Applying For Admission to the U.S.?
Number of foreign students studying in US increased for the first time in four years buoyed by a 32% increase in number of Indians joining graduate programs. Graduate education in US has become increasingly popular for Indians meanwhile undergraduate population of Indian students in US is still far behind (about a sixth of the graduate population) and for good reason. Here, I try to come up with a guide of issues that an incoming undergraduate applicant may want to think about before coming to US.
Undergraduate education in US is extremely expensive, especially at top-tier private schools, and given the income disparity (in dollar terms) between India and US. In addition, the chances that an international student will get hired right away after graduation with a top-notch salary are slim given visa issues. A prospective undergraduate applicant may also want to factor in the pressure that s/he is likely to come under (or feel) if his/her parents are taking a large loan to finance their education. There is also a good chance that the undergraduate will probably have to work 20 hours per week (or more illegally) to supplement his or her income, which in turn will cut into the study time.
Age and associated factors
Add to the above the fact the relative immaturity and youth that make it harder to adjust to a completely new culture. It is not merely adjusting to a new culture but adapting to it to such a degree, and with enough rapidity, so as not distract you from studies for a significant time.
Going to a liberal arts college in US allows one a lot of choice in sampling different courses. This kind of choice is relatively absent in colleges in Asia or even Europe. Then there are top-tier facilities, labs, faculty etc. which may make the expense seem worth while. In addition, doing an undergraduate degree will almost certainly improve your chances of doing graduate school here.
If you have considered the above arguments and still want to apply for getting an undergraduate degree in US, then here is the drill -
The preparation should ideally start at least about a year and a half before you want to join the school. An international student needs to give TOEFL (Test for English as a foreign language), SAT and generally SAT 2s in at least one or more subjects - especially if you are applying to top universities. English of course would be the main challenge. Given that SAT now has a writing section; it is of paramount important that students develop good writing skills. You may want to engage a tutor to understand "expository" writing techniques. A preparation program can be really helpful especially because you will get to meet people who are in the same boat. Preparation center staff can also provide you helpful pointers on admission essays etc.
It is foolhardy to limit your choices to Harvard or MIT or two other top universities that you may have heard of in India. There are a lot of top-tier universities in US including Princeton, Stanford, Darmouth, Yale, UC Berkeley, Cornell, Georgetown etc. It is imperative that you apply to at least 8 -10 universities. There may also be an argument for applying to mid ranked private schools like Boston University or NYU for typically they have the dollars to fund top international students. One type of university you don't want to apply to is - large state universities that never fund international students at undergraduate level and typically won't do much for your career prospects.
A lot of top universities engage in what is called "need blind admission". Chances are that once you are admitted into Harvard or Yale and don't have the money to pay for their tuition, they will pony up the rest. On the other hand, chances are that your family will still need to contribute a good 10-15 grand an year. It is also a mistake to imagine that all the "aid" from universities will be in the form of grants, a majority of the aid is in the form of subsidized loans.
The art of getting into a US university is self-aggrandizement and careful positioning. It is expected that your application will include records of volunteer activity, membership to various clubs and other "leadership" experience. The other important thing in application is how you place yourself academically - here's what I mean - say, if you are great in Chemistry - give a SAT II exam for Chemistry and get a 750 plus score on it and then write how much you want to get a Chemistry degree in your "Statement of Purpose". Given the way universities in US work, one can change fields on the first day of the school so you can still do engineering or English literature.