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Counsellors take the pain out of foreign admissions

For students aspiring to go abroad for education and their parents, the role of education counsellors is becoming increasingly important

Anjuli Bhargava 

Arjun Seth of EdBrand having a one-on-one session with a student on the parameters she can use to list the right-fit colleges

They are young, they are with it, and above all they have spotted an opportunity. Meet and Rahul Subramaniam, both fairly recent Princeton graduates who have set up a firm that will help your son or daughter get into the US Ivy League colleges or an Oxford or a without all the headaches of examining countless options (this includes colleges across various countries which we didn’t even know existed), filling endless forms, writing innumerable essays and taking the required tests. Short of accompanying your child on the flight or attending class with him, counsellors like Agrawal and Subramaniam will take care of all the tensions associated with the process. In fact, they promise to go a step further by helping your child discover what he really wants to do or where his passions lie.

It’s not as if consultants like the duo didn’t exist earlier. Small firms or individuals offering similar services have been around for a while, since the late 1990s at least, but with the number of youngsters leaving the country to study overseas rising rapidly, many new firms and individuals have jumped into the fray. Older firms find they are handling a far larger number of students than when they started.

Although reliable data on this is hard to come by, a study by researchers from Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore found that the number of Indian students going abroad to study rose a stunning 256 per cent in the nine years from 2000 to 2009: from 53,266 to 189,629. Counsellors and parents say that it is not uncommon to find that almost 50 per cent of a class of students who complete their Class XII schooling from elite Indian schools — be it in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru or Chennai — head out of the country for under-graduate degrees. Unlike in earlier years, where typically 3-4 students of a class would have left to study abroad (usually for post-graduate studies), it is now the norm to leave much earlier.

(third from left) and (extreme right) with students aspiring to study abroad
While schools typically do have counsellors who work with students and give them the initial guidance, they cannot hand-hold the individual students through the entire process the way counsellors can. For doing that, they can charge anywhere between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 3 lakh per student; this works out to a tidy sum for the counsellors every year, depending on the number of students helped. Parents with busy lives and demanding jobs, who can afford the Rs 20-25 lakh a year to fund their children’s foreign education, don’t mind paying to have their involvement reduced.

Independent counsellors are available across cities, and people in the business say that almost all the large metros have five to six good, reliable counselling firms that offer such services. They don’t usually advertise and new business is secured mostly by word of mouth.

“The industry is largely unregulated. A challenge for parents is distinguishing agents (who work for specific colleges or universities and who claim to offer advice for free) from independent counsellors and making sure that the counsellor they work for is delivering quality,” says Arjun Seth, who started — which has offices in Delhi and Gurgaon — almost 12 years ago. He began small, working with 6-8 students a year; now the number has gone up to 70-75 a year. currently has a team of six counsellors, two of whom are Harvard graduates.

Not only has the attraction for studying overseas gone up, but so has the number of colleges available as well as the countries that offer good education, making the entire process rather complex. Ask the parents of any 17-18-year-old who is in the fray for a course beyond the seas, and they will tell you they lose sleep over their children’s applications to these institutions. Guidance through the complex maze of an institution’s requirements is something most parents look for.

In the case of Agrawal and Subramaniam, both had the option of picking up reasonably lucrative jobs post their Princeton education (and Subramaniam did work in the US for a while) before the two college mates decided to set up Athena Education, headquartered out of Gurgaon, in April this year. Subramaniam, who was born, bred and educated in the US, had to convince his parents of the merit of not going the conventional way and moving to India to set up his fledgling operation.

The two are now mentoring 35-odd students — their first batch — helping them through the entire process, including taking their SAT examinations. They don’t guarantee where your child will go; but they do promise to help him or her find what he or she wants to do — something that is getting increasingly unclear to young minds in a world of increasing choices. “Earlier Indians looked at their children becoming doctors, engineers, architects and so on. Well, now parents have started considering other options as viable,” says Agrawal. He says Athena is already working with children as young as 14 to help them figure out where their interests lie and how best to achieve where they want to reach.

To evaluate a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses for getting admission into an Ivy League college, these consultants have a variety of methods. For one, they examine whether the student has a strong academic profile. This comprises their grades, the rigour of their courses, SAT scores and more. “We also look at whether the student has taken any independent initiatives, such as doing research projects, or if he has demonstrated initiative outside of academics. Is he a student leader? Has he exhibited any artistic or athletic skills?” says Agrawal.

Students are also assessed and compared with their peers around the country and around the world. A series of interviews with the student and parents are held to understand student psychology.

The other massive change today is that students don’t go only to the US, UK or Australia for further studies, all familiar territory for parents for several years now. Hong Kong, Singapore, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand and Canada, among others, have all become fairly common destinations. It is unreasonable to expect young students who are also grappling with studies in Classes XI and XII to go find out about the formalities required to be completed for such a wide range of college options. In many cases, there are differing regulations, visas and other paperwork to be considered too.

The range of options as far as degrees go is also very wide, and quite unlike what was available in the past. For instance, students can now even pursue degrees that allow them to study one year in the US, another in Europe and a third in Asia. They also get to choose where they would like to complete their fourth year from among these three places. Safe to say it is indeed a new world out there that requires expert advice.

First Published: Sat, December 13 2014. 00:24 IST