DU Beat interviewed Soundaraya Balasubramani who recently published her debut book, Admitted, on foreign admissions, becoming the most comprehensive guide for foreign education.
Soundarya Balasubramani is an NIT Trichy Gold Medalist and a graduate of Management Science and Engineering from Columbia University. In addition to being a stellar student, she has bagged dozens of awards over the years, including the S.N. Bose scholarship, J.N Tata endowment, and MITACS. With her debut book Admitted, the most comprehensive guide on foreign education in the market, she has added another feather to her hat.
Samya: At one point in the book you refer to how it arose out of a need to create a hitherto missing ‘self-help guide’ for students hoping to acquire education abroad. What aid did you mainly find missing during your own journey that prompted you to take up the task: a lack of mentors, a confusing daze of resources, or something else?
Soundarya: A very good question, actually. I got into one of my top choices without a guide because 3 years ago I didn’t have anything like Admitted the book with me. I think the right answer is that you don’t realize that Admitted is a missing guide until you go through the experience of studying abroad. Only after going through the experience yourself do you wish that someone had told you something before. That’s why even on my website we mention that you can get into your dream school without the book, but it will facilitate your journey. What Admitted gives you is 100s of hours that we spent researching, our mistakes and learnings, as well as a framework of best practices that you can follow every step of the way. I personally found missing a centralized resource that could guide me every step of the way and also give me a hint of what studying abroad feels like. So, yeah, Admitted is one of the things that you don’t realize is missing until you do. Admitted portrays my mistakes as lessons for others.
Samya: You have indeed gone one step ahead, of any consultancy agency or previously public resources on the matter of foreign education, in aiding overseas education hopefuls. Moreover, you talk about how the proceeds from the sales of the book will go completely to charitable causes, particularly in the educational sector. I’d like you to elaborate on the same for our readers.
Soundarya: It is hard for me to recall the point at which I began to think that way, but I remember having a conversation with Sai, who is one of the contributors, way back in February. Then we were at the beginning stages of the entire process, and the project was just a 50-page e-book. We remember deciding that we should contribute some proceeds from the book back to the community. But it wasn’t until May, or maybe June, that I began to really think that all proceeds of it need to go back to the community. I am most excited about how we have created this Win-Win-Win model, where my team won by going through an incredible journey of 9 months in creating a book with a lot of design with it; the readers will win by purchasing it at an affordable cost and deriving a lot of value out of it; and finally, the community will also win as we pump money out to people who need it the most, but don’t have resources to pay for good quality education or consultancy. Hopefully, when they graduate out of schools and colleges, the readers will think about higher education and creating more such innovative tools to help others. A nice virtuous loop will thus be created out of this.
Samya: In one place you mention how the project began as an attempt to compile all articles that you had written on the subject of foreign education. It has since evolved into the most comprehensive guide on the subject. What are your thoughts on this evolution and what has been your learning along the way?
Soundarya: There are so many learnings but I am just going to talk about one right now. I’ve about 20 wise notes on my phone: Before going to sleep I would just record the thoughts I had, the things I learned, and the highlights from the day. Admitted officially began on December 27th, 2019, when I sent a message to Sai asking if he’d be interested in compiling all my articles for a short book. It was really a snowball effect: every week we’d add one more block to this project and it became bigger and bigger. My greatest learning in writing this book is that it is very important to grab a hold of good ideas and act on them. They’re like clouds that need to be captured. You’ve so many ideas every day and It takes experience and time to develop the intuition that something is a good idea in the first place. What I did right, I think, is that whenever someone gave me an idea, I followed through on that. Rishabh is one of the people who contributed to the book in a very big way. He is the founder of a US-based startup called Gradly. He was very generous with his time. At one meeting he showed me that this is how the design system for your book should be. At that time, I had already designed the first chapter of my book with Komal, my designer, and I thought I was done with it. I just wanted to get things out fast and didn’t want to focus too much on the design of the book. Then Rishabh said that every page needed consistency and foundational design elements. Thank god I listened to him! We spent a month just laying the foundation of the book’s design. It wouldn’t be even half as good as it has turned out to be if we didn’t have that planning in the first place. If you look at the book, then you see that every page has these illustrations, icons, legends, etc. That makes it an interesting, engaging, and insightful read. I am a writer and I like creating content; I won’t call the process selfless, because I personally took home a lot from the experience of making it. Srinivas, the publisher of the book, gave me the idea of adding a bookmark and a personalized letter to each copy. This wasn’t something I thought of myself. It enhanced the final product from the experience of someone just liking a book to absolutely loving it. So far, we’ve received very loving feedback.
Samya: You’ve shared some beautiful anecdotes on how your anticipated life path was lab research, but some soul searching surprisingly landed you in the field of management. I think that there are a profound philosophy and layers of advice for students in this. Would you like to elaborate on the same?
Soundarya: Until the 3rd year of under graduation, I was sure that I would be a scientist, or would definitely be pursuing a doctorate degree in chemical engineering. In hindsight, I can only speculate why I made specific decisions in life. Even in your case, you might’ve picked up a specific university, if you ask, think about it, then you can make some guesses about why you chose a particular university. It has been 3, maybe 4 years, since I made that decision of moving away from research. I was at the University of Wisconsin for the S.N. Bose scholarship program, and I remember feeling that I didn’t have the same passion for what I was doing there as my peers did for their projects. That was a signal that something was wrong. Until then, I didn’t really have a reference point about whether or not I would enjoy what I was planning to do. You see, I was very good at being a student and I think I was a very good researcher as well. And this is where the distinction of you not necessarily loving what you’re good at arises. I highly encourage students to ask themselves ‘do I like this because I am good at it, or because I deeply feel that this is the best way forward for me in life.’ For many students the answer is former. It took me four months to go from doing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering to engineering management at Columbia. I had founded a social organization during my undergrad and the experience of working with people and leading them on short-term projects was so much more exciting than working in labs for me.
Samya: I love the way you wove in the concepts of Flow and Ikigai into your narrative on ‘self-reflection while considering the finer points of foreign education’. I’d like you to elaborate on these in your own words for the benefit of our readers.
Soundarya: I am a huge fan of the book and it was one of my favorite books from 2019. It is written by a Hungarian American researcher. He describes the flow as this mental state where you lose track of time and space around you and don’t focus on anything in your surroundings except what your current activity, which could be anything: from dancing to reading to cycling. Based on 25 years of research on what makes people happy, he stated that people who achieved this Flow state of mind more often were happier than others. They led the most meaningful lives. Everyone should aspire to a life path that allows them access to this mental state more often. ‘Ikigai’ is a Japanese concept. It literally translates into what ‘gets you out of bed in the morning.’ It lies at the confluence of 4 factors: what you love doing, what you can be paid for, what the world needs from you, and what you’re good at. My book kind of shows people a path to find their Ikigai. So ideally, you should choose a career lying at the sweet spot of all these quadrants. When you do, you’ll lead a very meaningful life. I talk about these concepts in the second chapter of my book How to Choose a Major. For some people, this is an obvious choice, for others not so much. Unfortunately, in India, we do not take a lot of time to understand what major will be the best for us. It is almost like a tunnel: if for instance, you choose computer science then you’re supposed to continue with it for the next four years. I saw this norm in my case and couldn’t change my undergrad degree for my master’s. There is a need for self-reflection: so many students remain stuck in something that they are perhaps good at but do not have the passion for.
Samya: You’ve recorded your graduate life in much detail even in YouTube videos. Would it not be correct to assume that the book was in fact many-many years in the making and its focus on detail an outcome of a trove of accumulated experience?
Soundarya: I am so surprised you asked this question because it shows how insightful you’ve been in catching this. Although I’ve been saying that it took 9 months to launch the book, in actuality it took years to make it. These are the things that are under the iceberg and you don’t really see them. So. Many concepts that I talk about in the book are concepts that I’ve come across in the last 4 or 5 years. I remember listening to a podcast by Nobel Laureates Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee on a case study they conducted in Kenya, South Africa. I spent two hours researching the concept to include it in the book. Something in me told me to use some other example, but I was dead set on this. So, similarly, it was years of reading and reflecting and hundreds of hours of research that made the book.
Samya: At one point, you very interestingly merit foreign education as a means of creating tools. Would you please elaborate on the same?
Soundarya: This is something I mention in the prologue of the book where I talk about how you’re almost in a narrow lake when life begins. You don’t have many choices as the people around you impose certain restrictions on what you can do. When you reach college, you reach a small pond. This pond is smaller or bigger in terms of opportunities for different countries and universities. The pond keeps expanding as your education becomes more specialized. You are doing this in order to be more valuable to society and to yourself. It is similar to adding tools to a toolbox. Over time you reach a stage where you want to use the tools to build something to benefit the society. This is what I did in the book: I used my personal tools like writing and accumulated experience to create a new tool or resource: Admitted, the book. I hope it will benefit many students.
Samya: You mention how one of the distinguishing features of your book is the fact that it encourages the reader to think and innovate for themselves. After reading, I personally cannot agree more. It indeed presents concepts and asks us to think through and fit our own life experiences into them. Would you please share your thoughts on this?
Soundarya: There is a quote by Charlie Munger, head of one of the world’s leading investment firms, in a really wonderful book called ‘How to take smart notes’ that I am reading right now. He says, “the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form”. You’ve to have mental models in your head and you have to hang your past experiences on this latticework of mental models. If you just know facts from different sources, like the number of universities in a city, that won’t help you at all. You need to learn what the best practice frameworks are from those who know the best. And once you know all this, you can’t just follow it all blindly. You need to think about how it fits with my background and life experiences. I want my book to be perceived that way by my readers. Students should first reflect on the mental model that I am prescribing, the best practices written down, and then develop a plan to use these as fits them best.
Samya: At one place you mention how the book tilts towards providing assistance on matters related to a US-based higher education. How far will it benefit someone who wishes to pursue an education in some other part of the world?
Soundarya: The answer is that it will absolutely benefit those who are headed to countries other than the USA. Even though at the end of the day my narrated experiences are related to the USA, the mental models that I have mentioned can be used by anyone. For instance, in one chapter on shortlisting universities, I present a quadrant framework of factors to be considered. Anyone can use this whatever country they’re headed to. It’d be very beneficial, so long as a reader is mindful of whether a reference to the USA at a place completely changes the message. For instance, in one place, I mention the F1 visa which is completely US-centric.
Samya: Given your experience and insight into the field, any advice for foreign-education hopefuls living through and planning during the pandemic?
Soundarya: First of all, I’ve no idea how students are coping right now because I cannot imagine having to defer your education. I remember how excited I was to begin at Columbia. It is really sad and disappointing. But I think that everyone has come to a stage where everyone has accepted it and is now looking for newer avenues in spite of it. It is very important to adapt to the new era of education. We’re not going back from online education for a long time now. In such a case, I’d recommend students to continue hustling and looking for ways in which they can stand out. An online education eats on the virtue of in-person interaction. But you don’t have to attend classes in person anymore. So you save on the time you once spent on your commute. What you need to ask yourself is how can you keep in touch with the community even in these times. Now you’ve more time to prepare for going to a new country. This situation is a longer runway before they take off. I think a change of perspective is required.
Samya: The most lucid part of your book, in my opinion, is right at the beginning, wherein you present a number of situations to the reader for deeper reflection on whether or not a foreign education merits their ultimate goal. Would you please elaborate on this process and the interesting narrative for the benefit of our readers?
Soundarya: My motive with that chapter was to encourage students to think twice before pursuing foreign education because as life-changing as the experience might be, it is really expensive, difficult, and full of anxiety-inducing cultural shocks. It is as difficult as it is rewarding. I personally think that everyone in the world should have the experience of going abroad for studies at least once in their lifetime. It makes you more humble, courageous and widens your perspective.
Samya: Given the importance of ‘networking’, not only in achieving fellowships and scholarships but also in giving ultimate fruition to foreign education, I would really appreciate it if you could give detailed insight into the concept.
Soundarya: Networking should be one of the main skills that people learn while growing up. Julie Sweet the CEO of ‘Accenture’ said in an interview that she focuses on building connections, not for job offers or promotions but to learn from them. Networking is something that I heard only after coming to the USA. Here, we had networking events every week: I’d have to dress formally each time, go, and interact with complete strangers. I want students to think of networking as something that helps you build very human relationships. One in every five people that you interact with should become a long-term acquaintance of yours.
Soundarya Balasubramani’s debut book Admitted is now available in the market here.
Feature Image Credits: Soundarya Balasubramani