(Presentation at Nrupatunka Kannada Koota Atlanta, 31 March 2018)
K.M. Venkat Narayan
Dear Young Students:
My name is Venkat Narayan, and I am a professor at Emory University and direct the Emory Global Diabetes Research Center there.
If you are looking for a cookbook or algorithm on how to get into college, I really do not have one. In fact, I do not think anyone could possibly have a cookbook, and if they say they do, I suggest you do not follow it. What I am offering you is some very general broad thoughts, largely based on my reflections.
My own personal experience: I grew up in India, where opportunities in those days were rather limited. I was admitted to what is supposedly a top-ranking medical school in India, St. John’s Medical College in Bangalore. Very soon after starting medicine, I began to realize that the routine of medical school did not inspire me, and my aptitude was more in subjects like mathematics, philosophy, literature, history. Anyway, I struggled through medical school unhappily, enjoyed being a clinical doctor, but was not satisfied, and even considered quitting and doing law or English literature or biomedical engineering. Finally, I discovered epidemiology and medical research, and have had a wonderful and very productive career as a physician-scientist, not something my medical school professors could have advised.
Two years ago, I had the privilege of personally witnessing the process my daughter followed. She went about making her own independent decision somewhat unconventionally and avoided the traps of peer pressure or other cookbook considerations. She had offers at Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago, Emory Woodruff Scholars, Georgia Tech Honors, and Carnegie-Mellon, and ended up picking University of Chicago, as she felt that school suited her academic needs and personality best.
Over the years, I have met many people who were perfect students, did all the right things, and ended up in careers they have found unfulfilling. Equally, I have met many people who were not exactly great students, had confused paths, but ended up in places and in careers that suited them and made them happy.
My reason for telling you all this is to highlight to you that the world of college before you is your Oyster. A simple or easy path that a cookbook can guide you to does not exist. It is very personal.
The transition from school to college is an important one. School was very structured, you were under your parents wraps, and you did what perfect students are generally expected to do. College is different. It is the start of your journey to independence. It is the beginning of a process where you begin to define yourself. It is a personal adventure with risks and rewards.
What is important is that you follow your passion. That is what is important. Your passion and your identity. You need to reflect on what motivates you, what gives you joy and sense of fulfillment, where your strengths and aptitude lie, what you see yourself as wanting to be. This should be the basis of deciding on your area of your study and your college selection. This reflection and conversation with yourself is the true part of “readiness for college”, not any cookbook formula. Do not be swayed by what your parents want you to do or what your peers pressure you to do. It is about YOU, that unique YOU. Find it and live it to the fullest.
The reason to go to college is to learn to think and to arm yourself with the weapons of the mind. These are important to acquire. You need to develop curiosity and be willing to step out of your comfort zone, stretch yourself, experience new places and things, try to understand what you see and experience. You need to be always skeptical. Question dogma and question authority. Do not take anything on face value. You need to cultivate openness. Think of new experiences, read widely, explore areas outside your normal interests, meet new people, travel, learn history, and develop perspective. These are all the invisible life skills that no cookbook can teach you.
Nothing that you do out of genuine passion and curiosity will go waste. Some things may not seem immediately relevant or useful, but over time, all of these experiences and skills and perspectives come in handy, and things will fit and fall in place even without you knowing. People will tell you that you need a career plan. A wise person once told me that what is important is not a career plan, but a career and life philosophy. That is what you need to cultivate, a life philosophy. This is a journey, not a destination.
Remember that the world before you is changing rapidly. With globalization and technology, the change is going to be rapid. Many jobs of today will disappear, but many new jobs that we do not even know of will appear. This means you need to stay current, stay adaptive, and develop life skills that give you resilience and continuous learning. That is what is “readiness for college” and “readiness for life”.
You need to stay engaged. Involve yourself in civic activities. Involve yourself in politics. Think of causes larger than your own immediate concerns. Think of how you can contribute to that larger cause. Imagine a world you want to see and help create it.
As Steve Jobs said, “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. Be bold and courageous.
College is not the end, but just the beginning. So, treat it as part of your growth, not as a cookbook-guided destination.
Of course, you need to focus on some specifics to get you get into the college of your choice and into the subject of your choice. This involves knowing what you want. Yes, GPA and scores matter, but you do not need perfect scores. You just need good scores. You need to show that you have challenged yourself. You do not need to kill yourself with endless number of APs. Your college essays matter. These essays should reflect your passion, your curiosity, your sense of humor, your breath, and not be trite or contrived. Research about the colleges you are interested in and show in your statement why you want to go there. Make sure you mention some knowledge about the place and about specific faculty or aspects of that college. You need some good references. You need to show your involvement in extra-curricular activities, but these should reflect seriousness, not just something that you did to check the box.
Ultimately, do remember that the world you will inherit will be vastly different from the world you are in now. College entry is a beginning, not an end. Follow your passion. There are rich opportunities and options ahead. Enjoy your life and contribute.