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Passion pays

Gharial in the CV

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Ivy institutions are partial to applicants with diverse interests. (Left) Divya Balaji, a keen reptile lover, handles a vine snake at the Agumbe rainforest in Shimoga. (Above) Ratnika Prasad hard at work at a model UN conference

As a small child in Chennai, the Crocodile Park was Divya Balaji's favourite picnic spot. She grew up and moved to Delhi but didn't outgrow her fascination for the crocs. Summer holidays then became all about hanging around, and later volunteering, with the reptologists on the park's conservation programme.

So when she sat down to write out her application to Yale for her undergraduate studies in a surprising biologyeconomics combo, the happy hours spent with gharials and snakes became more than just a hobby. Along with her 92 per cent results, they went a long way in bolstering her profile as an all-rounder and breaking the stereotype of a typical padaaku (studious) Indian child. Combined with a stint at the Blind School and her interest in basketball, Divya- now, a full scholarship student at Yale - was a shooin with the admission panel.

That column marked 'extra-curricular' in the report card was never something which the stereotypical pushy Indian parent paid much attention to. It has passed off through the ages under various names: 'hobbies' or 'SUPW' (socially useful productive work) for instance. It subsumed a range of activities from volleyball and music to tailoring and typing, none of it pursued with any great passion. And despite the best intentions of various boards, these never really went beyond being happy hours off studies because they never counted in exams. As for personal interest in sports or music, once you crossed the portentous doors of Class IX, it was time to dump all that gives any joy. Oh yes, the only thing that was worth chasing was a sports certificate because those could get you a discounted mark cut-off in colleges.

But all that has changed, and hopefully for the good. Children applying for undergraduate studies abroad --and their numbers are growing staggeringly every year - need to have strong non-academic interests as well to wangle not just admissions to the top Ivy League colleges but also scholarships.

"We insist that they put in at least three such activities including one showing in-depth engagement preferably from class 9 onwards, " says Mamta Sharma, education counsellor at DPS R K Puram which has a formidable reputation for unfailingly cranking out meritorious students and this year is sending 22 students to Ivy League colleges.

Robotics, voluntary work at neighbourhood slums, Braille transcription, teaching disadvantaged children after school hours, working with HIV positive people, tabla, yoga, time with WWF, debating society, mountaineering, cycling - anything can make for an impressive CV. You have to, of course, ensure that you get yourself a certificate to prove the time spent in your area of interest. It doesn't really help if you have been happy fingering the guitar at home or practising the drums manically with the school band but have nothing to show for it. These are facts that parents are slowly waking up to - that a Trinity certificate in music can be a big help for admissions.

"My daughter had played the drums in school for three years as well as been active in the theatre group but it never once struck me to seek a certificate of participation to boost her application to colleges in the west, " says the now wiser mother of child who is heading for a good UK university but without any financial assistance. She admits she didn't pay much attention to extra-curricular activities, treating it as pastime that kept her child happy. "If we had worked at the process from say two years ago, she would have managed a scholarship. "

But beware, putting in the sham appearance of being a wildly enthusiastic activist without any real insight into your alleged passion can be a bad idea. Interview panels look at these non-academic essays with a gimlet eye. "If you do something just to bulk up your application you are sure to get caught in your interview. You are grilled as much about these as your academics, " points out Ratnika Prasad who is currently studying for her graduate degree in environment policy at Cornell.

In fact, say those who cleared the hurdles, it is a good idea to take up something off-beat and stick to it with sincerity. There is nothing that appears to impress the admission panels as much as a sassy, rebellious streak in an applicant. There is little premium on predictability or safe answers in these interviews. "When I was asked why I didn't volunteer time at a social service, I said I refuse to create an impressive CV. There are other ways to take an interest in the world around you and my interest lay in the gharials. They said later the answer really impressed them, " says Balaji.

Prasad seconds this. She never cared much for debating events and told her interviewer as much. It later transpired that she was being grilled by the head of the college debating society who actually gave her full marks for sticking to and arguing her point of view.

In this new world, hobby is no longer a pathetic preoccupation of losers without academic brilliance. It is in fact a gate pass to a much-desired world.

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