Hi. This is Rahul Thathoo. I am a First year Masters student in the Computer Science Department here at Stanford University. I moved here on campus a couple of weeks back after completing my engineering in India and thought that I should pen down my take on how to get into a foreign university of the stature of Stanford. This is going to be a partwise blog, where I deal with certain issues in one part, and issues specific to the application process in another part and so on.Getting into Stanford is not that difficult as many of you may perseive. After all, they took me in! And if I can get into Stanford, then everyone and their grandmother can too! So let me start off by giving you a bit of my background information. Contrary to what many of you may have already pre-conceived, I did NOT go to IIT. I completed my Bachelors of Technology from the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Allahabad.
I cleared the IITJEE in 2002, and my interest at that time were subjects related to computer science and electronics. Since my rank couldnt get me into the IITs in the branch of my choice - I decided that i would go with my heart and ditched the idea of being an IIT-ian so as to be able to study what i really wanted to. This is another important aspect I want to underline here, always do what your heart says - ever heard of the term - 'put your heart and soul into it and you will succeed' - when you put your heart to something, your soul will follow and what you will have at the end of it is Success with a capital S! So if you want to come to Stanford just to get the big brand-name associated with it or just for the weather or the blond chics, I am afraid your application will not move ahead of the admission committee disposal bin. But if you want to come to Stanford to explore broader horizons of application(and research) in your area of interest, if you want to meet people with similar interests and similar zest as yours, and if you want to be something more than 'just another professional' - then it will reflect on your application material and you will be welcomed with open arms (Of course if you are Dhirubhai Ambani's son or Narayan Murthi's daughter then we need a whole new blog to discuss that!).
So the journey toward Stanford beings rather early. "How early?" - you ask. Well in this part I want to tell you what I did in the four years of college in India - which made the admission committee take a deeper look into my application and later, grant me the admission offer. What happens to people in India when they get into college is,after spending some gruelling year in the pressure of Class X boards, coaching for 1-2 years, Class XII boards and then enterance exams, they start telling themselves that after 4-5 years they will be professionals and as such college is gonna be a walk in the park - an excuse to live the good life! Well, the way I look at it is - this is time that actually goes into moulding yourself into what you want to be doing the rest of your life - this is where the action beings. So the manner in which you choose to spend you college days has a lot of bearing with what you are going to be doing after this. The choice is yours. By no means does this mean that total abstinance is required, and that its all work and no play. Well I'll tell you from my experience, in the second year, I spent more time on the football field that working on my class assignments! But I managed time so that I wouldnt have a late submission ever. Well actually, I lied, I did have a few(very few) late submissions, but I guess they didnt take it against me!
So when you enter college, take the first year to explore as much as possible - what your college has to offer - in terms of facilities, faculty, courses, books, projects, etc. Try to meet as many people as possible(especially seniors), but keep touch with only those with whom you think your frequency matches. Be regular with assignments and always work within deadlines. Try to read ahead about the cutting edge in your area so that it will whet you appetite for learning the basics better. Also, try your hand in the extra-curricular activities. First year is a time when you can afford to spend more time than in subsequent years on extra-curricular things, so get your ass moving - go down to the music room to play the guitar(if you dont have yours) - or go audition for the Drama Society membership - or go for the cricket team trials. Do you see my point here - explore all that your college has to offer. In my first year i got involved in the audio and lights jobs at college - we had some very heavy duty BOSE equipment for audio and equally good lights and camera equipment - I got in touch with the senior handling it then and after a few months of apprenticeship, he handed the entire thing over to me - imagine the fun of playing DOOM on a LCD projector with BOSE surround sound inside a 150 capacity auditorium! And yes, I was in the Football team too. By the time you leave college, it shouldnt be like that there was one thing you really wanted to do but you couldnt(of course this is bound to be but try not to have too many of those!).
Go out there, and like Nike says - Just Do it! You gotta be a really good time manager also - that is the thing to keep in mind. Time management is everything. I mentioned reading ahead on the cutting edge in your area of interest - what this also does is that it gives you ideas of what sort of projects you might want to work on later in your higher years. But the main focus still should be on reading your course material and getting good grades. Another issue here is your communication skills.You are in college now, learning in depth about various things. Later in your professional career, you are going to put that knowledge to use - BUT - if you cannot express your views clearly to others - what use is that knowledge! The idea is to start working on those softer skills that you need to build once you are out of college. You ask - "Hey wait a minute here, i have 4 years in college, I can do that anytime!" Well any-time never really comes in college, and believe me sometimes it takes a lot of doing to get to a certain level in improving your communication skills - both written and verbal. Start early, read books other than your course books, learn the meaning of new words. So by the time you leave college, you are one polished person articulately able to express what your thoughts and ideas - believe me the chics love that - well at least some do! After the end of the first year, try to take sometime off and be with your family. You could also try to do an internship but that probably wouldnt count as much after first year as it would after second or third year. This might be your last big holiday in a long time - so spend time at home, go places - visit tourist destinations - do some whacky stuff!In the second year things start getting more complex with the load of your courses increasing and you having to study some core concepts in your area.
Try to master as much as possible of what you are being taught. Try to take up good projects such that they will augument your understanding of the subject. These projects also come in handy when you apply for an internship/practical training outside of your campus. Try to talk to the faculty taking the course in which you are doing the project and try to get him involved. If you get stuck, seek his/her advice. Second year should be when you are concentrating in your courses, doing projects for extra credit or as part of course requirement and try to see what extra-curricular activities you want to remain involved in and which you want to give up. Your extra-curricular interests actually turn into necessary and good distractions from the daily chores of homeworks/assignments/tests. Although you should not over do anything, too much of anything is bad. So again, getting good grades in imperative! Toward the middle of the 4th semester, you should start applying for a possible summer internship at a research institute in India or in an industry. Internship is an important thing if what you want to do is get into a foreign university. You should try to work under a professor at a reputed research institute in India (or even abroad) - this is mostly in IITs, IISc, and other Centres of Excellence. This is because universities here appreciate someone who has taken initiative to work outside of his college on projects outside of his/her degree requirements. Also, if you end up impressing the professor under whom you are working, you can manage to get a very good recommendation from him and this would really put your application few notches ahead of others. So dont wake up one sunny summer morning and find yourself without an internship, apply before time, the professors also have limited places to fill. You could also work in the industry and get a recommendation from your mentor there - but the benefit of working in academia is that you get a chance to publish your research as a jouarnal/conference paper, and once you have a paper, your application carries a lot of weight than most of the other applications. More to come...