A Mechanic’s Son, How I Beat The Odds To Study At MIT

Posted on March 23, 2016 in #WhyITeach

By Ayush Sharma

ayush mitI had lived my whole life in Kanpur, where my father works as a mechanic at the PWD and my mom worked in the para-military forces (CRPF) as a constable for 20 years until she retired. I attended the local Kendriya Vidyalaya.
Then at the beginning of my Class 11, I met some volunteers from IIT Kanpur from a social enterprise called Avanti who trained students from low-income backgrounds for competitive exams. I learned that unlike most coaching classes, they did not rely on rote learning but instead had a more engaging pedagogy.

Since I was already fascinated by Physics, I took their scholarship test and qualified for their coaching, which I thought would help me secure admission to a good college. However, during my coaching, I also got to know from Avanti about Yale Young Global Scholars, one of the most prestigious and selective summer programmes for high school students conducted every year by Yale University. I decided I was going to apply and attend this programme. But there was only one problem – I wasn’t good at English.

My Struggles With Mastering English

Though I had a fairly decent understanding of the language, I never had the chance to actually speak English because no one in my circle spoke it. So, every evening when I stepped out for a walk, I would end up speaking to myself! It was a major challenge initially, however, with guidance from Avanti, I was selected, one among only four students to be chosen from India for Yale’s summer programme.

My time at Yale was transformational. For the first time in my life, I had such wide exposure to the world’s most brilliant students and faculty. In addition, my English had really improved and I decided to apply to universities in America for higher studies. I learned that I had to give additional tests like the SATs and TOEFL, and started preparing for them. While the maths section in the SATs were easy for me, I really had to improve and manage my mistakes in the critical reading section.

It was really difficult but eventually, I was able to get a good total score of 2170 out of 2400. The breakdown was – a perfect 800 in maths and 760 out of 800 in critical reading sections, for which I had to work very hard. Where I really messed up was the writing section; I managed to score 610 out of 800. But the most difficult part of the application process was yet to come.

The essays I had to write as part of the application process, were completely different from whatever we have ever done so far in school. These essays require you to think about yourself, what you have been doing, and more importantly why you have been doing the things in your field, and what you have done so far in your life.

Though, I had started to prepare for my essays as soon as I came back from Yale, they took me a long time to finish, and I kept editing and refining them till the time I finally submitted them. I’d like to emphasise that the essays are critical to the US application process. Once your academic abilities are established by your test scores and other projects, it is these essays, which determine the final decision during admissions.

My Thoughts On Indian Education

I have been part of this system since childhood but my brief time at Yale was an eye opener and led me to believe that this isn’t the best way to educate children. There is a lot of room for improvement. Here we often encourage rote learning stress on exam scores. I also feel that the level of science education in India is just not good enough. Many students don’t really get to appreciate what science means, and outside the city, there is almost no awareness or mindset for thinking about what your career opportunities are after school.

In comparison, the system in the US stresses on collaboration, research and out-of-the-box thinking. That kind of learning environment really impressed me. When I came back from Yale, I was more articulate, had a much broader world view. It is then that I decided I wanted to go to a top university for my undergraduate studies. And after a lot of effort and struggles, here I am at MIT, the best engineering college in the world, on a full scholarship.

For those students looking to apply to study abroad, this is my observation — US colleges prefer to accept students who are passionate in their chosen fields of study and are likely to fully utilise resources available to them. For this reason, it is important for you to convey your passion in your application and demonstrate how you have been able to challenge yourself and back that up through tangible achievements.