Episode Title: Immersion. Nitin Jain of Oncourse on Counseling for College Applications. Part I.
Episode summary introduction: Every year US Colleges accept over quarter of a million students from all over the world, into their undergraduate programs. The competition is intense and the preparation starts early in high school.
College Counselor Nitin Jain, Co-founder of Oncourse, India shares how they shape and sculpt aspiring students to become competitive college applicants.
In particular, we discuss the following with him:
Topics discussed in this episode:
Memorable Quote: “The story lies in creating a bespoke experience with the students.”
Episode Transcript: Please visit almamatters.io/podcasts.
Transcript of the episode’s audio.
Every year US Colleges accept over quarter of a million students from all over the world, into their undergraduate programs. The competition is intense, students from over 100 countries typically apply, and the preparation starts early in high school.
The aspiring students turn to College Counselors in their local towns and cities, hoping the Counselors can turn their dreams of getting into a marquee college, into reality.
Today, we talk to Nitin Jain, Co-Founder of Oncourse, a successful college counseling service, based out of Gurgaon, India. Nitin shares his experiences counseling students in India, South East Asia and the Middle East.
Let’s go over to meet Nitin Jain for Part I of the conversation.
Hi, morning. Hi.
How are you?
Very well. And you?
I'm doing well. Thank you. Thanks for joining us on this podcast. College Matters. Alma Matters. And thanks for making the time.
No, absolutely. No problem.
So, what I thought we would do on this podcast is, you know, have a little conversation about Oncourse, want to talk about, a little bit about the background and history. And then let's talk about, you know, the type of students and your basic sense of what works, what doesn't work.
And then also wanted to get your thoughts on COVID-19 and how it is changing the landscape. So those are the three big areas I was hoping to, sort of cover today. Does that sound okay?
Yes Venkat, very good. Thank you very much for this. Sure. I'll start off with a little bit about on course Venkat.
So Oncourse, as you know, is one of India's Top Most education counseling and consulting firm. So this [was] started approximately about 10 years back with a group of five co founders we have who started this company. We currently have a team, I want to say about 26 mentors, all of them have studied overseas from marquee universities, colleges all over, so that's a big USP that we have that all mentors who goes with the students who have actually studied abroad themselves.
We've worked with over, I'm gonna say about, 1550 students over the last 10 years and this is across the world, not only from India, but from all over. In fact, this year, we mark that we've had students with 40 cities all over the world who worked with us well, every year, approximately, I think about 250 to 260 students would go through our services, which is the graduating class, which is matriculating into college. Of course, the total number might be more.
We've got some good results this year. I think like last year, we had about 17, 16/17 Ivy League admissions this year. Over the last couple of years, that's been the record. And of course a bunch of others, including a lot of like Berkeley's, UCLA is Michigan's, UVAs and some of the top schools so that's, that's been the and this is not only us, but across US, UK, Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore. That's been the broad history and the journey of Oncourse. In fact, this year, we had a grand celebration planned for 10 years. Unfortunately, that's been a little bit muted, but life goes on.
Congratulations, congratulations! It sounds like you're doing great work, and you've had some great successes. So, so that's, that's very nice, that's awesome!
So, obviously, you know, all this takes a lot of hard work and a lot of pers.., you know, perspiration. But you know, it's always rewarding, I'm sure when you get to a point where you can enjoy or at least feel good about where you are.
And very, very gratifying working with the students, once they get their placements, they get their acceptances, I think that whole journey makes it really really gratifying as well.
So I kind of wanted to drill down a little bit and see what kind of students, I mean, how do you, are you picking students, are they self selected, or they do the you pretty much, obviously get from the, from these different parts of the world like you mentioned, but is there a, is there a screening process? Or how do you go about that?
So, So, how we typically would start the engagement is with a counseling session.
So with every student whether remotely or here, we would sort of have a discussion with the parents and the student trying to understand in terms of, you know, what is the expectation set the students have, What is the kind of journey they've already sort of, you know, completed thus far and what is the plan ahead?, also show them the kind of roadmap, as to what the next two years or three years of engagement are going to look like, what are the tangibles that we hope to cross together. What are the different milestones you need to do?
So I think in that interactive counseling session, there is a bit of assessment that goes on. I don't think it's a selective process but it's more goal mapping, aspiration setting, and and also trying to understand fitment of the student with the right mentor, like so in that entire process, you because, because, I think in the journey, because a lot of kids would spend at least two years with us. You need to have the right fitment of the mentor whether it's across across disciplines, across personality traits, across just overall fitment and, and, and then in that process we sort of assess what the right fit but and obviously in that process the parent or the student is also assessing if we are the right fit for them to go with. And, and once that journey is done, then we do the signup process and, and move on with the engagement.
[Any] Specific, I mean, geo or regional specific things that you're finding with the strengths and weaknesses of the students or challenges that students are or are you finding they are generally in the same boat?
Actually, no, they're not in the same boat. And having worked with students across geographies, I can tell you that in terms of you know, in the subcontinent region, or more specifically around India, the challenges that we find are plenty, but let's look at the strengths first.
but I I feel a lot of Indian students are extremely driven. I think that's one sort of You know, a common theme that cuts across a large number of students they're driven, they understand that it takes a lot to get there. So they're ready to sort of put in that hard work whether academically or otherwise.
I think that academic profile is normally very strong. So, I think given the fact that that driven the examination system in India, the focus on, you know, elementary and primary, secondary education in India makes their academic profile very strong. I think they realize that they need to be in that top 5% of the class to be able to make, make good college choices. So I think that that part is strong.
If you ask me the very good test takers, I think by the sheer grit determination, the SAT ACT, they try and conquer that part fairly well. Even if naturally speaking, especially English as a genre may not come that easily, but but they work hard, a lot of strong coaching options available and and I think they tend, to sort of, almost master the standardized testing component very strongly. So, So I noticed the basic cutoff practice of academic standardized testing is well established. And I think that's a strength that they work with.
I think they usually the other part, I feel like they work well on is more the academic-related validations are usually already, you know, so in terms of, so if you were to ask them to kind of build a model, do a course, etc, etc. I think that they're quite driven to do that. And to that extent, the basic filtering process keeps them going, given that a lot of colleges would look at this as the first selection.
But the challenge comes in the second part, and sometimes the more significant part, which is what sets you apart, right, what is your standout factor which sort of sets you differently from the rest of the people.
And I think that's where some of the challenges lies here and one of the primary one that we notice, you know, is the diversity I genuinely feel that if you look at 15 profiles from a typical Delhi, Bombay, Gurgaon, one of the big cities school, chances are they'll be undifferentiated, you know, you wouldn't be able to tell one from another because they, they all have 98% of the top this thing, they will all be doing similar kind of courses in high school, their courses of interest is similar. So, you'll find a lot of STEM engineering ComSci related profiles.
So given that, it becomes hard to differentiate one from the other, given that they're almost identical across the board. So, and what also happens is they are seeking the same programs in college. So, So how we want to distinguish, differentiate is through a bunch of other activities like a community engagement, getting them, you know, to have a contiguous effort on a passion activity, that they've done over a longer period of time.
Now, those are areas where there is a challenge because very often out of my experience, initiatives need to be forced on students. And, and, and, and that's where the whole, you know, because you need to tell them, okay, do this, do this, do this versus saying that, hey, I do this, I do this, how do I integrate this?
And, and those kinds of challenges sometimes come up, in a way, and one more if I could, which is something that I've because I've worked with a few students in the US, a few students, even in the UK, I think the kind of opportunities that high school level that students get, whether it is for research, whether it's for volunteering, work, working with a professor or otherwise are not available in India and abroad. As a result, the profile doesn't reflect a lot of that.
So I have noticed students in the US, for example, do tend to get research opportunities far more easily than students here might get. So, So as a result, there is that little bit of challenge that you have.
Well, yeah, when I think I guess that becomes part of the story, right, how you overcome those shortcomings or challenges, and build a better application or build a better profile.
So now that that sounds, that's really good, now, is it? Is that true with some of the other Asian countries as well or would you say this is pretty much standard, if you looked at students in Singapore or Dubai or I mean, are they I mean, so now I am going out of Asia...?
Yeah, yeah. So, So Dubai, we've actually worked with a lot of students, there again, I mean, I think on, on some of the strengths that remain the same, so whether it's Singapore is Dubai. I've worked with the Chinese too. Some of those bit is taken care of.
Yes, there are challenges that come. But I think, for example, Singapore students and this, I'm specifically talking of Singapore there, that community engagement component is really strong. I think just the drive is very strong. The challenges are lesser than I would say in India. But, but I think to be able to integrate all together is something, obviously, that's the reason they're working with us where we help them sort of put this together. But to, But to answer your question, yeah, the challenges are similar, even in some of these countries, but not in US, UK or some of the European countries.
Now, you know, you said there is little or no differentiation with the pool of students and large pools of students in general, then and how do you make it work? See the, you know, and set expectations with both the parents and the students.
Right. So, so, I think that's first and foremost, I think that's the big need where counselors fit in. I think that's, that that's, the that's the kind of story that we will help them stitch up.
Because obviously there is, there are, you need to do something to make you stand out from the crowd. You cannot have 12 students from the same school applying to all the same colleges with identical grades and standardized testing. Right?
So the story lies in actually creating a bespoke experience with the student. When we spend a lot more time given that almost I want to say 70 to 75% of our students who have worked with us over two years, gives us ample time to get to know them, and to be able to serve set up individualized goals in terms of how to differentiate your profile, what kind of activities you need to do.
And and again, Venkat, in India, you'll be surprised that we do a lot of such meetings even with the parents involved because I think the parents need to create The bandwidth in some ways or facilitate a lot of that with the student, because, you know, they will sort of, you know, the resources are not available as easily as it might be.
So I think I think our role lies a lot in being able to work with the student individually when you have a mentor guiding him all through. And it works out.
On aspiration setting expectations. That's a whole different discussion. And I could go on and on about that. We could probably talk about it sooner, but, but I think what works is the student's ability to kind of even listen to us be experimental, try and look at different areas. So when we get more time, we sort of do validations Well, you know, we'll say okay, let's do an internship this summer to see, even if you like this feature or not, right, you want to do engineering. Let's see if you can build a model around this. So I think, continuous training on our part where we sort of work, our counselors actually do Cross Functional Training across disciplines as well, apart from just the application process, and then working with the student to say that do this, do this, do this, is, is what hopefully works and has been working well over the years.
Yeah. I mean, it sounds like this is a complete immersion process, right? I mean, it's a complete immersion on the part of the student and you guys, you have someone on your side, the mentors that jump in both feet, and it's that level of intimacy that you know, over the period of couple of years that, then produces you know, wonderful applications or winnable applications. So,...
And given the fact, sorry Venkat, because, you know, we have depth of management, what usually happens is given that you're, you know, series of founders, so we'll always have two people work with the students. So there is a blend of experience youth sort of coming in both and, and that sort of helps considerably because there is a lot of personalized you know, experience that the senior mentor, let's say like I would work with a certain set of students as a secondary and help them and the parents sort of look at different aspects also.
Hope you liked this podcast with Nitin Jain of Oncourse. Personally, I found the immersion approach to counseling, particularly intriguing and fascinating.
Thank you so much for listening to today's podcast. BTW, You don’t want to miss Part II of the conversation with Nitin.
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Till we meet again, take care and be safe.
Students, India, College, Mentor, Standardized Testing, Counselors, Counseling, profile, fitment, Singapore, Middle East, parents, journey.