Three Questions with…Sangeeta Bardhan Cook

SONY DSCSangeeta Bardhan Cook, Ph.D. is the possibly nerdier Nerdy Chick sister of Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, and a Founder and Master Instructor at APT Guidance, where as an educational consultant, she helps students and parents alike pass through a gauntlet of academic challenges, from Algebra, AP Physics, SATs, MCATs, and college/med school applications. Sangeeta has served the Pasadena and Los Angeles area since 2000 with a variety of different agencies before starting her own, even while studying molecular biology and receiving degrees at Caltech and USC for her undergraduate and graduate work respectively. When she’s not teaching students to learn about science and math, Sangeeta is attempting to teach her dogs to not chase the neighborhood squirrels.

1) When should a Nerdy Chick start thinking about college?

It’s never too early to imagine your future and discover what you’re passionate about! College is a tool for building your career, and the more excitement and joy you bring to that, the happier you’ll be. Explore enrichment programs as early as elementary school. By middle school, look for opportunities to try out the careers you might or might not be interested in. Extracurricular activities, especially unique ones that don’t distract you from your studies, are great for this. In high school, focus on your grades and exam preparation first and foremost, but a wise Nerdy Chick will become increasingly active in selecting a range of colleges and grooming herself for the best of those choices. The more hands-on the better! From there, use what you learn to direct you towards specific colleges. Find out what they specialize in, how they’re ranked, and what it takes to get accepted there.

SONY DSC2) What kinds of things should Nerdy Chicks consider when deciding on a college?

Practically speaking, college is about preparing you for your future career. Out of the schools you’re considering, what majors do they offer, what careers do students pursue after graduation, and what kinds of jobs do alumni get? If you like research and academia, look for universities that provide a pipeline into graduate school; if you’d rather get into a job right away, focus on schools that offer internships, fellowships, and other hands-on opportunities. Talk to current and former students. Many schools spend a lot of money on PR, so it’s important that you do your research thoroughly – deeper than just a couple Google searches.

Other critical topics to consider include, of course, the financial aid available and the debt you’ll have after graduation; the extracurricular activities that will build your resume and your sense of identity; and other offerings like semesters abroad, one-on-one research and study opportunities with energized faculty, and whether the environment at the school is one in which you can really thrive and not fall prey to your weaknesses.

Be realistic about what you can achieve, and work toward that. Raise your bar, and then work toward *that*. Work ahead of time. Aim high, but make sure you have fallback schools that you’re still happy about going to. (Also, don’t wait until a week before applications are due to decide that you’re going to go for the best schools in the country!)

But most importantly, don’t fixate on getting into one particular college. It’s a huge decision, so keep an open mind at all times.

3) What are three things a Nerdy Chick can do to help her get into the college of her dreams?

There are many things that go into grooming yourself for college. Here are just three of the biggest ones:

Polish Your Academic Performance. Don’t go completely crazy about your grades or standardized exams, but let’s be honest: they are critical. Do your best. Have a clear sense of what you’re aiming for and what’s required to get there. Prepare for the PSAT as well as the SAT; the former is the qualifying exam for the National Merit, one of the last merit scholarships available on a national level. Pay attention to how your grades stack up in relation to the courses you’re taking; schools usually want to see you challenge yourself with tough classes, without faltering into low grades. If you can handle it, take APs and IB exams to further your education.

Get Great Recs. Something many high school and college students miss out on: always try to cultivate strong, positive relationships with your teachers. You want recommendations from people who see you as mature, hard-working, and, ideally, smart. They don’t have to be your friends, but it helps if your recommenders have some sense of who you are and what makes you tick, especially in high school.

Exist Outside of the Box. Good extracurriculars can reveal where your passions lie, as well as highlight your outstanding qualities, like leadership or charity. Ideally, you’ll have a handful of activities that apply to your intended major(s), showing your drive in that area like math, science, or drama. Then, a few completely different endeavors will add that spice or spark that can help you stand out that much further. You aren’t just your grades, classes, tests, and intended major. Let them know that.

As an aside: please note that my recommendations to be successful do not require paying other people to help you (which may sound weird coming from a paid educational consultant!). To prove my point, both I and my Nerdy Husband (as well as one of the original Nerdy Chicks, my sister) did not benefit from tutors or test prep groups, and we all attended Caltech, a top university by national and international standards. That said, if you don’t think your “package” reflects you properly, and you have the means to rectify it, go ahead and use the resources you have, or find someone who will help you – financially, academically, whatever it takes. Don’t let pride or fear be an obstacle to making you the best applicant (and person!) that you can be.

Feel free to email your own questions to


7 comments on “Three Questions with…Sangeeta Bardhan Cook

  1. rnewman504 says:

    We’re years away from college (let alone middle school), but terrific pointers to keep in mind for when we cross that bridge. Great interview!

  2. writersideup says:

    Funny, I follow all my blogs through my WordPress Reader now, so the first thing I notice are pictures and headlines—the name of the blog is tiny and at the bottom. So, I see this face and there’s something familiar, but I don’t know why. When it finally clicks that “Bardhan” is her name, I get it! lol

    Excellent interview and suggestions, ladies 🙂 If I encounter any young women (or men!) at this point in their lives, I’ll hopefully remember to steer them here! 🙂

  3. Cathy Ballou Mealey says:

    As someone who sat on the admissions side of the desk, I can vouch for the veracity of these tips!

    And when asking for recommendations from teachers/faculty, sit down with them and discuss your plans. Offer them a printed resume or summary of your extracurricular and volunteer work. Your chem teacher may have a limited scope of your specific accomplishments in his/her lab. It helps your admissions package when all the recs speak to a student’s goals and/or well-rounded experience.

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