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  • Yangyang Guo

Interview with Sunil Damle-Pticek, Blueprint Co-Founder and Co-Director of Consulting Division

Updated: Mar 22

You have been in Shanghai for 10 years. How did you get started working as a counselor?


Do you want the long story or the short story? Haha. Ok, I’ll go with the medium-length version: 


I have always been deeply passionate about education. I think this largely stems from being the child of immigrants to the US who placed a strong value on education, but maybe didn’t always know the best way to support me because they had never navigated high school or the college application process in the US themselves. 


Fast forward to college and I decided to take on a part time job leveraging my own experiences navigating high school to help disadvantaged students in Los Angeles apply to college. I loved the work! I still remember the goosebumps I felt when my first students got their college acceptance letters back. I thought, had I just played a role in changing these kids' lives? Wow. 


Upon graduation from Occidental College in May of 2013, I decided that I wanted to continue pursuing education, but this time abroad. China made sense because I had studied abroad in Beijing and loved every minute of that experience.


My first job was a school-based counselor at Ningbo Foreign Language School, and while wrapping up my stint there I was introduced to Brian Wang (Blueprint CEO) through a mutual friend and the rest is history. Nine years later and Blueprint is a household name in international education in Shanghai. 


Everyday I feel blessed to have been on this journey, and each year when my cohort of seniors get their college acceptances back I feel those same goosebumps I did some 13 years ago as a sophomore in college. Suffice to say, the the spark that ignited my love for college counseling still burns strong today!


What do you think is the role of a counselor?


I think our role slightly varies depending on the individual circumstance of each student we work with. It is vital that we tailor our approach to the personality and interests of each student, so to start our role is to deeply understand each student as an individual. What motivates them? What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What gives them purpose? Only then can we craft a plan that showcases their strengths, works on their weaknesses, and maximizes their potential in high school and beyond. 


I think this requires a flexible approach and patience… lots of patience. 


Ultimately, a good counselor helps their students climb this long, treacherous mountain known as high school and college applications, step-by-step, helping them overcome the inevitable adversity they will face, while learning as much about themselves in the process. This will yield the best result in the end. 


What exactly is college counseling? How would you describe it to parents who are not familiar with what we do as counselors? 


The best analogy I like to use here is that we are like private coaches for the college preparation and application process. Much in the same way that a student might enlist a private coach to help them hit a higher note on stage as a singer, perfect their form to take home a swimming championship, or get that extra edge in preparation for a debate tournament, we coach our students to achieve a strong result given their academic standing, interests, and long-term goals. College is a HUGE investment (these days between tuition, room and board, and other costs it will add up close to 400,000 USD over four years). We help students and their families make sure that they are making smart choice throughout the process and are putting themselves in the best possible position to succeed and optimize their outcome. 


Of course, there are the nuts and bolts of what we do: helping students build and polish their resumes, GPA management, college research and list building, planning college visits, interview preparation and essay brainstorming and editing, to name a few of the key pieces. If you want to learn more feel free to schedule a consultation with me or anyone on the Blueprint team!


I have a few friends who work in admissions at highly selective colleges and universities in the US (< 10% admission rate), and here are the things I hear consistently across the board about what they are looking for in applicants (in no particular order): 


  • Intellectual curiosity 

  • Kindness 

  • Genuineness 

  • Engagement with community both inside and outside of school

  • Leadership (which can take on many forms) 

  • Diverse academic interests, or unique applications of more common academic interests 


When you hear about students with close to perfect GPAs and test scores who don’t get admitted to T30 schools, you’ll usually find on a closer examination that they lack a few or most of these metrics. Perhaps a teacher raised question marks about their personality in a recommendation letter (I can’t emphasize enough how important those letters are!), or their essays didn’t come across as genuine, or maybe it was obvious that the key points on their resume were bought or manufactured. 


We are extremely cognizant about all of this and shape how we help our students build their profiles around these metrics. 


How do Blueprint counselors work with students? What are the core strengths of the Blueprint team, and what makes it unique?


I tend to be brutally honest about this question. There are many great counselors and counseling companies out there, but there are more not so great ones, especially in China. We’re by no means the only company that can help students achieve great results, but I don think we have some attributes that make us a particular good fit for students in Shanghai or Chinese students abroad:


  • Our team includes former admission officers from Cornell University and Phillips Exeter Academy. As such, we maintain strong professional connections and associations within the admissions world. In fact, my colleagues Nelson and Idris will be at a conference with admissions officers this week learning more about changes in the admissions landscape. Most companies in China do not have such resources, and if they do usually they are senior advisors who interface very little with students. 

  • We have deep knowledge of the resources and opportunities available to students at international schools. Simply put, we know how to help students navigate international schools here in Shanghai and find the right opportunities to stand out. 

  • We have strong connections with resources and organizations in Shanghai, greater China, and all over the world to help our students secure internships or other unique academic enrichment opportunities. In the past, we have had our students intern at well known media organizations in Shanghai, waitress for fine dining restaurants, conduct field projects across China, and more. 

  • We are a fun, energetic, and passionate group of educators who span diverse life experiences and interests; two of our counselors have MBAs, two have masters from Shanghai Theatre Academy, and two are lawyers. The depth of our experience is really unmatched when compared to most local companies here in Shanghai, or even abroad. 

Again, we’re not the only good counselors out there, but I strongly believe in our team and the value we bring our students and families. One last thing: when choosing a counselor, focus on the connection between the student and the counselors. This should be the most important variable. Every company will market good results (though we actually do have a project track record of excellent results from Shanghai international schools). Look beyond superficial factors like results and towards the fit between counselor and student as that will generate the best outcome. 


Many students and parents have questions about extracurricular activities. What kind of help, support, and advice does Blueprint provide in this regard?


Ahhh yes “resume development.” What constitutes a valuable extracurricular activity? What summer camps or competitions are actually valuable? 


Activities are one of my favorite subjects to discuss because I just think there is so much misinformation out there. Often other companies in China have a business incentive to promote certain activities such as CTB (China Thinks Big), NEC, FBLA, etc. because these competitions are run by for-profit education companies that license the name from their US counterparts. More often than not, these types of competitions are totally useless (I can’t tell you how man kids I have seen who ‘won’ something in CTB or FBLA). Another area to be skeptical of is academic research. Last month, I was back home in the US having a conversation with my friend who works at a selective liberal arts college at accepts about 1 out of every 10 applicants. 


I asked him: “What do you make of Chinese applicants who have published academic research?”
He replied: “We approach it with A LOT of skepticism, knowing most of it is paid for.” 

Paradoxically, these sorts of fancy resume building activities can sometimes make a student seem ‘over packaged’ or that they bought their credentials. So as counselors in China you have to thread a fine line and make sure any academic research experience comes across as genuine and is supported in other ways in the application. 


In some ways, admissions officers are like detectives, piecing together a puzzle; if one piece doesn’t fit or make sense, it will hurt a student even if the experience looks impressive on the resume at first glance. 


Anyway, not to dwell on this too much, let me shift gears to some examples of extracurriculars that my students have done in the past that I thought are fantastic examples and led to wonderful reflection in their application and results: 


  • Started a co-curricular activity in her school focused on teaching young girls to code to bridge the inequality in STEM education in her school (student admitted to Cornell Engineering) 

  • Took on a part time job waitressing at an understaffed restaurant during the summer after Shanghai's 2022 lockdown (student admitted to Tufts)

  • Started a Shanghai city-wide theatre group and festival to promote theatre education among local students (student admitted to UC Berkeley) 

  •  Worked with North Korean refugees to teach them English and help acclimate to their new lives in South Korea (student admitted to UPenn Wharton) 

 

These are just a few examples. I think schools really like it when students go outside of their comfort zones, take risks, interact with adults and their wider community, and break the norm in their activities. 


What is the ultimate goal of Blueprint college counseling program? What do we want our kids to gain?


I’ll be really brief with this one. The ultimate goal of Blueprint’s college counseling program is to help students navigate the college perpetration and application process in a way that not only yields satisfactory results given their interests and goals, but also places an emphasis on their holistic development and personal growth, so that when they go to college they will be more prepared for the challenges that meet them in the future. We want our students to get to know themselves better, find purpose, and have a bit of fun in what has become a stressful and anxiety inducing process.


If we hit all of these points, I feel satisfied with both our process and the end result. 


What good results have our students achieved these years? Do we know application in other countries well?


Many, many excellent results! Of course, everyone cares about the big names. This year we worked with students admitted to Cornell Engineering, Duke, Princeton, Columbia and Brown. But it’s not just about those top-line results! We helped students rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money. 


One of the results I am most proud of is one of my students who I have been working with for almost four years now. He was accepted to Claremont McKenna College (top 10 LAC and one of the best schools in the country for political science, economics and leadership) with 15,000 USD in scholarship money per year! That almost never happens at CMC, for a student from Shanghai who doesn’t need financial aid to be given such a large merit scholarship. Frankly, I was shocked when he told me he got a merit scholarship, and couldn’t help myself from jumping up and down with joy for a few seconds. 


And yes, short answer is we are well versed in applications of other countries. We have had students admitted to all of the top schools in Canada, the UK (including one at Cambridge this year, and Oxford two years ago) and more. The truth is that the other countries have quite easy applications when companied to the US, so if you put strong effort into preparing for US applications you’ll be qualified and ready to apply anywhere else. 


Let me emphasize one more thing when it comes to results… we work with a relatively small group of students every year (roughly 20-25) with a wide range of academic ability, so not all are going to get into T20 schools. The bottom line is, unlike other companies, we agree to work with all students regardless of their academic-level because we could care less about ‘padding’ our results. For us, the true job of an educator is to help each and every student regardless of level achieve their potential and get a great outcome. I’m most proud of our students who may have struggled or faced serious academic or personal setbacks who we help get into wonderful schools, even if they may not be the highest ranked. This is the true mission of an educator. 

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