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How Athena Education’s Three Pillars Of Training Prepare Ivy League Aspirants As Overseas Admission Gets Tougher


A record number of Indian students study in the US, but very few get admitted to the elite Ivy League schools

The overseas admission consultancy Athena Education offers a host of holistic solutions to align passion and interests with the target programme

Athena claims 700 of its students were admitted to MIT, Stanford, Caltech and other top universities in 2023

As the world has become an interconnected global village, it not only poses fewer barriers to trade and commerce but also drives the free flow of culture and education. But there is a catch. Although technology has become ubiquitous in new-millennium learning and students can access a few courses online, higher education from premier institutions has yet to witness the much-desired blurring of borders. In-person classroom learning is still the best option for aspiring youth keen to pursue the global curricula of their choice from world-class foreign universities.

Closer home, India has seen a record number of students heading out to study abroad. According to government data, more than 13 Lakh students were studying in 79 countries in 2022, and the number will likely reach 18 Lakh by 2024, per a Redseer report. Although most global universities spend a sizable sum to attract international students, the US remains the most preferred destination for Indians, and the country hosted more than 4.65 Lakh students in 2022. 

According to industry experts, the attraction of the elite Ivy League, along with economic and societal factors (career growth, better pay, quality of life), initially triggered the exodus. Currently, India is the second-largest sending country to the US after China, underscoring the young people’s intent to grow globally. However, making the cut becomes increasingly difficult due to a competitive and complex selection procedure.

This is where Athena Education comes in with its holistic solutions, preparing applicants for admission to top university programmes while helping them stay aligned with their passion and educational interests. The aim is to ensure that all their goals and aspirations reach a culmination through these courses and the promise that these students bring is fully realised in the long run. This is an innovative approach, unlike many overseas admission consultancies that rarely explore students’ interests or activities to understand their life’s purpose.         

The decade-old consultancy was set up by Princeton University graduates Rahul Subramaniam and Poshak Agrawal. It claims to have trained and mentored more than 800 Indian students, helping them get into their preferred universities across 15 countries. Students also get help with academic scores and English proficiency, which is needed for writing killer essays and compelling letters of intent. In 2022, as many as 68 Athena Education students were accepted by Ivy League schools, while 30 were admitted to MIT, Stanford University, Caltech and 20 other universities in 2023. 

A Leap Of Necessity From Offline To Online

Upon their return to India, the founders began to mentor the children of their friends and relatives for overseas admissions. At first, it was done informally, but the duo soon noticed that the country’s startup ecosystem was picking up the pace. They swiftly transitioned their offerings to a structured business and Athena Education was born. 

The onset of Covid-19 in 2020 put international admissions into turmoil as borders closed and lockdowns were extended to cope with multiple pandemic waves. Undeterred by the massive disruption, Athena Education shifted to the online mode and focussed on building student profiles and their applications to stay prepared for the future. 

Once the offline mode started picking up, the startup invested extensively in state-of-the-art facilities, including an in-house robotics laboratory, a design studio and a recording studio to provide students with hands-on learning experiences. 

Recalling the chaos, Subramaniam said the real challenge lay in helping students transition from offline to online learning as the seismic shift psychologically impacted them. To address this, Athena Education created engaging online modules and tailored its coaching style to service individual requirements. 

In addition, it started a YouTube video series titled Your Friendly Neighborhood College Counselor in 2023 to explain the intricacies of college admissions to its target audience. Clearly, the online reachout has worked well as the student community has grown 2.5x and the team strength has gone up 5x to manage the growth. 

A Deep Dive Into Athena Education’s Training Modules & Core Philosophy

Talking to Inc42, Subramaniam detailed the eligibility criteria to qualify for an Athena programme, the screening tests post onboarding and the mentor-driven preparation procedure. 

To begin with, students approaching Athena Education must secure a minimum of an aggregate  80% of all subjects and qualify in the interview conducted by Team Athena to gauge their potential.

During the orientation week, selected students have to write two psychometric tests. One has been designed to gauge their interests, strengths and goals, while the other delves deep into one’s life experiences to understand what has shaped the personality.

Subramanium emphasises that these assessments leverage the Japanese philosophy of ikigai (raison d’être or life purpose). Mentors hold one-on-one sessions with students to find their ‘purpose’ that will be nurtured throughout their journey and included in their curricula. 

These mentors at Athena Education are individual subject matter experts to work with based on their subject interest. “For example, a CS student would work with our senior technology and data science mentors, while an economics student would work with an economics researcher and expert.” said Subramaniam. 

A customised curriculum is thus developed based on the test outcomes that combine aptitude, interests, earning potential and societal value creation. Mentor-matching is also done, keeping these factors in mind. Each student is assigned a mentor for the rest of the journey until applications are sent to universities.

Mentors play a crucial role at Athena Education as they create ‘student brands’ (read profiles), help them execute capstone projects and keep track of their weekly progress. They also supervise SAT preparations, writing skill development and composition of college essays. For context, a capstone project demonstrates how well a student can put subject expertise to practical use, underscoring the person’s involvement and adding value to the profile. 

According to Subramaniam, academics are a foot in the door for Ivy League aspirants. What differentiates the crème de la crème is the social impact they create outside of school education. Based on Athena’s interdisciplinary courses (say, a combination of liberal arts and STEM subjects) and experiential learning, the capstone projects done by its students can create that kind of real-world impact. 

Athena Education’s founder shared how a capstone project achieved this goal. A student at Athena Education was passionate about music and had an academic interest in mental health (he had studied psychology in school), but lacked coding skills. So, the mentors from Athena Education’s Knowledge Center trained him and the student came up with an app that recommends therapeutic music to lift the mood of individuals suffering from mental health issues. Subramaniam claims that a Gurugram-based hospital is now using the app.

Admission Consultancy Is Booming, But Here’s The Caveat  

While the Ivy League and other premier universities will always be the first preference, the competition gets more challenging every day. For instance, Cornell University (ranked 13th on the QS World University Rankings 2024) has an acceptance rate of around 9%, the highest among Ivy League schools. Moreover, non-STEM students find fewer job opportunities in a slowing market, while those pursuing STEM programmes also face a tough environment as tech companies have resorted to mass layoffs due to macroeconomic headwinds.

But pitted against these realities is the prestige associated with foreign degrees (regardless of the education quality) and the lure of working and settling abroad.

According to recent industry reports, India has seen a 35% YoY jump in students admitted to US universities. More interestingly, American institutions also prioritise Indian students for undergraduate and graduate recruitment (70% and 80%, respectively) per the Fall 2023 Snapshot survey for the academic year 2023-24. Therefore, it is not surprising that more Indians, especially aspiring youth from Tier II and III locations, will be flocking overseas to study in not-so-premier institutions.  

This may result in an immediate boom for edtech startups (both marketplaces and pure-play entities) like Leverage Edu, iSchool Connect, AdmitKard, Admission Overseas and Athena, and the Indian market will only keep growing. A study by HolonIQ further predicts that the international education market is set to reach $433 Bn by 2030, while 70% of the global demand is in Asia and Africa. This is expected to grow exponentially and admission consultancy players will grow in sync.      

However, growth will depend on various factors such as the quality of solutions, worldwide reach and success rates across elite institutions like Ivy League schools. Too much focus on Tier II and III universities may backfire as candidates soon realise that those degrees will not fetch a significant premium in the job market despite the high cost of overseas education.

Technology, too, will play a pivotal role as many players are rapidly adopting cutting-edge SaaS solutions and emerging tech like generative AI to increase their efficiency. Although tech adoption across education businesses empowers all stakeholders and ushers in a seamless knowledge flow, a holistic approach involving diverse interdisciplinary learning, personalised training and focus on achieving social good through education may help students power ahead.

As the Harvard guidelines say: Our Admissions Office chooses carefully from a broad range of applicants who seem to us to offer the most promise for future contributions to society. Not all of the students who are best prepared for college will be among those with the most future promise, nor are all of the most promising well prepared academically. 

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