirement is hands-on experience with patients. One student I work with organised an online bingo game at an old-age home, while a few others volunteered at COVID-testing centres.”

The pandemic brought in a huge growth in the ed-tech space. For instance, there is Lumiere, a platform that aims to provide world-class research opportunities for high school students around the world. After students are admitted into their 12-to-16-week research programmes, they are connected with a mentor to guide them through an independent, student-driven research project. “We’ve had one student conduct research on Mumbai’s urban planning with a PhD student at Oxford University. Another student worked with a researcher at Brown University using isotopic signatures to measure the age of the solar system,” says Stephen Turban, co-founder of Lumiere.

“India is a market where we see a lot of growth. There is widespread hunger for deep learning experiences that local institutions don’t provide for high school students,” Turban says, adding that immersive research experiences are valuable additions to college applications all over the world.

The pandemic also encouraged Indian students to create YouTube channels dedicated to demystifying the college process. Saloni Verma, who runs the YouTube channel Crazy Medusa, realised last year that there was huge demand for college-related content targeted at Indians aspiring to study abroad. “I posted a video about how I got into Harvard Medical School for my undergrad, and then went to Cornell University for graduate school being an international student. I was honest in my video about not being a brilliant student in school and failing my JEE IIT exam. I think I gave a human face to a process that students consider very opaque,” Verma says.

Her YouTube channel now has nearly 20,000 subscribers who watch her videos about bringing out their best qualities in their applications, mistakes to avoid while writing college essays, and how international students can find internships. “My videos are inspired by questions I receive from viewers in my video comments section,” Verma explains.

Gurgaon-based Shaurya Sinha also started a YouTube channel that has got 33,000 subscribers till date. “I made a video last year of my reactions to my college acceptance offers,” Sinha says, “It went totally viral, getting more than 450,000 views. I was bombarded with questions about how I got a full-ride scholarship to the University of Southern California, how I got into Stanford University, and how I felt getting rejected by most Ivy Leagues. I realised that there’s huge demand for college-related videos in India.”

During his gap-year between high school and university, Sinha set out to make information more accessible to students applying to college abroad through YouTube videos. He also founded Sleep Deprived Dreamers, an interactive college essay writing programme. “It’s a course that encourages students to think about their core values and what they want to communicate in their essays,” Sinha says, adding, “We focus on storytelling, reflection and writing with advice from ex-admissions officers, private counsellors, and admitted students. It’s more affordable than traditional college counselling and we have scholarships for low-income and first-generation students.”

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