Harvard. Stanford. MIT. The names of top colleges often swirl
through the dreams (and nightmares) of South Asian-American high school
"The first priority of an Indian family is always
education," says Bev Taylor, president of The Ivy Coach, an independent college
counseling service in Manhattan and Roslyn Heights, New York. "These parents are
looking for their children to get into the most highly selective colleges that
However, figuring out how to do that can be tough for both
parents and students. Together they need to select appropriate schools, get a
grip on the application process, agree on professional goals and make peace with
the differences between South Asian and American cultures.
The Application Process
The process of applying to U.S. colleges can be daunting.
Although public and private high schools provide college counseling, parents
with high expectations and limited understanding of how the system works often
turn to independent college counselors for additional help.
"The counselor at our sonís school may have a few hundred
students to work with, so he may not be able to give particular attention to
each one," says Narendra Trivedi, of Anaheim Hills, Calif., whose son Nick
(Nikunj), 17, is a senior this fall at Fairmont Preparatory Academy, a private
school in Anaheim Hills. "The outside counselor we hired helped us understand
what is required to get into a good college or university and choose the right
Most independent counselors charge between $2,500 and $3,800
for services that can begin as early as ninth grade. Consultants underscore
their familiarity with numerous colleges and universities. For instance, Mark
Corkery, president of National Planning for Education in Newport Beach, Calif.,
has visited more than 500 campuses.
Consultants know the ins and outs of ever-changing admission
plans, such as whether itís better to apply "early action" or in the general
pool of applicants. They know how much importance colleges assign to various
factors in their decision-making processes Ė GPA, SAT, outside activities, etc.
Consultants urge students to distinguish themselves from the
large pool of South Asian-Americans, most of whom have excellent grades and test
scores, and play musical instruments. Sports and other outside activities can
make a difference, but some parents fear that participation will distract
students from their studies.
"In one of the families I counseled, when a high school
counselor suggested his son try out for the soccer team, the father said he
wasnít going to let his son ruin his life playing sports," says Valerie
Broughton, owner of College Connectors in Minneapolis.
Nevertheless students must find ways to stand out. Taylor,
who says competition among Indian students Ė including best friends Ė is severe,
advises clients to follow their passions. For instance, when a student who
played the piano began composing music, she suggested he try to have some of his
musical pieces published.
Go4College helps students determine their chances for
admission to particular colleges and universities. The online service offers a
money back guarantee to students who use it in their senior year.
"If we say you are 51-to-99 percent likely to get into a
particular school and you donít, weíll refund your money," says company
co-founder, Matthew S. Schuldt.
In July 2006, The Princeton Review launched Small Group
Tutoring. The program allows groups of three students to receive help on
schedules they choose and at prices similar to fees charged for Princetonís
"We started it because of customer demand, and incidentally
that demand started with South Asian families in Queens," says Harriet Brand,
Princetonís director of public relations. "We developed Small Group Tutoring for
families who wanted their children to study with others of the same culture,
language and educational ambitions, as well as for home-schooled students and
other students who had things in common."
South Asian-American students who apply to Ivy League
colleges are in many ways no different from other students applying to the
Ivies, says Steven Roy Goodman, president of Top Colleges in Washington, D.C.
Goodman recognizes there is often a disconnect between the desire for prestige
and the ability of students to achieve that prestige.
"This is more pronounced in the Indian community and to a
certain extent among Pakistanis," Goodman says. "Thereís [often] been
exponential growth in terms of the wealth and prestige of a family in just one
generation, and a tremendous expectation that an Ivy League college or a medical
degree will follow."
Goodman says students and parents show an overwhelming
interest in applying for combined BS/MD programs where undergraduate admission
guarantees admission to an institutionís medical school Ė assuming students
maintain a specified GPA.
At top schools these programs are highly selective. To be
admitted, Broughton says students need to be, "more than smart. The schools also
are looking for a level of sophistication and maturity."
Many South Asian-American parents think their childrenís
lives will be ruined if they donít get into one of the top 10 colleges,
Broughton says. But Corkery points out, "Just because a university has a good
reputation doesnít mean that itís the right one for you."
Whose Life Is This Anyway?
Unlike typical American teens, South Asian-American students
donít get into conflicts with their parents over colleges and career goals, says
Sonja Montiel, president of College Confidence in West Lake Village, Calif.
"The students have such a high level of discipline, respect
and trust that when the parent says, ĎThese schools are right, this is the
program he should be in,í the student agrees," Montiel says.
For instance, Nick Trivedi describes his parents as "Ö really
liberal for Indian parents." However Trivedi adds, "my dad always wanted one kid
to go to Stanford."
Trivedi admits he wasnít a big fan of Stanford. "I decided my
chances of getting in are unlikely, but itís just a few essays, so Iíll apply.
Why not make my dad happy?"
As for professional goals, parents often have more to say
than students, Taylor says. "When it comes down to it, itís really about what
the child wants also, but the child wants what mommy and daddy want. Heís been
brought up feeling that way."
Ketki Warudkar, 17, a senior at Irvine High School in Irvine,
Calif., has parents who work in what she calls, "hugely successful industries."
Her father works in computer science and her mother in biomedical engineering.
"They encouraged me to follow those careers and I agreed
because thereís nothing different I see that I want to do," Warudkar says.
Besides where to go and what to study, South Asian-American
students and their parents may face cultural challenges. For instance, the
concept of co-ed bathrooms is abhorrent to the vast majority of South Asian
families, Goodman says.
"Many of these families donít support the casual campus
atmosphere at a lot of American colleges," he says. "But they are often put in a
position in which their daughter is accepted to a selective university where the
family supports the academics but doesnít embrace the social situation."
Girls are more sheltered than boys. Boys are allowed to move
far away for school whereas girls are assumed to need a more protected
environment, a less urban setting and family members or close family friends
Sonia Kanjee, a 2006 graduate of Niles Township High School
North in Skokie, Ill., chose the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
just two hours from home, over the University of Miami in Florida. Of Pakistani
descent, sheís the first in her immediate family to go to college.
"My parents were very uncomfortable with me applying out of state," Kanjee
says. "They are still worried about bad habits I might pick up in college."