The Battle Through Application – Tan Kai Chen (UCLA ’20)


Tan Kai Chen (UCLA ’20) reflects on the battle through her application that pushed her to think about the endless opportunities that lie years ahead.

This time last year, I was still a nervous applicant, sitting in front of my laptop as I navigated through different university application websites. The whole process seemed overwhelming at first, but I’ve learnt to take one task at a time along the way.

Here are four tips I wish I had known last year and that would have made my application journey simpler and less stressful.

1. Find a counsellor who will still be easily accessible from December to January (during school holidays!)

I’ve learnt this lesson the hard way. Last December, as submission deadlines were quickly approaching, I realized that my counsellor on CommonApp had not yet submitted her Counsellor’s Recommendation. Besides submitting two Teacher’s Recommendation letters, I didn’t know that a Counsellor’s Recommendation Letter was mandatory as well. As my counsellor was overseas, I panicked and had a hard time reaching her… but luckily it all worked out in the end.

On CommonApp, changing counsellors can be a hassle. The original counsellor will have to submit a request online and it will take a few days to process. Therefore, make sure you find a suitable counsellor from the beginning and stick with them for the rest of the school year.

2. Expect a quick reply from the universities’ admission team.

Do not hesitate to email the admission teams any questions or concerns that you have on mind. Speaking from experience, the inquiries can be general or very specific to your application file.

3. On CommonApp, add all the schools that you are interested in onto your list!

For me, this was the easiest way to find out the requirement of each school’s writing supplements without getting lost in their official websites. The submission deadlines were also stated below the school name, which helped me to stay on track. Applicants can easily remove schools from their list later if they do not wish to apply any more.

However, there are some schools that are not listed on CommonApp, such as the UC schools, University of Texas and other schools that prefer their own application portals.

4. If you are applying to two or more schools within the same school system, you might not need to send your scores to each of them.

Sending standardized testing scores can get very expensive but you can find ways to save on them. For instance, when I was applying to UCLA, I had also decided to submit an application for UC Berkeley. I did not send my SAT and TOEFL scores to UC Berkeley because I soon found out that I only need to send my scores to one of the universities in the UC system. The school will eventually share my results with other schools within the system.

Overall, the most important lesson that I’ve learnt from the whole application process is to be optimistic and confident. There were moments when I started to have doubts but at times like this, I would remind myself why I had chosen to study in the United States. The application process gave me an opportunity to review my past and pushed me to think about the endless opportunities that lie ahead.

7 Things For College and Beyond – Charis Loke (Brown University ’13)



Charis graduated from Brown University in 2013 with a Sc.B in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, taught English and Visual Art for 2.5 years, and now freelances as an illustrator.



Yes, people pull off writing papers in a single night in college, but apps have so many different parts that you’ll regret trying to put it off till the last minute, then realizing that you forgot to get enough recommendation letters/ enter your parents’ college education details/ submit a portfolio/ etc. Know when procrastination is helpful, and when it isn’t.



Don’t send mass emails to people asking for help without so much as a ‘thank you’ or personalized message. Don’t insist that you only want to go to Harvard/Yale/Princeton and that other schools aren’t worth it. Don’t be a misogynist. Don’t set up fake profiles online to celebrate your awesomeness. Don’t fake accomplishments or accolades. Frame what you’ve got in a positive way.




Why do people want to go to prestigious institutions? Because the other people who go there are connected to powerful networks and structures in the US and all over the world. Because doors open for you when you have certain names on your resumé. Because uncles and aunties make more audible sounds of awe when you announce where you went to school, and in Malaysia most people don’t know about those tiny liberal arts colleges anyway.


Eh, whatever floats your boat.



Go to a school where you think you will be able to spend the vast majority of your time learning and engaging with subjects you are interested in. Don’t go to a school because there are a lot of Malaysians there and you’re scared of talking to people who don’t understand your Malaysian accent. Take subjects you enjoy learning about, do projects you enjoy working on, with people who challenge you and support you. Work part-time jobs where you get to improve your skills and meet interesting folk. Don’t worry too much about future employability. If you’re used to taking the initiative and pouring your time into things you genuinely care about, you will have picked up enough skills to be able to apply to most jobs. And if you have an overseas degree, good English language skills, and other transferable skills like analytical thinking and communication, you’re in the privileged top 10% of the Malaysian workforce anyway.



This holds true for everyone, which leads us to the next point:



You don’t have to come back to Malaysia to do so. You can help people anywhere in the world. But if you have the privilege to go to university and obtain an education, which is about broadening your mind and learning to see, then, well, you should use that to work against injustice in the ways you know how to. There will be nuances and compromises. Don’t compromise too much and for too long.



Use your time in university to learn why – both theoretically and in hands-on, real life scenarios. Learn how the ultra-rich in your university live. Learn how the rich in Malaysia live. Learn how the poor in both countries live. See how comfortable you are with it. Figure out how you can live in ways that resist capitalist thinking and pull. Make the most out of your time in the US, where many universities have strong activist communities and liberal leanings, to struggle with this, in the hopes that you won’t forget once you graduate and become exposed to all kinds of expectations: to keep earning and consuming more and more, to work your way into the elite, to measure up to standards which may not be your own.