Why The U.S.- Jia Yi (Harvard University ’21)

As admissions decisions season welcomed itself earlier this year, Jia Yi (Harvard University ’21) was presented with a commonly met dichotomy among Malaysian students: the U.K. or the U.S.? Among acceptances to stellar schools from Stanford University and the University of Cambridge, she ultimately chose Harvard for several reasons. Continue reading to find out why!

Why The U.S.

Hi, everyone!

I hope that you’re all well.

I’m Jia Yi and I am a rising freshman and a prospective Economics major at Harvard College Class of 2021.

In this post, I will try my best to summarise why I ultimately picked the US (and why you should too!) and how I navigated through the US application process. Hopefully, my advice will be beneficial in your future application endeavours and decision processes.

Before entering into the crux of this post, I will provide a short background about myself for context:

For my secondary education, I attended an International School in Malaysia. I did the British curriculum ie IGCSE and A-Levels and was widely encouraged by my teachers, peers, and family to apply for higher education in the UK.

At my high school’s Graduation & Awards Ceremony- so proud to be Garden International School class of 2017!

The UK had always seemed like a natural choice, after all, I was already familiar with the expectations of the UK programme. Coupled with the fact that most of my friends and siblings were planning to apply to the UK and the relative geographical proximity of UK to Malaysia (compared to the US), the UK seemed like an obvious and safe choice.

However, I was attracted to the liberal arts program in the US. Though studying in the US had been a childhood dream, it seemed unpragmatic: geographically far and culturally dichotomous – an unlikely and far-fetched option for someone who had always been streamed into the British route. I was not sure whether I would be suitable for this program.

It was only after I competed in an academic decathlon competition at Yale University that I began to seriously consider higher education in the US.

To me, the most significant attraction about the US is how its academic institutions are at the forefront of academia, technology and ideas. The US is generally more reflexive to the structural changes in society and to the academic interest of students. I was enthralled by this opportunity and wanted to be at the frontier of cutting-edge knowledge and experience.

I began planning out my university application schedule in early January of 2016. Starting out with fixing dates for standardised testing, I remember spanning them across January until October. *Just some advice, if you’re planning to apply for early action, please take all your standardised testing preferably before September. During August- October, things do get very stressful and standardised testing only amplifies unhealthy cortisol levels.* Upon receiving some of my standardised testing scores and speaking to my guidance counsellor, I narrowed my university choices and started looking at the essay requirements for each university in the common application website. My actual writing process only began in July. Then, I had thought that I had given myself ample time to craft all my application essays. However, I only finished every component of my application in  October, very close to the deadline for early application. So, please make sure to think, plan and start your university application early- you will definitely not regret it!

For me, deciding to apply to the US added a significant load to my already heavy academic and extracurricular commitments. Even though I had foreseen the differences between the UK and US education, I had underestimated the stark stylistic differences between these applications. The US application required a deeper sense of self-introspection – a format which I was not comfortable with. I was more accustomed to the format of the UK personal statement which was partially impersonal and more academically focused.

So when I first started my US application, I felt lost and overwhelmed by the essays and standardised tests. There were so many essays, activity logs and requirements to fill up – was it possible to finish all these in one summer?

On top of juggling the many components of the demanding application process, I was also establishing my own extracurricular pursuit: Project Smile! Through sports and art activities , we help to mentally stimulate these individuals by providing them with a channel for artistic self-expression.

Moreover, I felt a seeming disconnection between my home culture and the American culture. My writing style looked stale next to their richly descriptive essays. My thought process and ideas also seemed different and out of sync to theirs. And after hours of surfing College Confidential, I began feeling as though I wasn’t good enough. A niggling voice in my head kept telling me that maybe I was too different. Perhaps, I did not belong in the US.

Yet I remained resolute in my applications. Deep inside, I felt that the US was the right place for me and that I just had to try no matter how difficult it seemed.

All the required essays took a few months to refine. I remember ‘Americanizing’ my British writing style into a more active and confident voice. I also harmonised my home culture with the American culture. My culture had taught me that to be humble is to be demure and to not brag about your achievements. The US application process taught me that being humble does not mean self-deprecation or silence. To be humble means knowing yourself and being confident about your strengths and weaknesses. Upon reconciling my perceived polarising home culture with the American culture, the disconnection did not seem so jarring anymore. In fact, I began seeing American values through a different lens. This mutual understanding and realisation empowered my conviction that perhaps the US was the right place for me.

What I’ve learned from the US application process is that everyone, no matter how unexciting you may think you seem, has a story to tell. Do not be afraid to share your voice, your story, and your wit. Let your personality shine through in your essays.

Upon receiving all my university decisions, I ultimately chose the US over the UK for three reasons:

  1. The flexibility of the US degree:

At 17, I was not set on a specific course and wanted the academic freedom for self-discovery.

I had always enjoyed a combination of sciences, humanities and the arts. So the liberal arts program was perfect as it provided me with the academic freedom and flexibility to pursue this combination of subjects – this would not have been possible in the UK.

Moreover, I feel that learning and new perspectives best came from the cross-fertilisation of ideas across different fields. So, I prefer the holistic education available at US institutions.

  1. The supposed trade-off between extracurriculars and academics:

Previously, I had always thought that the tradeoff was between coming to the US for extracurriculars and going to the UK for academics.

However, after speaking to many of my seniors who studies in both the US and UK universities, I was very excited to learn that you get direct teaching from the professors in the US while in the UK, you tend to get lecturers instead. So, there was not really a trade-off in academics in the US.

In addition, there are also more extracurricular opportunities e.g undergraduate research opportunities, academic fellowship, internships in famous companies etc in the US. Of course, these opportunities would still be possible in the UK, but it is a lot more challenging because of existing UK Student Visa restrictions.

  1. The Culture of Daringness

I greatly appreciate and value the culture of daringness in the US. After communicating with many of the seniors (in the US) and learning about their current achievements and future goals, I became deeply inspired by their dreams. I wanted to be emboldened and share a similar outlook as them.

Ultimately, the choice of going to the US was a very personal choice- it really depends on you and what you are looking for in higher education. Admittedly, I had oscillated frequently between going to the US and to the UK for several months. However, I decided that I wanted to challenge myself in a new environment and in a place where I greatly admire its culture of daringness.

If you are very clear on your future career aspirations and want to pursue a professional course e.g Medicine, Law etc, the UK could be the right place for you. If you are like me and want to have the academic and career flexibility, the US could be the place for you.

I hope that going to the US would be an enriching experience filled with many opportunities for personal and academic growth. I am beyond excited to see where this path will take me in the coming years!

 

Please feel free to introduce yourselves to me at USAPPS 2017. (I promise that I’m really friendly!! 🙂 ) I look forward to meeting all of you at this event and I wish all of you the best of luck in your applications.

Crafting Your Own Journey – Chiang Kah Yee (Minerva Schools @ KGI ’19)

Indecisive over what to do with life after high school. Lost in a plethora of pre-u choices. Confused over whether to follow your head, your heart or what your relatives say you should do. We’ve all been there. So did Chiang Kah Yee (Minerva Schools @ KGI ’19). But it’s important to know what happens after: she did fine, and so will you. Trust her- she knows exactly how you feel and that’s why she’s here to offer you her practical advice on how to tackle this, head on!

Crafting Your Own Journey 

We’ve all been there – confused and unsure of what to do after SPM. You’re probably thinking:

  • “Do I jump into A-Levels January intake?”
  • “Wait… if I do A-Levels, does that mean I can only apply to the U.K.?”
  • “Wait… do I want to go to the U.K.?”
  • “Wait… where do I want to go to university?”
  • “Wait… what do I want to study at university?”
  • “Wait… how do I get into the university of my dreams?
  • Which pre-u program do I have to do? Do I even have to do pre-u?”
  • “Wait… do I even want to go to university?”
  • “Wait… how much is this all going to cost?”
  • “Wait… can I even afford that?”

Seems like a familiar slippery slope? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. When I say we, I mean everyone – me, your seniors, your parents, your cousins, your teachers.

Step one: breathe. It is an overwhelming time in your life. You’ve just finished secondary school, the last predetermined step in your education career decided by someone else, the Ministry of Education. After SPM, the options are endless: A-Levels, matriculation, foundation, SAM/Ausmat, CIMP/CPU, STPM, IB, ADP, if I were to name the popular ones.

SO. MANY. ACRONYMS.

Your friends are already enrolled in their pre-university program. Your parents are asking. Your relatives are prying. “I don’t know!” you want to scream. I understand how you feel. It’s a heavy decision for an 18-year-old to make. It’s a heavy decision for anyone to make.

There are plenty of strategies you can deploy to tackle this:

Photo: Bethany Jana
  1. Try imagining your ideal future career.

What do you want your day-to-day to be? Helping people? Solving problems? Your career decision is very individual and ultimately, you will be the one doing the work. If your <insert authoritative figure here> wants you to be either a doctor, lawyer, or accountant, you need to try to block their opinion in this matter. Yes, they may be paying for your education but it is your life. It isn’t a life worth living if you dread your job and material.

Remember struggling with <insert challenging subject here> (like Sejarah or Additional Mathematics)? Pursuing an undergraduate degree that you have zero interest or passion in will be exponentially worse. Trust me.

Don’t know what you want to do with your life? That’s fine too! I’m a rising junior and I’ve already declared my major, but to be completely honest, I still have days when I question my major and wonder if it’s my true calling. Not knowing what you want to be in the future is a) completely normal, and b) does not mean you can’t make any decisions.

I thought I wanted to be a journalist but after doing a short internship stint at The Star Malaysia, I realized it wasn’t what I envisioned myself doing for the rest of my life. Does that mean I wasted 2 months of my life? Absolutely not! If I hadn’t shadowed seasoned journalists and got a proper feel of the career and industry, I wouldn’t be able to completely rule out the occupation.

Knowing what you DON’T want to do is a step closer to knowing what you want to do.

I felt overwhelmed and frankly ill-equipped to make a solid decision about my future. So, I looked for education paths that were more open ended and less binding. If you’re unsure of what you want to do, avoid pathways that don’t allow for flexibility, i.e. foundation, matriculation.

Personally, I wanted the option of being able to apply to a variety of universities and was almost sure I wanted to pursue my education in the U.S. or the U.K. Thus, I narrowed my search to three programs: A-Levels, IB, and ADP.

After accepting a scholarship for a local IB program, I got accepted to the Minerva Schools at KGI. Minerva is an innovative liberal arts college based in San Francisco and funded by Venture Capitalists. I wasn’t sure if I was good enough for the university; I felt like an imposter. I had just finished SPM, was I ready to go to university? Minerva has a global rotation: students spend their four years of university living in: San Francisco, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul, Hyderabad, London, and Taipei.

Like other universities in the U.S., Minerva is not for everyone. Every university is unique and has different value propositions. Make sure to be well-informed of the characteristics of your dream university and fall in love with those, not the idea of a big name.

It has been 2 years and I have zero regrets. I’ve experienced so many cultures, taken courses outside my comfort zone, made friends I hope I’ll have for life, and learned how to “adult.” My only regret? Not taking the initiative pre and post-SPM to find out about the plethora of pre-u and university options out there. I was lucky – I applied to my university on an impulse and was totally uninformed. I didn’t know what I was signing myself up for, but I’m glad I did it anyway.

Go explore. Read. Meet new people. Gain self-understanding. Figure out what works best for you – you’re the only one who will be able to. This leads me to advice #2:

  1. See what the options are, and ask yourself what would suit you best.

Let’s go through some facts about the various options in the U.S.:

P.s. there’s a ton of information here, but there’ll be much more at the USApps workshop! Plus willing facilitators who will answer specific questions you may have. Sign up here. http://bit.ly/USAPPS2017

There are many types of universities in the U.S. I’ll briefly go through a few:

  1. Public research universities

Universities under this category are state-funded (United States of America) and are usually large (student body > 20,000). These universities have graduate programs and conduct scientific research – it helps their university rankings.

Generally, these universities will be significantly more affordable for in-state students (students born or who live in the state of the university) as opposed to out-of-state and international students.

Examples:

  • UC schools (UCLA, UC Berkeley, UCSD)
  • Penn State (any school with the word “State,” really)
  • University of Virginia, University of Madison-Wisconsin (not all University of X’s are public schools though)
  1. Private research universities

Here’s the category in which all Ivy Leagues and most Tier 1 schools fall under. These are private-funded – through alumni donations, endowments and a hefty price tag.

Examples:

  • Ivy Leagues (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, UPenn, Dartmouth)
  • Stanford, MIT
  • New York University, University of Chicago, Boston University
  1. Liberal arts colleges

LACs, which only offers undergraduate degrees, want students to be exposed to a breadth of disciplines. Even if you’re an intended physics major, you will probably have to take a philosophy course and a language course. Generally, LACs are small (student body < 2,500) which means less competition and higher chances of being involved with research opportunities and study abroad programs. In most LACs, students can take classes as other institutions. Wellesley College allows students to take classes at MIT- go take a look at the Five College Consortium, too!

Examples:

  • Mount Holyoke, Middleburry, Swarthmore, Wesleyan
  • Oberlin, Ponoma, Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna
  • Minerva Schools at KGI (where I go)
  1. Community colleges

Generally only a two-year program, these colleges serve a similar purpose as ADP programs in Malaysia. Students are placed in small classes and have to prepare to apply to transfer to a non-community college institution.

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I’m definitely biased towards the education system in the United States. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Flexible curriculum

Many U.S. universities don’t require undergrads to declare their major until the end of their sophomore year. That buys you 2 extra years to try out classes in colleges (college of social science, college of business, etc) before settling on a major. It is like trying on a really expensive pair of shoes – even if you’re really sure you like it, you should try it on before purchasing to be sure. It’s a pretty expensive pair of shoes that you’ll wear for 4 years. High commitment, high stakes.

  • Opportunity for financial aid

U.S. universities have various forms of aid to subsidize the cost of attending: merit-based scholarships, need-based aid, work-study, loans, grants, etc.

You have to ask yourself a bunch of questions (beyond this list):

Do I want to live in a city or on a college campus? Do I want to go to a large sized university with thousands of students or a small college with hundreds? Do I want flexibility in deciding what I want to major in?

I personally wanted to:

  • live in a city, right smack in the middle of the hustle bustle;
  • be in a small, tight-knit community;
  • high flexibility in deciding my major, and having a lot of opportunity to explore;
  • experience different cultures and mingle with people from different walks of life.

If your criteria fit mine, you should consider looking into small sized Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs) with high percentage of international students in a metropolitan.

  1. Do your research, talk to alumni/current students, reach out, email them!
Look how ready we are to talk to interested students!

Online research is great because you don’t feel like you’re bothering anyone but it can be extremely subjective because it’s a one-way information flow. Your situation and someone else’s situation could be worlds apart.

My best advice: talk to current students and seniors. Most people are very willing to help – they’ve all been there! Think about the people in your network who might be willing to spare 10 minutes to talk to you. Be polite, patient, and nice about it!

I’ve been on both sides but more extensively, the side of helping juniors. Personally, I’m more than willing to answer questions that are specific to me – ask me about my experience and my opinions. Do your own online research to avoid asking me questions that you can Google to find the answer. I’ve Skyped with interested people (if timezones and scheduling permits) and answered a bunch of e-mails. I usually get back to people within a week – if not drop me a gentle reminder. I’m in school/working/busy but definitely willing to help if you’re eager to listen and respectful!

Self-plug: attend USAPPS! USAPPS is an event organized by current students and alumni tailored specifically to share their experiences and guide current applicants through the strenuous application process of applying to U.S. universities.

You may think: “But I just finished SPM! I’m not applying to university yet.”

Applying to universities is not an ad-hog decision or process. A lot goes into it: where you want to apply to (U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, Singapore, locally), and what pre-university requirements different universities have.

USAPPs is a very sharing, fun, and enthusiastic community. Attending the workshop will give you a better idea of which path you want to pursue, especially if you’re considering applying to universities in the U.S.

Facilitators are usually more than willing to help you proofread your CollegeApp essay and give advice on other issues based on their experiences. You’ll get a booklet with contact details!

Hopefully this post was helpful and enjoyable. You can contact me here or read more of my writing on my personal blog.