Read all you can, write every day
Typically Indian students who want to study abroad tend to be focused on STEM subjects (a common acronym for subjects including Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Even business requires strength in math, which puts the majority of student interests in STEM fields. However, the application process, especially to US colleges, rewards students who can write well, introspect, and think critically about unstructured topics. As a result, what often happens is that students who can clearly handle the technical and quantitative aspects of a course may not be admitted because they cannot demonstrate, nor articulate the significance of their skills and experience.
The best way for students to improve their abilities in these areas is, just like anything else, through practice and exposure. Students, no matter their academic background or interests, who regularly record their thoughts or experiences and reflect on them, do best on college applications. If you consider an application question which asks you to “reflect on a time you experienced failure and what it taught you,” in 650 words, you would be well prepared to answer this question if you had kept a diary over the past several years. This diary need not be shared with anyone, it is just for yourself to reflect back on. Some students say they do not keep a diary because “nothing happens to them” but wouldn’t it be useful to use the diary to think through the fact that nothing happens? Is nothing really happening? Or are you not valuing the experiences you are having? Or does doing nothing remind you of what’s important to you in life – friends, family, travel, etc? Maybe reflecting on this will change your behavior, which will again make you a more competent applicant and student with rich experiences to share with your peers at college.
The other extremely important, but always overlooked area of practice for the application process is reading. Students who are avid readers have a distinct advantage over those whose exposure to ideas is limited to practical or technical experience. No matter the genre of reading, the habit of reading is known to enhance creative thinking abilities. So if you are facing an essay question on application which asks you “if you could be anyone for a day, who could it be?” and you are an avid reader, you might be able to imagine yourself in a scenario other than the one you are currently living. Reading might have taught you empathy and imagination that you can translate in the application process when you are asked about your career goals. Whether this question comes at you in an essay or an interview, the ability to think beyond the immediate circumstances is highly valuable and is built upon by through reading.
Often students ask me “what should I read?” There is no right answer and for years I have said “anything and everything.” But now there is a great resource for students seeking a comprehensive book list – The Open Syllabus Project (http://explorer.opensyllabusproject.org/), which lists the required English-language readings for colleges around the world. While it is impossible to tackle even a fraction of the texts on the list, it is indicative of what a student might be expected to understand once they reach college. And remember that in the US, where colleges have a general education curriculum, even STEM students are required to complete courses in history and literature. If you’re an engineering student, check the list to see if you can cope with a few of the titles.
The good news is that globally the emphasis in education is now shifting from STEM to STEAM (the added A signifies “arts”) so hopefully in the near future even our brightest technological minds will be exposed to creative aspects of their subjects.