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'Testing out' can save time and money
A Gupta
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January 18, 2008

Miss A Gupta recently graduated with a Bachelors degree in Computer Science and Engineering from Texas A&M University. Here she shares some of her experiences with

Why I decided to study in the US
I wanted to do something different. Didn't want to get stuck in the rat race, where at the end your grades would be the only thing that mattered. I needed more from college than that. Not to mention the level of responsibility and maturity traveling to and staying alone in a different country would bring.

I believed an education in the US would not only be well rounded, but would me an extra edge over others that is many times harder to achieve in India.

Another main and personal reason was support from my brother. All through high school he'd been recommending this, and it wouldn't have been possible without him.

How I applied
Again, my brother had done most of the research for applying to graduate school. So I just pretty much followed what he did. For a Bachelor's degree, here's briefly how I went about the application process:

~ End of Grade 9: I decided for sure, to go to the US for my under-graduate studies and I mentally prepared myself for it.

~ Grade 10 through early Grade 11: I gradually prepared for the SAT. There are tons of handbooks available for this.

~ Grade 11:  I arranged for attested copies of mark-sheets, got letters of recommendation from teachers, worked on my resume and statement of purpose etc.

~ Grade 11: Bough the 4-year (undergrad) college handbook. Shortlisted about six colleges based on majors I was interested in, ranking, fees, and geographical area (would be coming to the US when I was 17, so our family preferred a place where we had relatives near by.

~ Grade 11: Took the SAT-I and SAT-II (specific subject tests) and TOEFL. Browsed websites of shortlisted colleges. Could apply online for most. Prepared other documents such as proof for financial support.

~ Grade 11: Prepared and mailed application packages to the short-listed colleges.

~ Grade 12: Sat back and waited to hear from colleges, then finally decided to go with Texas A&M.

Obstacles that I faced
The process was really new to me. One obstacle of sorts was making up my mind about what colleges to shortlist. There were too many options! It can be quite overwhelming.

There were three factors that helped me shortlist the colleges I applied to. I started with the university's ranking in my field. The next major factor for me was the fee. I didn't want to burden my parents for total financial support for all four years, so I wanted to apply to a place where I could manage at least part of the expenses, and hopefully get some scholarships.

The final factor was applying to geographical areas where we had family near by. I guess this is (mildly) relevant only for undergraduates usually since we're only 17-18 years old when we apply and having someone near by makes it easier.

Another factor that may be considered to further shorten the list is the job statistics on graduates from that college. The climate/weather, student body size, extra curricular activities etc may also be considered.

Also, I had no clue about the statement of purpose (SOP). I remember I hated writing that!

My brother gave me a rough idea about what the intent of an SOP was. I had to sit down and think hard about why I wanted to pursue the field I was applying for. Good for some, bad for others, an SOP is kind of story-telling -- what got you interested in the field, and what you plan to do with it in the future?

After I'd scribbled down a vague sketch of it, I searched online websites (thanks Google!) for sample SOPs. I looked at the different writing styles, reviews on how effective they had been (where available) and went with a version that I thought was heartfelt and honest.

However, in most sample cases, there is an exaggeration of lessons learned in the past, and aims/hopes for the future.

My first year in the US of A
I really didn't know what to expect my first year, I guess I just absorbed what was going on around me. I gradually learned to manage on my own. The freedom in certain things (picking courses, apartments, just figuring out how to live my life etc) was fascinating and so exhilarating. I must say, it felt really good to have managed things on my own.

I learned a lot from everyone around me made a few mistakes had to, in order to learn.

Now when I think about it, I think I pretty much spent the entire year in a daze.

A few stumbling blocks
I faced nothing too excessive or embarrassing thankfully. As far as academics go, the main challenge is to understand the structure of how courses work here.

'Testing out' of courses (before you enroll in them!) saves you both time and tuition money. I had no idea about how the honors college enrollment here worked or that I could take tests to skip courses that I thought I already knew which is a great opportunity for students coming from India. After all, we are notorious for being good at math and science courses.

A common mistake many freshmen make, is not meeting with their advisors frequently. Academic advisors can help you select courses, schedules, tell you how you can get out of sticky situations, tell you about awards/ honors/ scholarships/ research projects you can work in. Also, if you plan to go to graduate school, they're a good contact for recommendation letters.

Another lesson I learned was about how important networking is. Being an introvert, this was a challenge for me initially, one I'm still working on. Making friends across different majors/ courses, academic levels (undergraduates, graduates, doctoral students and even faculty!), and cultures (never just stick with Indians) is very important for a well-rounded education.

My last piece of advice is to be involved in extra curricular activities, and give back to the community (nothing's more satisfying than that!).

Having successfully graduated...
The experience was amazing and quite rewarding! Classroom education was only a part of what I received here.

Extra curricular activities, leadership, teamwork, social service, friendships, handling responsibilities added so much value to the education I received.

Managing on your own, makes every small (and not-so-small) victory that much sweeter!

The friends, values, skills, and lessons I got out of this experience just couldn't have been found elsewhere.
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