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.


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:

2. 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.

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

i. 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.


  • 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)

ii. 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.


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

iii. 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 like other institutions. Wellesley College allows students to take classes at MIT- go take a look at the Five College Consortium, too!


  • Mount Holyoke, Middlebury, Swarthmore, Wesleyan
  • Oberlin, Ponoma, Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna
  • Minerva Schools at KGI (where I go)

iv. 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.


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 opportunities 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.

3. 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.

The Boy Who Dreamed Out of His League – Kauutam Uthaya Suriyan (UC Berkeley ’20)

Your dream of studying in the U.S. shouldn’t just remain a dream, as Kauutam Uthaya Suriyan (University of California, Berkeley ’20) has proven to himself. Against all odds, Kauutam showed that with hard work, one can reach for what is deemed impossible. Everybody has a different college application journey- come to USAPPS 2017 to learn about the different journeys our facilitators have braved through to get where they are today! You can register here:

The Boy Who Dreamed Out of His League

After a 20 hour back-breaking flight, I finally reached the place I have heard so much about in the Hollywood movies I have watched throughout my life. “The United States of America,” they call it. For many others, it’s the “Theatre of Dreams”. I walked out of the plane with my head held high and a voice in it saying, ”Champ you made it!!!”. Soon, the same smile and confidence were humbled by the customs officer and a stern look on her face. She gave my passport a good stare and sent me to the immigration office. A gruelling one hour wait in the Immigration office gave me the chills and lead me to start asking questions: Will I ever belong here? Will I ever be able to call this place home? After secondary checks by the immigration officers, I was cleared to leave the airport and be on my way to my dream college: University of  California, Berkeley.

I wasn’t just walking to my college dorm, but down memory lane as I reminisced the struggles I had to brave in order to get here. Since I was 7, I would cut newspaper articles of university rankings and paste it on my bedroom wall, dreaming of reaching the impossible. My love for UC Berkeley begun after I watched Vaaranam Aayiram, a Tamil movie where the protagonist falls head over heels for a girl in a train. He would go all the way to the girl’s college- UC Berkeley- to woo her over. Watching the beautiful scenes taken on campus, I remember telling myself that that was where I wanted to go.

However, I was told that I was dreaming for something out of my league, especially as the son of a taxi driver who struggled to make ends meet. Years of hard work, sleepless nights, and the beautiful support of my family and friends later, I received a scholarship to study in UC Berkeley. 8 years later, on UC Berkeley grounds I stood: I am a Golden Bear at last.

In a stadium full of Golden Bears!


I dragged all my suitcases to the campus dorms. Though my confidence returned, it was constantly attacked by the voices in my head reminding me, “you are an immigrant. You are to be extra cautious with each and every step of your way.” I got my keys and was greeted by one of the warmest smile I have ever seen in my life. I never would have suspected that the beholder of the smile would later turn out to be a very special friend to me. A Vietnamese refugee, Hung Hyunh moved to the states for a cardiac surgery. 8 months forward into his new life which America had leased him, Hung was elected by the students to be a senator and represent them.

Hung was only one of the unique and inspiring individuals I was going to meet in my forthcoming year at Berkeley. As I began to meet more people, I realized that not only was I surrounded by a community of diverse backgrounds but also one that had the identical hope and dreams that I had. That dream was to strive and be the best versions of ourselves.

The people here want to make this world a better place for all the inhabitants. They had endless ideas for a start up and public policies. I met two people in a party who agreed the walks to cafeterias for late night meals were troublesome, which lead to a startup idea three months later for late night food delivery. Every conversation I had the privilege to participate in enlightened my mind; they served as a gateway to a new world for me to understand the varying personalities and societies that make up this world. I started to become more accepting of those who were different from me. I stopped taking others as weird, but as special and individualized.


I attended social gatherings and frat parties, literally bumped into so many people and started to realise how important networking is because you can’t take for granted what you might learn from the next person you are about to meet.

During the first couple of weeks alone, I was already being exposed to various opportunities the American education had to offer. From consulting clubs to dance clubs, you can learn anything and be anyone you want to be. All you have to do is step up, approach people and show your commitment. The quote, “Opportunities are up for grabs” is what the American college strives on. The system equips you with everything they deem necessary for your development and maturing; all you have to do is be brave enough to leverage it.

The Kaautam who boards the plane back home to Malaysia for summer break is a different man. This Kaautam is one who is braver, more curious and a higher fervor to learn. Though broken by failures, he is stronger than before and not to forget, just a little bit “cooler” than the Kaautam, 9 months back. Obstacles were no longer just obstacles, but a platform for self-improvement. Foreign ideas and concepts did not remain foreign, but as an opportunity to learn something new.

America may not be everything I imagined it to be. It is beyond the Friday night parties, the beautiful Californian beaches, the freedom to do anything and the Hollywood glamour you see on the TV screen. This is a place for second chances, for as much failures it takes to find your true passion, for the liberty to transform into anything and anyone you want to be. This is America. The land of the free, home of the brave.

With my fellow Malaysians in UC Berkeley!

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 ’13)

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



1. Work on your apps early

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.

2. Don’t be an ass

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.


3. Don’t worry about school prestige

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.

4. Do what will help you learn and be happy

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.

5. You’re going to die someday

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

6. Help other people

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.

7. Capitalism/wealth inequality sucks

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.

Two Years in the Land of the Free – Calvin (Stanford ’17)

In this post, Calvin Yeoh (Stanford ’17) shares his journey to the U.S. – the inevitable uncertainty and fear, the struggle, and, finally, the payoff.

Calvin (Me during ski trip in freshman year!)

A brief recap of my two-years in the land of the free:

My first foray into U.S. college education came when I was still in Form 4, when my parents and I sent my sister off to college at Madison, Wisconsin. My sister took the bold step to study in the States rather than being with her friends back home, or the U.K. or Australia, or anywhere else for that matter, for reasons I could not understand at that time. I questioned her decision to be so far away from all of us, to be within a culture that was completely foreign from the one we were used to. However, being at Madison for a week while helping my sister settle-in also made me start wondering about college. Where do I want to go? What do I want to do? With all its natural beauty and vivaciousness, Madison got me hooked to the idea of studying in the States. (though I soon came to realize that not every college in the States was beautifully wedged amongst three lakes, where students can watch the sunset while enjoying ice cream made in a lab) Call that a brief introduction to “college life”.

Fast-forward three years, I found myself taking a flight to the States, albeit to the West Coast, two thousand miles (or about 28 days’ walk) away from Madison. I walked into campus with a weird sense of excitement and trepidation. On the one hand, this was the moment I’ve been waiting for, to begin a life of higher learning. On the other, since almost everyone here had to work their ass off to get into Stanford, does this mean that I have to work doubly, triply, or quadruply hard just to “stay afloat”? Everyone I met during my first few weeks exuded a sense of confidence and poise, and they seemed to already have college all figured out – the courses that they planned to take, the clubs they intend to join, even their weekly workout routine! And there I was, trying to make sense of the independent-life I’m suddenly expected to lead and curing my jetlag and hurriedly running off to the next orientation event, for fear of missing out (read: FOMO/kiasu).

Stanford soon turned out to be an amazing ride, one with its own vagaries, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. Academics at Stanford are rigorous, but they are not the only things that challenge and enrich you. There is some truth when people say that an American education is beyond just textbooks and whiteboards and problem sheets. Like learning how to bike without hands, learning in college is a process of taking risks and daring to try new things – you may fall or slip once or twice, but the sense of satisfaction and reward at the end is something you carry with you for a long, long time. At Stanford, I found myself partaking in a myriad of activities I would never have imagined doing so. I baked bread for a charity group to end world hunger; I danced (or attempted) salsa a couple of times; I ran barefoot from fountain to fountain (that opportunity is rather scarce now, given the drought that we’re facing); I skied off a mountain. And through these activities, I’ve met some of the most humble and down-to-earth people here, awe-inspiring and unique in their own ways. Almost two years on, I find myself beginning to call this place “home”.

I can still vividly remember one of my favorite experiences at Stanford. Being an amateur astronomy-enthusiast, I went to an open space preserve about 30 minutes away from campus with a couple of friends, hoping to catch comet Lovejoy’s transition across the sky. There, everything was pitch black, and you pretty much use red light for illumination, be it a star-chart on your phone or the digital display on your telescope, because of a biological effect in our eyes that changes our sensitivity towards different colors called the Purkinje effect. The preserve, being elevated about 300m above ground, was perfect as one could see the majestic beauty of the Bay Area in its night lights and the twinkling stars above. As my friends and I huddled together against the strong frigid winds blowing at the hilltop, I felt a sense of warmth, comfort, and satisfaction. This, is what I came to college for, to do some of the things I enjoy the most with the people I enjoy being with. Into our eyes, the universe emptied its creations, the sprinkling of stars amidst the pitch-black canvas that stretched out across the horizon. What amazement I felt when a streak of light appeared at the top-right corner of my field of vision – a shooting star right before my eyes! For this amateur astronomer who grew up under the perpetually-cloudy Kuala Lumpur skies, it was a moment of ecstasy.

For all the hard work that was expected and the hard alcohol that was provided*, Stanford turned out to be a paradise that many purported it to be. From the outside, one might imagine or call this a “resort” – what with the sun-kissed sandstones, the palm trees and fountains that dot our campus, and a beautiful church right smack in the heart of campus. However, beyond its physical beauty, Stanford also taught me to think independently, to follow my own voice and to avoid falling into the mainstream. Now you might be inclined to believe that Stanford is mainly a computer-science hub, an incubator for the “next big thing” to burst out of Silicon Valley, but it is also a place for the literature-enthusiasts, the philosophers, the future teachers, the activists and the physicists, to name a few. College is a place for you yourself to decide how to make the best out of your time, and I’ve decided to learn as much and as widely as I can about the world.

Looking back, I feel eternally grateful for the education that I’ve received and gone through thus far. With admissions rates dropping faster than the bass, choosing and getting into a college can be a tough and emotional process, and once you’re in one, enjoying it can be another. Life is full of uncertainty, and most of the time we get what we want, but sometimes we don’t. In the long run, it doesn’t matter – what matters most is how you face and embrace each of these uncertainties as they come. As Leo Tolstoy, under the pseudonym Kozma Prutkov, said, “if you want to be happy, be”.

To the generations of the past, present and future, I endow you with this snippet of advice. Don’t be afraid to go off the trodden path; Don’t be afraid to question; Don’t be afraid to walk against the tide; Don’t be afraid to be who you are and become what you want to be.

*For clarification, the University does not explicitly provide alcohol or condone alcohol-consumption.

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