Presently studying at Arizona State University, Apar Prasad, BT batch of 2011, shares his journey through some rough exam nights to finally making it big in life, in an interview with with Vibhor Relhan of NSITonline.
Vibhor: You are amongst the very few from NSIT who managed to be successful in making it to such an elite university while maintaining a good aggregate overall. What is your “success mantra”?
Apar: Frankly with a 68%, my aggregate did not look very good and I feel lucky to have made it here. So, it's better if you take the advice of people like Abhishek Bhardwaj and Neelima Sharma on this :).
I guess what really gave me an edge was the fact that I was clear of what my priorities were and had a technically current perspective of the research going on in the field. I had contacted some professors and discussed a few issues regarding their research and the papers they had published. It was not a mantra, rather more of trying everything in the book :)
Vibhor: What embarked your interest towards MS?
Apar: Well, I am doing a PhD. The sole reason for choosing to do a MS/PhD was that the questions that I wanted to address could be best done through this channel and I was interested enough in science to pursue them. It turned out that many universities didn't have an MS course in the sciences, so I had to try my luck with the PhD option and luckily, it worked.
Vibhor: How did you prepare for GRE? Did you join any coaching?
Apar: I prepared for GRE on my own. I did Barron's (almost the complete except for the math portion), Big Book(about 10 tests), Princeton Review Tests (4) and some comprehensions on a Reader's Digest book for Comprehensions because that was perhaps my weakest area that I could identify. I tried to inculcate a habit of making flash cards for the word-lists. Yet, in hindsight, another thing which I should have done more was use some software for learning the word lists.
It took me 2 months to prepare for the test. But one must judge his capability and prepare in his own way. Coaching may be of help in certain cases while others can opt to develop their own techniques. Just try and identify what you are comfortable in.
Vibhor: What according to you is the ideal time to start preparing yourself to achieve a good GRE score and a suitable profile to make it to the best universities?
Apar: The GRE pattern has changed a bit and with more reading comprehension questions, I guess more effort may be needed. I, having prepared for 2 months for the previous pattern, would start 1 month earlier for the revised one. Three months should give one ample time to prepare oneself for a respectable score.
A suitable profile for the best universities would include good grades (>70%), a paper (even a review is good), a good SOP and good recommendations (maybe in that order). Opinions about GRE tend to vary, but I guess it’s more of a cut-off thing. If you were above 1350, you were clear on the GRE front (with the new pattern coming in, scores would vary now).
Having said that, I would like to mention that I did not have many of the things that I mentioned above in my CV . My aggregate was well short of the ideal mark and my 2 attempts at research papers were unsuccessful. But I could still make it here. So, do try even if you're curious enough and don't have a 'suitable profile'.
Vibhor: Can you guide your juniors in terms of how to prepare a good SOP?
Apar: In terms of how much time one must put in to prepare his/her SOP, it varies from person to person. A friend of mine finished it in a few hours whereas it took me about 4 days to make a satisfactory version. Some websites even suggest you should spend over a month, which may be a good idea if you want to incorporate some good stories in your SOP.
I'd recommend a good part of 2 weeks be spent for a good SOP.
About what the source for the content of your SOP may be,I was warned and I recommend you the to always make your own SOP, never copy any content from the websites primarily because the universities can work out if it's not genuine (Some may even have plagiarism software).
You may get the essence of an SOP from various websites guiding you how to incorporate stories into the SOP. UC Berkeley has a good website- https://career.berkeley.edu/grad/gradstatement.stm. But never copy! Do get help from friends, parents, etc. but avoid professional help.
Vibhor: How did you manage to secure a PhD if you had a low score and not many projects?
Apar: The admission office will be the right people to answer this[on a lighter note]
I can however propose the following reasons- all my projects (3 major, 3 minor) were oriented towards life sciences. The 3 major ones were research-projects and I had done some original research on a minor project. Besides, I was aware of the research being done in this university and was in touch with a Professor. This might have convinced the committee of my genuine interest to do what I am applying for. Though, I must admit that in spite of all this, it still came as a bit of surprise for me that I was selected.
Vibhor: Tell us about your placement session?
Apar: I had no interest in doing a job so I never prepared for my placement session. I applied only in 5 companies and was wait-listed for Aspiring Minds.
Vibhor: How have your four years in NSIT affected you overall?
Apar: That's a tough one to answer! I found the environment here more academic oriented than DCE (where I spent my 1st semester), which really helped I guess. Some teachers had a positive effect, many didn't. Some of the interesting discussion sessions with my classmates over the years played a very crucial role in shaping me the way I am and I could do a lot of non-academic stuff too (organizing events, jamming, etc.). All in all, NSIT presented many options, except for the one that really mattered in the end-RESEARCH. That and the many occasions I felt like 'Mussadi Lal' from 'Office Office' did inspire me to study abroad :)
But getting to know some awesome people here was definitely the best part of my NSIT experience. That definitely affected me for the better.
Vibhor: What is your vision of NSIT in the coming years? What is the one thing
you would like to change in NSIT?
Apar: I've come to realize the limitations of research potential here, in my department at least. For a good 'institute of technology', the focus should be science and technology and not managerial jobs. The BT curriculum is good (though more flexibility could help) and I believe it is made to equip you with a good sense of what’s going on in the world. I hope people here start looking at science and technology as an exciting thing to do and not something as dull or boring. I hope to see NSIT as an institute which performs good quality inter-disciplinary research (maybe one with a medical school too!)
If I have to single out one change from the many, I'd say the flexibility in the educational structure is the one that stands out. Students should not be forced to learn subject, they should be given options to choose what they like. This might be asking for a lot, but even good students in US institutions can go as far as changing their major from Music to Chemistry. People change.
Vibhor: What advice would you like to give to your juniors?
Apar: I believe prioritizing the 3 options- MS/PhD, jobs and MBA a bit early (perhaps end of second year) helps one to build a good perspective on life. Focus on them accordingly. (If you like philosophical shit, let’s rephrase it as, “try to find what you want do in life” :))
Discuss with peers (NSIT and outside), seniors, teachers, basically anyone who you think might help you. And of course use the Internet! (things like MIT OCW and others are really helpful).
I don’t think I am big enough to give advice really. My only purpose for taking this interview was to send across a message- If I could do it, you guys can too. Best of luck!
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