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 US?
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.
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?
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.
2. 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.
3. 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!