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I am an American citizen of Indian origin. I lived my younger life and did my education in India. Like most Indians, I was encouraged to study engineering or medicine. I studied engineering as seeing “blood” was beyond my capacity. I remember the hard work and the intense competition that was required to get into any engineering college in India in the 1980s, leave alone the coveted Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), which was even more competitive. I came to the US in the 1990s on a full fellowship and I have since lived in the Washington DC region. The highlight of my career was working for President Obama in his first administration. I now run a platform called ScaleUP USA which includes an affordable college planning and preparation program called Career Trajectory for US and international high schoolers and their parents. I pay particular attention to college admission processes in the US and India.
IIT Applicant’s Trauma
Skimming through Netflix one evening, I came across a series called “Kota Factory” and binge-watched it! Saurabh Khanna, the creator of the show, has rightly focused on the extreme hardships and trauma that face Indian students while studying intensely for IIT preparation in a small “college prep” town called Kota in Rajasthan, India. The story showcases the lives of students who study morning and evening for two years for the IIT entrance and in between attend normal school. The show validates the lives of these students, their constant state of anxiety about their upcoming ITT entrance exam, regular health issues, and even suicides by those who do not get into the IITs.
Multistage IIT Admission Process
Getting into IIT is a multiple-step process. First, the student needs to take the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) conducted by the Joint Seat Allocation Authority (JoSAA) for the 23 Indian Institute of Technology campuses, 31 National Institute of Technology campuses, 25 Indian Institute of Information Technology campuses, and 19 other Government Funded Technical Institutes. The JEE Main exam is conducted in 331 cities out of which 9 cities are outside India in Colombo, Doha, Kathmandu, Muscat, Riyadh, Singapore, Kuwait, Dubai, and Sharjah. Candidates who pass the JEE mains examination and satisfy the cutoff scores as prescribed by National Testing Agency (NTA) can take the JEE advanced exam.
If you obtain an “All India Rank (AIR)” in the JEE advanced, you are now eligible for an IIT application. The Joint Seat Allocation Authority then allocates you a program based on your choice, availability of seats within the program, and your AIR ranking. The chances that you get the program of your choice in the IIT location of your choice are exceptionally low and only possible for very highly ranked AIR students. So, it is very likely, that even if you get selected for the IITs, you will probably study in an engineering discipline and be in a location at an IIT where you may not want to be! The top 100 AIR students become instant celebrities in towns and across the nation.
The IIT Acceptance Rate:
Figuring out the acceptance rate of IIT is very difficult. Students are allowed to take multiple tries on the exams and accurate data is not easily available for students taking multiple exams or passing them. It is estimated that 2.7 million students attempted the 2021 JEE main exam. As of 2020, the total number of seats for undergraduate programs in all IITs was 16,053. If you assume all who gave the JEE main exam would have liked to join the IITs, the selection rate of IITs would have been 0.59%. Depending on what numbers you choose the selection rate of IIT has been suggested between 0.5% and 2.5%. Pick a number you like in between these numbers, and whatever you choose is still very selective. IITs are perhaps the most competitive colleges in the world. The bigger question is are they worth it and what do you do if you do not get into any of the IITs after your hard work, time spent, and the resources spent by parents on coaching classes? Also worth considering is what does your student do if he or she is not interested in engineering?
Are IITs Worth It?
The short answer is yes. The IITs offer high-quality education at an affordable rate in India where most other engineering colleges are subpar. That does not mean that IIT does not have its quirks and deficiencies. First and foremost, the IIT infrastructure is substantially underfunded by the government, and because of the way IITs, top leadership is selected there tend to be many vacancies at the Director level. The teacher-to-student ratio sure can be improved too. The traditional IITs at Bombay, Madras, Kanpur, and Delhi which were started between 1951 in 1961 are globally acknowledged as exceptional institutions. However, the other IITs that have started more recently have yet to get that global traction. One way to look at it is to see how the IITs are ranked in the QS world rankings.
Comparing IITs to US Universities
We know that the IIT acceptance rate is somewhere between 0.5% and 2.5%. Let us look at two ways to compare IITs to US colleges. In the first table below, let us look at the acceptance rate of the top 10 US universities in the QS world ranking.
Very high-ranked US universities are much easier to get into than IITs. Students and parents should take note of that and plan on a parallel strategy to apply for US colleges at least as a backup. More about this strategy is at the bottom of this article. In the second table let us look at the acceptance rate of US universities that rank near or equal to the IITs in the QS world ranking.
As we can see the US universities ranked by the QS world ranking in or around the ranking of the IITs have a substantially higher acceptance rate than the IITs. The acceptance rates range from about 17% to 70% for US universities while the acceptance rate for IIT was 0.5% to 2.5%. We have now established that it is easier to get into equally rank US colleges than to get into the IITs. Plus, in general, the teaching, the facilities, the infrastructure, and the opportunity to mix and mingle with the international community are much more in US universities. Therefore, it would be prudent for Indian parents to start planning an alternative strategy to IITs by considering the US universities. This is an opportune time for Indian parents to consider such a strategy as the US is no longer eager to secure Chinese students. Therefore university slots, US visas, and other financial aid opportunities may open for Indian students.
Strategy for US Bachelor’s Degree:
The current trend for Indian students and parents for studying in the US is for master's and Ph.D. levels. This Indian trend is very different than other countries that send most of the children to study in the USA at the bachelor’s level. Indian parents and their children need to adjust their strategy for study in the USA, especially considering the top-tier Indian bachelor-level colleges are very difficult to get in and the other Indian bachelor colleges have generally an ordinary quality and are still very costly.
ScaleUP USA’s Career Trajectory, college planning, and preparation program encourages high school student and their parents to start planning for US college education in their freshman or ninth grade to senior or 12th grade. This gives sufficient time for a step-by-step, stress-free approach to US college applications which are a little time-consuming and different than applying for the IIT. The best way to prepare for US education is to take an online, affordable program like Career Trajectory and plan early and often as a family.
Career Trajectory’s digital program focuses on helping high schoolers (9th-12th grade) and college-going kids to start thinking critically about US college education, research career opportunities, and build a custom formula for their future career success in the US and globally. The program focuses on college planning, research, selection, application, enrollment, and financial aid including writing strong essays, securing excellent recommendation letters, building winning resumes, interviewing impressively, and much more. The program is self-paced, affordable, delivered directly from the US, and consists of video presentations that can be easily understood by parents and students. Plus, ScaleUP USA keeps on adding more video content based on the needs of our students and parents. Here are the areas covered by the program currently:
- Planning a US college education strategy
- Building a US college application timeline
- Selecting the optimum US college major
- Selecting the best fit US colleges to apply
- Planning for the US standardized tests
- Student branding for top US colleges
- Applying for full/partial US financial aid
- Securing scholarships for US colleges
- Planning before taking a student loan
- Building a strong US college application
Indian Parents Must Start Now!
Indian parents must start on the career trajectory for US education and a global career early for their children. Yes, there is some risk involved in applying for US colleges and sending your kid to the US alone. But the level of reward that is available at the end far exceeds the risk that you may be taking. The two primary risks are:
- Having to take a student loan to study abroad
- Getting admission to US college (easy) but not getting the US visa
The US universities have made it very simple for international students to apply and join their programs. Each university typically has a robust international students office which helps the students step-by-step and makes it easy for them to integrate into the College community. The US is the land of opportunities. Getting to the US at an earlier age allows the student to assimilate much better and get exposed to more opportunities. Therefore, consider setting your student up for a bachelor’s degree in the US versus a master’s degree. If the student has good grades and a high score on the US standardization test like SAT or ACT there is a significant potential of getting at least a partial fellowship or assistantship.