Applying to US Colleges from Nepal - Part 1

Preface:

This blog post is the first part in a series of indeterminate number of parts on this topic. I am writing this in separate parts because given the amount of interest in the topic and the detail I want to go, I foresee it to be too long for just one post. I tend to write certain portion and procrastinate for a long time until I continue writing next. If I separate in parts, potential applicants can get information as I write them, and I can get feedback for next sections while I procrastinate. If there is demand for next sections, I will feel pressured to write them sooner. If there is no demand, I won’t feel guilty for not writing them.

The first part covers the pre-preparation, i.e. what you need to know before actually starting to concretely prepare for your application.

Quick Resources:

If you don’t want to read my blog, there are several really good resources on the web. Here are some to start with.

Details and FAQs on application process for Nepalese students:

Other resources I used during my application:

 MIT specific admission resources:

Some useful books (any equivalent books are fine):

  • College Board Official SAT Study Guide
  • McGraw Hill's SAT Book
  • McGraw Hill's 12 SAT Practice Tests
  • Cambridge Preparation for the TOEFL Test Book 
  • How to read Better and Faster
  • Word Power Made Easy

 

 I will add more resources here as I remember more, or if someone recommends a good one to me in comments.

_____________________

 

Introduction:

This blog post is long due, and probably I am no longer a suitable person to write about US college application process. However, this is the topic I get asked about the most throughout the college-application season. With this post, I hope to answer those questions. I will be addressing the current high school (i.e. HSEB/A-levels) students and recent high school graduates in Nepal who want to know about the overall process of applying to a US university and about my experience when I applied to US colleges back in 2009. I have separated most of the following sections into those two parts -- general advice on that section and my personal experience on it. I hope this post will be useful.


The Timeline:

The following was my approximate timeline from before deciding to apply to the US and up to getting accepted at MIT. This is not the ideal timeline (for example, you should start writing essays much earlier), but it’s a reference. This is also a reference for what to expect in the next parts of this post.

Decided whether to apply Before graduation, i.e. before May 15, 2009
Decided on colleges May 15 - Nov 15
SAT preparation May 15 - Oct 10 (my SAT test was on Oct 10)
TOEFL preparation Jun 10 - Jun 30, Oct 10 - Oct 18 (TOEFL test was on Oct 18)
SAT subject tests preparation Oct 10 - Nov 7 (SAT II tests were on Nov 7)
Wrote Essays, requested recommendation letters Nov 10 - Dec 31
Filled college application forms, got fee-waiver letters Nov 24 - deadlines(mostly by Jan 15)
Applied for financial aid Jan 15 - deadlines (mostly Feb 15)
Waited Jan 15 - March 14 (and other college-decision dates)
Got accepted to MIT/happiest day of my life March 14, 2010

 

Should you apply?

This is an important question to answer, and the one you should really spend time on. Assuming you’re finishing or have just finished your high school, your answer to this question will possibly determine the rest of your academic career, and in a drastic way. Whatever your answer is to this question, stick to it a hundred percent until the rest of your transition phase. You cannot afford to stand on multiple boats at this time, because you want to give your complete effort on one thing to land on the best possible next path. Ideally, you should have decided whether to apply to the US before you finish your high school.

This is not an easy decision to make, however. Here are some recommendations that may help you decide whether applying to the US is a good option for you:

 

Take experts’ advice

You may need guidance or the perspective of people who have been through the experience. Talk to people you know who have applied already or have gotten accepted to the US universities. Tell them in detail about you and your aspirations, and ask them whether they think it would be a good option for you to apply. However, be respectful of their time. People in the US are busier than you think, and it is their choice to respond to you or not. Having said that, it is very important for you to talk to experienced people, so be persistent in your messages, while being polite. Don't make silly grammatical errors and spell things correctly. Show genuine interest. Best time to consult them is actually before they come to the US, i.e. talk to the recent batch of students that have just finished applying and are waiting to get to the US, i.e. months of February to September.

If you don't know of any such students, or even if you do, it's good to talk to people who guide the students with their application. Go to USEF (United States Education Foundation), Gyaneshwor (http://usefnepal.org/). They are an official source of information related to the US application process. They provide counseling, various talks and seminars, and books/materials about the entire process. You will also meet fellow aspiring applicants and can ask them why they decided this path.

If you want to go through a regular consultancy in Nepal (which I do not recommend), go there and learn what their process is and which colleges you can apply to if you follow their path. Research online about those colleges. Some consultancies can send you to non-accredited schools, which you should be highly aware of. You can use US News website to see the summary of any accredited school in the US: http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges  If you put effort, you don’t really need consultancies. However, it doesn't hurt to go to them for initial consultation about the process. It can help you get additional perspective on the application process, which may help you decide if it is the right thing for you.

 

Don’t apply if you are also applying for medical/engineering schools in Nepal

As I said before, decide on one thing and do it well. MBBS/Engineering preparation in Nepal requires a great deal of hard work and perseverance, and same is true for US college application. You cannot get best result by dividing your time between various difficult things at the same time.

 

Don’t apply if you want to just enter USA and work here instead

This is a big no-no. For one, it is illegal, and for another, it is hard -- you will not save as much as you think. You won’t be paid a minimum wage if you work illegally, and if you’re still enrolled in college while working, you won’t study and you won’t save money. You will have to work all the time to pay tuition for the college that you skip most of the time. Never choose this option.

 

Don’t apply just because everyone else is applying, or it’s a cool trend

I know there are always trends, and one tends to follow what everyone else is doing without proper research. During my time, the trend was to apply for MBBS. With time, applying to the US is getting much trendier. If you’re doing it just for the trend, remember that when everyone is doing something, it is harder for you to stand out. So, if it is the only reason, don’t apply.

 

Don’t apply if you are passionate about MBBS/Engineering in Nepal, but are afraid you won’t succeed there

This goes back to first point, but it’s even worse. Face your fears, and attack it back with your best effort. If you’re passionate to become a doctor, don’t take a second guess -- study your arse off for MBBS.

Basically, it boils down to -- apply by really knowing for yourself what you are going into. If it suits you, then go ahead with the application process. If you have doubts, don’t.

After above filters, if you decide to apply, don’t hold back just because you think you don’t have good enough high school grades or extracurriculars. I explain this more on the pre-requisites section below.

 

My experience:

Contrary to popular trend, I had decided long ago that I didn’t want to apply for MBBS. During 11th grade and first half of 12th grade, I was pretty much set on applying for CA (Chartered Accountant).  At some point in 12th grade, I was fortunate to get a call from my cousin Jhapendra Sapkota who was studying in the US at that time. He told me how much better an education and the future I can have in the US compared to CA or anything else in Nepal or India. I did some research about US education, and was convinced. I completely dropped my CA-love around the end of my 12th grade, and chanelled all the energy into applying to the US.

I talked to the guidance counselor in CCRC. I went to visit all the recent graduates from CCRC I knew who had applied to the US. All of them went through a consultancy, and most of them recommended me that path. I actually got enrolled into a consultancy, but I didn't want to go to the colleges that it had connections to, because they were either not accredited or not anywhere in the rankings. I wanted to go to a decent university to get a quality education, not just to enter the US. I would have decided not to apply if consultancies were the only option, but they were not. I went to USEF, Nepal and attended one of their Friday seminars. I bought two books from there -- one about how to apply to the united states, and another that contained brief descriptions of all the US colleges. I read the book about applying to the united states, and I followed that book throughout. I never looked at another option, and my family supported me.

 

Pre-requisites for applying:

 

Internet

This is absolutely necessary. If possible, have some form of useable internet installed at home. If not, make sure you have access to internet throughout the whole application process at any time of the day. Almost all the research, communication with colleges, registering for standardized tests, and access to the application forms will be through the internet. You will be spending most of your time on the internet throughout this time, especially since there are not many credible sources in Nepal on the application process that may be accessible to you. Use the internet wisely, beware of drifting into YouTube and Facebook’s downward spiral. Time is of essence.

 

Ability to research, and DIY (Do It Yourself) attitude

Everything in the process needs YOUR research, including finding colleges that match you the best, deciding on your major, writing application essays, and pretty much everything else. Don’t believe hearsay from people who have heard about applying to the US. Know for yourself by doing research on the internet or by consulting people who have been through the experience. Even in the internet, only believe things from credible sources, for example college websites, collegeboard, collegeconfidential, and so on.

 

Determination

Applying to colleges is a very stressful process. It may take you to your greatest fears, you will be very frustrated at times, and you may find yourself in a completely hopeless position. At times, it feels like all your energy is drained and you just want everything to stop. I’m not saying these things to scare you, but to get you prepared for them. I really hope they don’t happen to you, but if they do, know that you’re not alone. This process is not an easy way out, especially because there is usually no one to tell you what to do next (unlike other things such as applying for MBBS, or everything really until this point in your life). You will have to mostly figure things out by yourself, and this needs great determination, perseverance, and motivation towards achieving your goal.

 

High school grades and extra-curricular activities

The only pre-requisite on academics side is that you should have the passing grades. The amount of grades and extra-curricular activities depend on the college you’re applying to, but they are not the deal breaker. Grades are important, but not at all the most important factor. It may seem counter-intuitive to us (Nepalese), because our academic culture glorifies numbers, scores, and quantitative metrics. However, for the top US colleges, your scores are one of the several factors they look at to decide on accepting or rejecting you. They look at an applicant as a person (which will be reflected by your recommendations, essays, and extra-curriculars), not just as a bunch of numbers. Read: http://mitadmissions.org/apply/process/selection

About extra-curriculars, don’t force yourself into doing something just because you need that for application. Join a club you are interested in, and do things that you value most. Extra-curricular activities are, and should be, the signals of your values, interests, and hobbies that define you as person. If you feel out of place or the existing clubs don’t match your interest, start your own club and recruit people. If you are only interested in academics, get really into it. Create reading clubs or study groups. It's important to make an impact around you, and every student has that potential.

Although grades and extra-curriculars aren't the only factor, they are an important factor for admissions. Among the 2016 freshmen accepted at MIT, 98% of the students were in top 10% of the graduating class, and 100% were in top 25%. So do your best, but don’t lose hope if they aren’t on par with other applicants. You can look at more statistics of incoming students to get an idea, but you don’t need to be as good as the best of the applicants, and most likely you won’t be. Best people from all around the world apply to the United States. For an idea about MIT application pool, read: http://web.mit.edu/ir/cds/2016/c.html. To read about what you can do in high school to prepare, read: http://mitadmissions.org/apply/prepare/highschool




My experience:

I have my father to thank dearly for the pre-requisites portion of the application -- he always invested as much as he could on our (my brother and my) education. We had a desktop computer at our home (which was already a great asset to have), and we installed internet on it when I told my father it was important. The speed was less than ideal, but I could get to the websites I wanted if I waited long enough. Because of the frequent power outages, it was not usable all the time, but there were some cyber cafes around I could go that were on different outage schedules or had generators. 

Because I decided not to go through the consultancy for my applications, I had to do pretty much everything myself. As a result, I went through miserable times, trying to figure out the whole system, frustrated with SAT vocabulary and cryptic reading passages, never being able to write a decent essay, not understanding fields in application forms, and trying to get recommendation letters from teachers who had never written anything like that before. However, I was able to slowly figure things out, and towards the end I also had guidance from an important person, which I describe in later section.

My academics and extra-curriculars were all right. They were by no means as good as “a typical MIT” student, who would have invented something new or won international medals in high school. I had a friend at MIT, Sabrina Pasterski, who had built her own airplane before applying, and now praised by media as the potential Einstein. My roommate throughout MIT had won multiple medals at international olympiad in informatics.  I was, and am, no match for them. However, I was one of the top students in the school. I was also hugely fortunate to be in top 5 in SLC exams in the country. For my extra-curriculars, I participated in everything provided at the school, and went to almost all inter-school competitions. In grade 11 and 12, I was involved in a club called “eco-club” as a member and then the president. We did various activities such as blood-donation programs, fundraisers for flood victims, community cleanliness, and so on. I really loved our team and the work we did. I hosted various school programs and also sometimes did things I was not very good at, such as acting in a drama. Overall, I liked my classes, and also liked to do things outside of academics and to be connected to people around me.

 

Guidance/Consultation:

It is very important that you get the right guidance, especially because you most likely don't know much about the process. Your actions will be highly dependent on your guidance, so choose wisely. There are usually three options:

 

USEF (United States Education Foundation, Nepal:

USEF is my most recommended option. They provide you credible information, guidance, and materials needed for application process. They will not spoon-feed you like other consultancies, but they will show you the right way which you need to walk. They hold various seminars from experts and students from various US colleges. Every Friday, they hold a comprehensive group session detailing the steps involved in applying to the US colleges. I strongly advise everyone to attend this. In addition to seminars, you can take advantage of USEF's library, which contains  books useful during the application process that you cannot get elsewhere in stores. There are a few downsides to USEF, though. They don't personally guide you through the process, and it will be difficult use their resources if you live outside Kathmandu. However, I think nowadays they have started recording some seminars and posting them on their facebook page. Also, they sometimes hold seminars outside the valley.

Regardless of whether you choose USEF as your primary guidance, utilize them as a resource and take advantage of what they offer. It is mostly free and credible information source.

 

Generic Consultancy:

Regular consultancies in Nepal operate by giving you limited options. They usually have connection with a limited pool of US colleges that they make some financial deal with. They provide you with the exact criteria on your scholarships based on your SAT/TOEFL scores, and nothing else seems important. They personally guide you through each step, and you mostly just need to focus on SAT/TOEFL tests. 

I don't recommend this option, because the colleges they have deals with are usually not very good colleges. If they were, they wouldn't have deals with shady consultancies in Nepal. You cannot use them if you want to apply to, say, MIT (They laughed at me -- which was a regular response -- when I first mentioned them that I wanted to apply to MIT). However, consultancies may be appealing because you don't need to put much effort, but it is your future we are talking about. Just stepping into the US doesn't guarantee a good future. There are decent schools in Nepal as well, you don't need to come to the US if the colleges you are going to are not good enough.

One thing consultancies could come in handy is during the visa application process, after you get accepted. In fact, they are less focused on getting you to a good school, and more focused on getting you the visa. Visa application is not a complicated process and you can do it by yourself if you research enough. But since these consultancies do this for many students over and over, you can have a peace of mind that you're not leaving anything important.

 

Guidance counselor/An expert you know:

In case you have a guidance counselor at your school, consult them. They know your background and your high-school performance better than consultancies, so they may be able to guide you better. If you are lucky, you may find someone in a US school to guide you through the process. If this is the case, consult with them regularly. They are a really good resource but they won't be able to invest much time in you. Ask reasonable questions and respect their time.

Use this option in conjunction with a real consultancy. You are lucky if you even have this option.

 

My Experience:

During early stages of application process, I was in Kathmandu finishing my 12th grade. We had a guidance counselor at CCRC, and he gave me a list of SAT words to memorize. I got real guidance from USEF's Friday advising session about college application process. It was a lot of really great information which I used throughout my application process. I went to USEF as much as I could to use the resources in the library. At first there were a lot of unknowns, so I also enrolled in a popular consultancy in Kathmandu after finishing grade 12. I ended up only using them to get my Nepali grades translated to US grades and to send my application packages to US colleges at a discounted price. Soon after, I was back to my hometown in Pokhara, where I did most of the preparations for applications. So it was difficult for me to use either of these options when I wanted. I could attend only one other seminar from USEF, which I attended after I finished my applications. It was about the cultural differences between Nepal and the US.

Aside from the consultancies, I also had the fortune to have guidance, directions, and support from two very important people, Jhapendra Sapkota dai (my cousin who was studying in McNeese State University in the US at that time), and Yudhisthir Kandel dai (my fellow villager brother from Baglung who was studying at Wesleyan college at that time). They constantly showed be the right direction and supported me when I needed, and I am greatly indebted to them. However, not everyone can count on having such great people for support, so prepare for the unknown. 

Finally,

For students applying currently, this is your time to be focused on test preparations. Don't wait for my next posts -- who knows when they will come. Register for SAT, TOEFL and SAT II for October/November/December, and practice a lot. Get tutors if they are helpful, but don't forget to do practice tests. Practice with "real" test conditions, where you follow exact rules of real test at your home. Repeat this process until you consistently get the scores you want. My brother and I both got below what we were consistently getting on practice tests, so shoot for about 50 points above your goal.

Hopefully this portion was useful. I will include other topics such as deciding on colleges, standardized tests, essays, and recommendations in next parts. I will try to finish the next part in a month, but it is not a promise. Please comment on what you want to know and how I should structure it. I will be looking for feedback.