Viral Doshi’s voice is calm, collected and clear. Facts and figures about popular courses in overseas colleges, fee structures, admission procedures, requirements... he can reel it all without missing a beat. Little wonder, many parents of subcontinent school students preparing to go overseas for higher education have Viral’s telephone number on speed dial.
Billed as one of the top mentors and go-to educational consultants, Viral, who has offices and associates in Mumbai, Dubai, Singapore, London and New York, prepares around 150 students every year to enter some of the best colleges and universities in the US, UK, Canada and Singapore, among other countries.
A graduate from Cornell University, he quit a banking job after a couple of years to return to India to join his father’s firm manufacturing super alloys in Mumbai. But the turning point came following a workers’ strike at the firm. ‘That made me decide that I’d had enough of manufacturing,’ says Viral, in a telephone interview with Friday.
‘It was the ’80s and there were plenty of Indian students who were keen to go overseas for higher studies,’ says the father of one, who started off by offering advice and mentorship sessions for a few friends’ children. Having studied in the US and UK and later helping his son go to Princeton and Harvard, Viral was aware of the procedures necessary to land a seat in Ivy League colleges.
‘Initially I took it up as a hobby providing advice to students on how to go about earning a seat in a good university overseas,’ he says. But Viral soon realised ‘that what excited me most was mentoring students for higher education’. Switching careers he set up a company, Viral Doshi Associates, to guide students from the high school level up until they landed a seat in a college.
More than a decade later, Viral today mentors around 150 students a year. His track record is envious — on average, two out of three students he mentors enter an Ivy League college every year.
Viral, who puts in a punishing 18-hour day, also conducts psychometric tests for 14- to 18-year-olds, analysing students’ strengths and weaknesses and helping them map out the best possible career.
Excerpts from the interview:
In a nutshell, what should one keep in mind when considering higher studies overseas?
I’m a big fan of telling parents to allow their child to pursue a course or career that she will enjoy. To students I’d say, ‘It’s not your under-graduate degree but your post graduate qualification that matters. If you do a UG course that you enjoy, you’ll excel. And if you excel, you can pursue a PG qualification of your choice’. The example I often give is of [Chinese business mogul] Jack Ma. He did a Bachelor’s in English but went on to do a Master’s in business administration. [Indian businessman and entrepreneur] Anand Mahindra did a BA in film studies but is running an automobile company. So, follow your passion.
Step 1 for students: By around grade 10 or 12, you need to find out what your passion is or what your career could be. That will help you when considering higher studies overseas.
Step 2 is for parents. To them I’d say it’s important that you understand how to find out what your child’s career is going to be. For that I recommend the student take a psychometric test preferably at Grade 10 or 11. It will analyse her strengths, weaknesses and aptitude. Merging all three, it’s possible to create the child’s career map.
Parents may want their child to pursue engineering but she may not have an aptitude for it; or the child may have an aptitude for law which she or her parents may not have even considered. A psychometric test can help identify three to four careers.
Once the test result is available, the parent and child must read up on the shortlisted careers.
Step 3 would involve meeting with professionals in the industry who’ll be able to offer better inputs about the career and what it’s all about.
Step 4 is job shadowing. Here, the student will shadow people who are in professions that she’d like to pursue. This will give her a clearer picture of her choices of career.
Once the combination of psychometric testing, speaking to professionals and job shadowing is done, the list can be narrowed down to one or two careers that are good or suitable for the student.
The next step is understanding the country where you can pursue a course for achieving a job in your chosen field. The most popular places at the moment are the US, Canada, the UK, and Singapore, in that order. I’d say 98 per cent of [subcontinent] students who go overseas from the Middle East go to these countries.
Parents need to find out the differences and nuances in these countries related to education and work. Typically it takes three years to get a degree in the UK, and four years in the US, Canada and Singapore.
Another important factor is flexibility in course curriculum. Many students pursue higher studies while still not completely sure about what they want to do. A college that offers a flexible curriculum would be ideal for such students. On a scale of one to 10, I’d say [colleges in] the US come in at 10, Canada around 5, the UK and Singapore at around 1 each — you cannot change a lot of subjects in the last two countries.
To parents I’d say, if your child is still a bit confused as to which course/career to pursue, consider the US or Canada. But if she knows what she wants to do, doors to all four countries are open for her.
Next is a very important factor: job placements in the country of study. Many parents don’t consider this when deciding on a university/college overseas. On a scale of 1 to 10, job placements are around 5 for foreign students in the US. Canada is doing well coming in at around 8, Singapore is around 6 to 7, and the UK around 1.
Cost factor is next. Tuition fees in the US is around $85,000 a year which works out to around $340K for four years.
Canada and the UK are around $50,000 a year while Singapore is around $40,000 per annum.
In a nutshell, these are the factors that parents and students need to keep in mind when considering higher education overseas.
How important are academics and extracurricular activities when applying for a college overseas?
That’s an important question. In the US, colleges typically look at five things: academics, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, recommendations and personal essay.
Of these five, academics and SAT account for around 60-65 per cent in the US; extra-curricular activities and recommendations are around 30-35 per cent; and the essay is around 5-10 per cent.
In Canada, academics accounts for around 80 per cent and the rest combined is around 20 per cent.
In the UK, academics accounts for around 90 per cent.
In Singapore, academics and SAT account for around 95 per cent, the rest around 5 per cent.
A professional and experienced counsellor/mentor can advice the child what is the best country, keeping in mind the budget, long-term goals, academics, SAT scores and job opportunities.
The mentor can also offer tips on how to plan from Grade 9 to 12 so she gets into the best country for the career of choice.
When should a student start preparing for her UG studies overseas?
For UG, she needs to start when she’s in grade 9 or 10. Taking a psychometric test at this stage will add a lot of value.
Once she finds out what she wants to do, it becomes easy to understand the admission criteria of colleges. During the next three years in high school (grades 10 to 12), she can prepare a good application to the college of her choice.
Of late, landing a seat in a good college has become a lot more competitive. The number of children applying overseas has increased. So, to stand a good chance and be better placed than her peer group, she needs to have an advantage and the earlier she starts the better it is.
I’ve found that when a mentor/counsellor sets milestones for students to meet, they strive to achieve them a lot more than they would if their parents told them to.
When students sign up with an organisation like ours, we mentor the student over three to four years. We review their progress and see how they are shaping up. This motivates children. In fact, that’s why I decided to be a mentor and a life coach for students from age 14 to 25.
How important is academics vis-a-vis extra-curricular activities (ECAs)?
This is a question I love to answer. Parents have gone completely overboard with ECAs. To me it’s simple: You go to college to study. That is the basic principle. Academics is the most important thing.
To put it another way: First is academics, second is academics, third is academics, fourth is academics and fifth is academics. I’m yet to meet someone who has got into a good college purely because of her ECAs. Yes, I admit you must have them but academics is primary and paramount.
A formula I have is: Grades 9 and 10 should be years for exploration, Grade 11 should be the year of consolidation which involves building up your resume with ECAs, and Grade 12 the year of application.
Allow your child to explore but let her focus on her academics and reading in Grades 9 and 10; Grade 11 should be the time to consolidate building up on her resume and Grade 12 the time to apply to colleges.
So, two years of exploration, one year of consolidation and one year of application. This, I believe, will work like a charm.
Again, academics is paramount, especially consistent academics in Grades 9, 10, 11 and 12; it should show an upward graph all through.
As mentioned earlier, for US colleges, academics and SAT scores make up 65 per cent, for Canada it’s 80 per cent, for the UK it’s 90 per cent and for Singapore it’s 95 per cent.
That’s why subjects a student selects in Grade 11 and 12 are very important — they should help her academic graph go up.
I must repeat, it is only academics that will get you into a good college. A student with sterling academics but with no ECAs will get into a very good college rather than one who has good ECAs but poor academics.
What other points should a parent and student keep in mind when choosing a college overseas?
Point 1. The most important is the student’s happiness; it is something many parents forget to consider. Today, prestige and social appreciation are often deciding factors when choosing a college.
But choose a college where your child will be happy. If she’s happy, she will excel and can then go to a very good graduate college. How do you choose a college? Examine college rankings; that’s one way to decide.
2. Study the curriculum; check if a variety of subjects are available for your child to choose from so she can check out at least a few before deciding what she wants to pursue.
3. Check her peer group. Having a diverse group of students is very important.
4. Check if the college is reputed for its post graduate studies — important if she wants to pursue higher studies there.
5. Check if campus recruitments happen regularly.
Should a student/parent look only at Ivy League colleges or should they also consider community colleges?
Community colleges are wonderful two-year colleges restricted to the US. They are usually ones students go to for several reasons — when they are unsure about their career, if their resume is not strong enough to get admission in a well reputed college, if they are not very fluent in English, or if their academics are weak and they want to build it up.
California has some fabulous community colleges. You earn an associate degree at the end of two years and most of them have tie ups with several highly respected colleges in the country. Typically, you get a walk-in entry into these colleges after two years. Another advantage is that these colleges can help you get acclimatised with the country and the culture.
I’d recommend such colleges to those whose academics are not very strong and who have not been able to build up a good resume.
That said, it is difficult to convince parents to send their children to a community college because it does not have a strong connotation and also because it does not figure among the top ranked colleges.
But I know students who have spent two years in a community college and then entered top colleges in the US. They have told me that those two years in a community college were the best in their lives and that they have built up a strong academic profile and resume. Budget wise too it’s attractive because expenses are almost half to two-thirds that of a university college.
Are medicine and engineering still the most sought-after courses?
As far as the Indian diaspora are concerned, I’d say, yes. They along with law and accountancy are still the popular subjects. But that thinking is slowly changing. The millennial generation is open to pursuing other careers too and the new generation of parents is allowing children to explore other opportunities. In many ways, education of parents is perhaps as important as education of children.
That said, if the student has a very strong proclivity towards maths and science, engineering would be a good choice. Lots of careers have come up in the field of applied maths and applied sciences. What is important is that parents are aware of multiple career options after pursuing degrees in say, history, maths, sciences, etc. One way to do this is to research people who have taken up new careers and jobs. They can act as role models. An education counsellor will be able to enlighten students.
Here again, a psychometric test will clearly reveal a student’s interests. It’s a tool to identify her strengths and weaknesses. One should also test for the student’s passion and aptitude. When an education consultant merges all this, they will be able to identify the student’s career options and suggest the path they should follow and how they should plan their high school and college education.
What courses are set to be popular in future?
One of the most sought after courses is going to be computer science. It’s quite popular in the US. More than 50 per cent of students who go there for higher studies in other subjects, shift to computer science. They find it exciting and the opportunities are immense.
The other subject is biotechnology; it offers a lot of opportunities. Then there’s environmental engineering, Artificial Intelligence, data sciences and material science engineering.
While these are the possibilities and options available, it’s important that your child should have the passion and aptitude for these subjects.
How should one go about seeking scholarships in colleges?
In the US, the term used is financial aid. It is a combination of small merit scholarships and a tuition grant where you can get between 10 and 50 per cent of the tuition fees depending on various factors. Then there’s a programme called work/study where you work on the campus and study at the college. The other option is a student loan which you repay over a 10 to 20 year period.
The financial aid is based purely on the means of the parent. If the parent’s income is below a certain amount then they qualify for aid.
Within America very few universities give aid to foreign students. Aid is popular in small liberal arts colleges in the US which offer humanities and pure science subjects.
But if you ask for aid, some large universities might put aside your application because they may have enough students who are willing to join without aid. So if you want aid in America, opt for the smaller, liberal arts colleges.
In Canada, handsome scholarships are available in some universities. There are also programmes where you can work for one semester and study the next.
UK does not offer scholarships.
In Singapore, one option is signing a bond promising to work there for three years after graduation in which case close to two-thirds of your tuition fees are then paid for.
How important is choice of school curriculum?
Indian, American or British will not make a difference when choosing a college for UG and higher studies. What does matter is doing well in the chosen curriculum.
How important is the personal essay when applying to universities?
This is a frequent question parents and students ask me at meetings and contrary to what many people would believe it is the least important.
Essays matter only 5 to 10 per cent of the entire application. The reason is simple: If your academics and your SAT scores are not good, universities will not even look at your essay.
There’s been a whole halo created around essays and students have come to believe that it is very important. This is absolutely not so. While I must say it is important to write a good essay it is just one small component. Eventually, it is academics, SAT scores and extracurricular activities that matter. Essays make up just 5 to 10 per cent of the entire package.
If you identify the students who have gone to the top five universities, you will see that they made it only the back of very strong academics.
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