Today's bunch of school and college going youngsters use Wikipedia as a secondary teacher; Facebook or Orkut instead of making phone calls and would tweet rather than writing long, tortured emails. They work, play and communicate in the virtual world.

Many of these services use the wisdom of the crowd. Tapping into this information pool, students are increasingly using online forums and groups on social networking sites as career counselling tools.

Making life-altering decisions like which college to go to or which course to take up based on advice given by ‘strangers' on online social networking forums seems to be only a quick sprint from teen life 2.0.

Bringing together ‘strangers'

Sonal Matharu, who used Orkut to reach other candidates to ask if they would be willing to swap streams with her after the admission process, says “I didn't know anyone personally. I didn't have any contact numbers. Social networking is a great leveller. Usually, people are very helpful. They might also need help sometime.”

She says she now religiously replies to any query that juniors ask her because she benefitted from such help herself. It is not altruism; it is just social networking etiquette. Thousands of people edit Wikipedia without being paid a rupee. That is how the Internet works.

In the virtual world, there are forums for discussion on the merits of two different courses, and there are even subject or university-specific groups. You just have to type in a question and Google will throw up lots of forums.

“Within 3 hours after my IIT-JEE (2007-08) results were announced, communities to discuss which branch to choose were formed on Orkut,” says Shrey Goyal, moderator of the ‘Indian Institutes of Technology' group on Facebook. “The date of joining was still three months away and there was active discussion about a variety of issues from placement prospects to requirements for stream change after the first year if one does not like the course.”

According to him, from an outsider's perspective, there is not much idea about course structure or placements and since person-to-person contact with a senior at college is pretty much impossible, online space comes to the aid of students.

Placements and scholarship

If bringing down traditional barriers is of great help to students applying to Indian universities, it plays a significant role in the case of those who apply to universities that are abroad.

“On online forums, people even talk about cultural differences that pop up while applying to a U.S. university, like how not to be stupidly modest in writing a scholarship essay,” says Rohini Mohan, a student at Columbia University.

“That especially helped me get a full tuition scholarship, which I don't think I would have if I had followed the Indian way of being humble.”

She says that on networking forums like ‘thegradcafe', a dedicated graduate school discussion forum without any pictures or profiles, real help is offered from what to say in a visa interview to where to find a cheap barber near the university.

Pointing out that anything which addresses the anxieties of over-stressed students is welcome, Prakash Gopalan, Dean (Students Affairs), IIT-Bombay, says “There is nothing better than college students helping out their juniors online instead of using their Internet time for gaming or blogging. However, those seeking advice must make sure that they get their information from multiple sources and cross-confirm.”

In effect, use online forums as a sort of survey tool that enables generalisation.

As Rohini put it, “No one will tell you specifics — that international students don't get internship opportunities until they arrive on campus. Networks are a good way of finding people, not information.”