Another Coffee with Prab Singh


Prab Singh is based in Bangalore, India and we last interviewed him two years ago.  We thought it was time we had a catch-up.

Hello Prab, when you were last interviewed Italian coffee was your preferred choice.  Is that still the case?

It is summer time in Bangalore, India right now, so I would love a tall Americano with as much ice as would fit in your tallest glass!

In 2012 you talked about loving the diversity of India.  Would you say that India is getting more or less diverse?

So much more, especially in Bangalore. It is amazing how you can be sitting at a Starbucks here (yes, they have come to India since last we spoke, and hear people talking in Spanish, Italian, German and of course several different Indian languages. The students have become more western, but they have strong roots in India as well, so it is a lovely mix.

Has the number of school places available to students increased since we last spoke to you? 

I have noticed a trend towards students applying abroad to apply to more colleges, but I try to keep my students to 8-12 applications (UK being considered one application if they are applying to the UK). In that mix, we try to focus on good fit, and usually students will end up with 3-7 acceptances. That has not changed much. This is April now, I call it the second Christmas, as we have so many gifts (acceptance letters) to play with. I am very busy meeting with students to help them decide amongst several “good fits” which will be the “Best Fit”. This will often take 2-3 meetings to determine.

Is the Indian government funding expansion in education?

No. I wish that I could say more than that, but simply, no. There is an election currently, and that was not even a topic being debated. Though in some circles I notice people are talking about how the best and brightest are going abroad for their education, and many are then staying abroad. Basically, a brain drain. Think of some of the people that India has lost: Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft), Indra Nooyi (CEO of Pepsico), Shantanu Narayen (CEO Adobe), Anshu Jain (CEO Deutsche Bank), to name a few.

Do you think your predicted timeline of 10-15 years for stronger collaboration still stands?

Yes, on a wide scale, but like everything in India, that would be a moving target. There is movement though; Ashoka University will start its first class here in the Fall. I have not had the chance to visit the school yet, but it is an exciting Liberal Arts initiative in collaboration with University of Pennsylvania’s Engineering school, University of Michigan, Carleton College and SciencesPo. I am watching this with anticipation.

What would you say is the favoured study destination for the students you meet?

For me this would easily be the United States. Probably because these are some of the more challenging applications to navigate, and students need guidance.

What do the less favoured destinations need to do to attract students from India?

Most of my students would like to return to India eventually, but they prefer to work abroad for some time for the experience. This is currently not a possibility in the UK, so that is a big change that needs to occur. Otherwise, regular visits to India are the best way to get the word out about your college. Students are wary of going to a college that no one has heard of. I also think that more colleges should come to India in April when students are making up their minds. It helps to have someone from the university to talk to when making that crucial decision. Another pet peeve of mine is the conditional offer in the UK. It keeps the student on edge until their results are out and could leave the student hanging if they don’t achieve the grades. I feel that doing it like the US, where they evaluate the student up to half way through the senior year and then just make a comment in the admissions that they expect the same level of performance is a better way to do this.

What questions should the students and their families be asking about their future education?

Are the schools that I am targeting flexible enough to allow me to explore before determining what I want to major in? I don’t feel that a 17-year-old has been exposed to enough to be forced into sticking with what they thought they wanted to do in high school. I would also question the cost of the university versus the size of the university. I feel some of the very large private schools in the US are too expensive when you consider how large the classes are and that the professors may not even know your name.

With your life-coaching hat on, what would you say are the key issues for teenagers in India?

Taking ‘ownership’ of their paths. We have more than our fair share of helicopter parents and schools that drive students academically in a very prescribed way. A student needs to learn to work independently, follow their curiosities, and give importance to their personal goals if they want to succeed in a university abroad. If you go to a university abroad and only study and get good grades, it would be a waste of your huge investment. You need to hit that campus and seek out the opportunities and challenges and juice everything that you can out of the experience.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work?

Convincing students to work ahead of time. This is related to the last question, but most students in high school focus on the nearest fire, one thing at a time. I remind them that they are taking five or six courses over two years in high school, but when they go to college they will be taking four to six subjects every four months!! That is how dramatically the pace will change, and you will not be able to focus on one thing at a time.

How do you relax?

What does relax mean? Seriously though, my students keep me on my toes constantly throughout the year. But, as Confucius said: “Choose a job that you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Prab Singh is an independent educational consultant based in Bangalore, India. He runs The CollegeSource, which provides educational guidance to students throughout India.

Questions by Gill Balfour, Editor and Counsellor Liaison