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Study abroad: Oxford University alumnus Sarthak Agrawal shares the know-how of applying to foreign university

Many people ask me about the importance of internships and work experience while applying to places like Oxford. They definitely convey a sense of purpose, especially if your internship is in a similar sector as your course, he says.

New Delhi I |
Updated: December 15, 2021 10:05:14 am
Study abroad, oxford universityTo study at a foreign university, one has to qualify the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) which is a standardized test. (Image credits: REUTERS/Matthew Childs)

– Sarthak Agrawal

After graduating from Delhi University’s Shri Ram College of Commerce, the question of “what next” never bothered me, thanks to my professors at SRCC. Given my interests and abilities, they suggested that I would gain more from courses offered outside India. Moreover, I was keen to pursue a research-based master’s and most domestic programs lack that component.

Once I finalised the decision to study abroad, the next big questions were which university and course to pursue. I did plenty of online research before applying to four universities – Oxford, Cambridge University, University College London (UCL), and the London School of Economics (LSE).

However, Oxford University was my first choice as during the research I found that the MPhil programme in Economics offered by the university is considered one of the best in the world. I also interacted with the Oxford alumni to know about the university. It is easiest to get in touch with alumni by contacting them over LinkedIn – most people I corresponded with were very helpful and I have been trying to return the favor since.

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To study at a foreign university, one has to qualify the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) which is a standardized test. I secured 337/340 – 170/170 in quantitative, 167/170 in verbal, and 6.0/6.0 in analytical writing in the GRE. 

With these scores, my admission application was accepted at all the universities I applied to. But the most important criterion for me was funding. I was fortunate to receive a 100 per cent scholarship from Oxford University that covered my tuition and provided a generous stipend of almost £15,000 per year. 

Spending three carefree years at SRCC was a very different experience to spending a couple of academically intensive years at Oxford. I had a more friendly and collegial relationship with my professors at Shri Ram College of Commerce while Oxford teachers spent more time focusing on their own research. However, I appreciated the focus on research and innovation abroad and the complete absence of any spoon-feeding. 

Applying to Oxford University

Usually, the application requirements consist of the following: transcripts, CV, letters of recommendations, statement of purpose, GRE (optional), and writing sample. There may be further demands for scholarship applications. Out of these, the most important is your grades, which are often sealed while you’re in college. Please don’t neglect your studies if you’re keen to pursue higher studies abroad.

Customize your statement of purpose (SOP) for every university you apply to by including a paragraph on what attracts you to that very course. Moreover, resist the urge to look at others’ statements before preparing your first draft.

On letters of recommendation – try to develop a relationship with your professors early in the course. It’s best to alert your teachers well in advance that you are interested in applying abroad – and make sure you take their candid feedback on which universities you should target. If your recommenders can give your relative ranking in their letter (“this candidate is among the top 3 in the present cohort”), that’s often very useful for admission committees.

On GRE – take it well in advance lest you don’t score well in your first attempt and need to retake it later. In most courses, a high GRE score will not guarantee you an admission, but a low score may damage your chances of getting selected. For most social science courses at Oxford, the writing sample will merely test your skills in constructing and defending an argument. This is a skill worth imbibing by consulting easily available online resources.

Applying to scholarships is another crucial aspect of graduate applications if you can’t self-fund your studies. There are several scholarships available for Indian nationals at places like Oxford, so make sure to check all of them out (e.g., Rhodes, Weidenfeld-Hoffman, Commonwealth, Chevening, Felix, and Clarendon). Indian scholarships are of three kinds – those that give grants (Inlaks), interest-free loans (Narotam Sekhsaria, KC Mahindra), and a hybrid of the two (JN Tata Endowment). Each has its own requirements and deadlines so start exploring early.

Relevance of internships while applying to foreign universities

Many people ask me about the importance of internships and work experience while applying to places like Oxford. They definitely convey a sense of purpose, especially if your internship is in a similar sector as your course, but not having one doesn’t necessarily nullify your chances. Still, I would suggest pursuing at least a couple of summer internships to explore your interests and abilities in different fields.

In my experience, besides applying to formal internship programmes, the best way to get an internship is by writing emails to the kind of people you look up to and want to work with. This is how I got opportunities to work at ICRIER, NITI Aayog, and the Ministry of Finance while I was a student at SRCC. Introduce yourself well and concisely state what you hope to gain from the experience and what you can offer in terms of skills. 

Make sure the email is very well written, with no typos or grammatical errors. And be prepared for rejections – for every 100 emails you send, 95 may go unanswered. But hey, you only need one person to back you.

Choosing the right college and course 

The choice between course and college can sometimes get tricky. It is often the case that one gets selected into a more preferred course at a lower-ranked institution, which generates a conundrum. At that juncture, it is important to be self-aware and ask yourself what your near-term goals look like. If it is just exposure, then go for a better university. However, if you want to pursue a job or another course related to your subject of study, it is better to prioritise a programme you will enjoy studying, and do well in.

(The author is an MPhil in Economics from Oxford University and a trainee IAS officer)

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