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Updated: July 7, 2013 15:56 IST

How I made it to Harvard

Dipak Ragav
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Dhruva Bhat
Special Arrangement Dhruva Bhat

Dhruva Bhat, a commerce student from P.S. Senior Secondary School, Mylapore, who completed his schooling earlier this year, has secured admission for undergraduate studies at Harvard University, where he plans to major in economics or political science. Here, he shares his thoughts with Dipak Ragav on how he went about with the admission process.

Tell us about the admission process in terms of the qualification tests?

Admission to U.S. universities is holistic, and admission officers review all the information you provide them before making a decision. Unlike in Indian universities, marks on a single exam do not decide admission. The pre-requisites are:

Standardised test scores from either the SAT or the ACT. The prep books available for these tests at the US-India Education Foundation (USIEF) seems good.

Most colleges in the U.S. expect scores from at least two SAT subject tests. These are exams that test in-depth knowledge of specific subjects. You can pick from a list of subjects like physics, chemistry, math, English literature, world history and foreign languages.

In addition to this, some colleges require TOEFL to ensure that you posses sufficient English skill. However, a good SAT score will waive this requirement, so check the college's website. You are recommended to take AP or Advanced Placement Exams. You can also send additional material such as an arts supplement, research done, a resume or an extra recommendation letter.

When can one start preparing for admissions, how much time is required?

For most colleges in the U.S., the deadlines are in December. I started putting together my material and preparing for standardised tests right after Class XI, and before Class XII started. I would recommend starting earlier.

Students need not worry about SAT score. Anything above 2200/2400 is considered a competitive score, even for the Ivy League universities there. About a month of serious preparation is sufficient. Taking as many mock tests as possible is best for students.

How did you prepare?

I first acquainted myself with the format of the test and the different sections, and then tried to do one practice test a day from the prep books till the test date. I finally wrote my SATs in June. I understood the basic process of applying in the meantime.

I then spent the next couple of months researching the colleges that I would apply to, as well as looking at the CommonApp and its essay requirements. In October and November, I took my SAT Subject Tests.

The most important thing I had to do during this period was writing the essays that were to be submitted along with college applications, and filling in the CommonApp.

I started applying by the regular deadline, which was first week of January for most colleges. I would suggest that students start doing their essays ahead of time, because they play a large role in the admissions process and need a lot of preparation. It is better to apply for standardised tests such as the SATs early, because test centres fill up quickly and it's very inconvenient to travel to a different city in the middle of the application process and 12th grade.

Your tips for students in choosing the right university?

Brand name and prestige are certainly not everything. If you are willing to do a little bit of research, there are many community colleges, liberal arts colleges and public universities that provide great value for money and excellent undergraduate education. Make sure your college has the programme that you want to pursue, as well as extra-curricular activities that you are passionate about.

Is an essay submission necessary along with application?

Students are expected to write an essay and it is based on this that the admission officers assess the candidate — personality, talents and passions. Work on these essays meticulously and avoid last minute preparations. For essays that want to know why you wish to study at a particular university, details help — read through the college websites and figure out specific, distinct reasons that substantiate that you are applying because you know about the college and think it fits you well.

Scholarships and funding. How do you go about it?

Many colleges in the U.S. provide need-based financial aid for all students who are admitted, including international applicants. However, most colleges do take requests for financial aid into consideration while making admissions decisions, except for a few need-blind institutions such as MIT, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth and Amherst. In addition, merit-based scholarships are provided by a lot of colleges as well as other organisations.

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