My name is Victor Tan. I’m a rising sophomore at the University of Chicago and a current holder of the JPA Ivy League dan Setara Scholarship. When I got into UChicago, I was absolutely ecstatic, yet I was shipwrecked in denial – I wasn’t sure if I could afford more than three years in the States without my family having to sell a house; but at the same time, I wasn’t keen on working at Bank Negara or Sime Darby for the better part of my youth…
Hence, I applied for the JPA Ivy League dan Setara scholarship. 6-year bond. Only applicants who have gained admission (read: unconditional offer) to one of the universities in the Times Top Universities Rankings need apply. The only stipulation was that I had to return to Malaysia to find a job in a private corporation for 6 years: Since most people who study in the States do return to Malaysia, I was totally okay with that! One online application and three stages of interviews later, I received word in November of 2013 that the JPA overlords had decided to award the scholarship to lil’ old me.
With that in mind, this is a memoir of my process of applying for the scholarship and being assessed, inclusive of the interview process, as well as some advice for prospective applicants. If you’re interested in applying for the scholarship and you eventually do, I hope that it helps some of you go through the rollercoaster of happiness and awesome emotions that I went through on the day I received the scholarship!
Anyway, down to the application process!
The application process.
So the whole thing took about five months from start to finish. As I mentioned, there is an online application. During my time, the online application was only open for a week, so keep your eyes peeled to make sure that you don’t miss the deadline! In the online application, you fill in the university that you’ve received an unconditional offer from and submit your pre-university results. During my year, you didn’t have to attach scanned copies of your results and conditional offers, but you had to bring these documents to the JPA office on the actual day of your interview, and I think that this has changed ever since. What remains the same, however, is the fact that if you do not have an offer from one of those universities, you are not eligible to apply. JPA happened to look favourably upon me, so they called me for an interview at the JPA Putrajaya office.
When I reached the JPA office, I saw about 80 different people dressed in varying degrees of business casual/formal, and I was pretty worried that there would be lots of competition: It was then and there that I silently cursed myself for applying for only one scholarship, but I also silently thought to myself that I had done well to reach this stage, and decided to make the best of it. Later though, I found out that everyone was scared too, so I guess it kind of evened out (because I’m inclined to schadenfreude like that :P).
During the first part of the morning, we handed in all the documents that JPA had asked us to furnish on the day itself, including the unconditional offer letters that we had obtained, and our academic results for both pre-U and our SPM/IGCSE equivalents alike. Subsequently, we were separated into groups of three people – My group was composed of an old acquaintance whom I had met at a competition a year ago, in addition to this Malaysian girl who claimed that she was going to Stanford. I say ‘claim’, and I will elaborate on this at some later point during this piece. The three of us were made to go through three stages of interviews, conducted in Malay and English alike, and I’m guessing that you guys are dying to learn about how they worked out.
Without further ado…
The first stage!
The first stage of my interview was conducted entirely in Malay by two JPA officers in one of the JPA conference rooms. Pretty depressing atmosphere – It looked like a university lecture hall, and there were actually chalkboards where we could write down our ideas. We were given a case study that was written entirely in Malay, which was basically a newspaper article about haze in Malaysia. The three of us were tasked with outlining the nature of the issue, several possible solutions, as well as some considerations to take into mind with the stakeholders.
We were given about twenty minutes to discuss our response to the prompt … in Malay, while being observed by people who had spoken Malay for their entire lives, so that was mildly intimidating! The issue for most of the people who were applying for the scholarship at this point in time was that they were first and second year university students years removed from the Malaysian education system. As a result, most of them couldn’t speak Malay very well and thus struggled during this interview. I was very prepared, though, so I went into the discussion with a pretty open mind, wrote a couple of points down, and discussed a few others with my peers during the discussion.
During the discussion, however, whatever trepidation that I had about delivering this presentation faded away – I performed a small division of labour, and we talked a bit about what we were each going to say. (Although keep in mind that plans like these don’t always work out!)
The presentation itself was pretty simple – I introduced the group, then gave a little bit of background on the issue, while Eng Keat and “Stanford girl” spoke a little about the stakeholders involved as well as some possible resolutions before we moved into Q&A and were forced to defend our answers. Considering that the prompt was about haze, it wasn’t very difficult to talk about the issue considering that I read the news and I knew about some of the complexities regarding the issue. So I spoke everything that was on my mind, always trying to ensure that my colleagues got airtime to the interviewers too – Overall, I think they were pretty impressed with our presentation, because one of them praised us with a “good job” after the presentation!
Next, we have…
The second stage!
The second stage of my interview was conducted entirely in English by two JPA officers. In this stage, we were tasked, once again, with conducting a presentation – except in English.
This stage of the interview was slightly abstract, because the case study we were given was essentially a picture of the national flag, followed by the following question: How does this inspire feelings of patriotism within you?
Again, there was a discussion period of twenty minutes, which in this case I didn’t actually need, but I went along with the charade anyway. At this point in time, I was pretty sure that they wanted to test our rhetorical skill, which I had absolutely no problem with because I had been involved in Model UN and debate alike – In other words, I had no problem with bullshitting and structuring a presentation on the fly, with absolutely no planning, absolutely no consideration of the things that I was going to say. My friend had a rough idea of the things that he wanted to say, so we spent the majority of the time helping “Stanford girl” come up with ideas for topics to talk about.
I don’t have very much to say about the second part of the interview apart from the fact that this interview went really well, because I was completely composed, and I had lots of preparation from previous debate tournaments, Model UN speeches drilled into my brain, etcetera. When you’ve mastered the art of giving seven-minute speeches in English, there really shouldn’t be a problem, or any degree of fear when you’re making things up on the fly, so that was cool.
Now, for the next (and last!) stage of the interview…
The third stage.
This interview was conducted partially in Malay and partially in English. By this point, I was assuming that the third stage was going to be some sort of Q&A session where I could talk about my interests and what I did in college, and I was right! This interview lasted about an hour total, and it was basically two JPA officers grilling us about national issues and our college backgrounds – Though to some extent it was about our background knowledge of the courses that we were going to study, I felt that on some level, the interviewers were simply trying to see how well we could cope under pressure.
The interview began with introductions. Name, the university that we were going to, and the course that we were going to study. Victor Tan, Economics, University of Chicago – (Insert name of friend), Maths, University of Oxford…. (Insert name of “Stanford Girl”. Applying to Stanford, seeking a degree in business and administration.)
The interviewers were curious about “Stanford Girl”, and they pressed further – Did she know how the scholarship worked? Did she have an unconditional offer from the university? In response to the first question, she said that she wanted JPA to apply for the university on her behalf. In response to the second question, she said no she did not have an offer from Stanford. Considering that she didn’t even understand the basic requirements of the scholarship, it was pretty much a given that she didn’t receive it in the end. However, seeing that she and her mum had spent over RM1000 booking flights and hotels in Kuala Lumpur, I felt pretty sorry for them both.
At some point, the interviewers stopped pressuring “Stanford Girl”, and they moved on to asking legitimate questions, which I can summarize in the following set of bullet points:
- Why are you interested in pursuing your field of study?
- Why the university that you chose?
- Will you come back after graduation?
- What is 1Malaysia?
The interesting thing about this interview, however, was that the interviewers were making up questions on the fly – And I was happy that I had the opportunity to actually engage someone in a conversation rather than talk at their face for 20 minutes straight.
When my friend noted that he was studying math at Oxford, the interviewers asked him the following – “Why does 1+1 = 2?”, to which my friend responded by noting that numbers and the rules of addition are part of an axiomatic and logical system in which meaning is absent when we do not abide by those rules – He also noted that numbers are arbitrary and carry a representational function, meaning that “3” could equal “2” if we had chosen to define our number system as such.
He explained this in Malay. The interviewers did not understand him, and it was kind of amusing to watch.
When it came to my turn, they asked a little bit about my university (in Malay) and why Economics, to which I gave them a bunch of generic answers which you can probably look up if you Google the name of my university. Additionally, they asked me how my knowledge of Economics would help Malaysia (in English), specifically about the allocation of BR1M payments to the poor as well as the removal of petroleum subsidies by the Malaysian government. My response included a short analysis of the historical trend of poverty in our country, (some!) discussion of national issues as well as the need for the NEP, BR1M, and other schemes in light of the economic inequality between the races, though whether I personally believed in those arguments was a separate issue entirely. (I had mentioned racial tensions, and my interviewer specifically zeroed in and asked me why those racial tensions occurred, so if you’re not very prepared to talk about something, make sure you don’t say it!)
They pretty much ignored “Stanford Girl”.
Subsequently, they had some fun pressuring us about whether or not we were going to come back after graduation. Trick question: if you receive that question, always say yes because you pretty much have to return after graduation, that’s what’s stipulated in the scholarship package. 😛
Lastly, they asked us about 1Malaysia. This was problematic, because much like the majority of you reading this article, I had no idea what 1Malaysia is, and I don’t care even now. It was okay though, because I just made up something, as did my friend, and the interviewer ran with that. Again, “Stanford Girl” was ignored.
And that was it!
In November, I was midway through Fall Quarter in UChicago, and I was studying for midterms one night (as usual!). A friend of mine messaged me to tell me that the scholarship results had been released, and naturally, there was a pretty big element of fear and anticipation on my end.
I remember the moment when I realized that all of that fear was unfounded… Because both my friend and I, we each received one of the five to eight JPA Ivy League dan Setara scholarships that were given out that year.
Needless to say, I was absolutely overjoyed. I remember calling my mum, my brother, anyone and everyone who would listen about the fact that I had gotten the scholarship, and I remember the 80 USD phone bill that resulted because I hadn’t considered the possibility that I might end up paying an exorbitant amount of money. Please don’t be like me, and try using Skype instead 😛
In reflection, I had a pretty good support system when it came to applying for this scholarship, because I had created a small Facebook group for all the scholarship applicants, and we had run a couple of mock interviews for ourselves throughout the course of applying for the scholarship. With that in mind, I’d like to specifically thank Dylan Ler for helping to conduct mock interviews for the scholarship, for in general being chill and helping us by speaking in Malay – By the day of the scholarship interview, we were all extremely well-prepared, and we could tackle pretty much any question that was thrown at us.
I was very, very happy as a result, because I knew that I had given my very best and gotten the result I was looking for.
With that in mind, here’s some advice.
Advice for prospective applicants.
- Don’t abandon your Malay just because you’re in college. You’ll need it for scholarship interviews, and if you can’t perform, ask yourself the following: If I were a scholarship officer seeking people to represent my scholarship body, would I pay RM1 million to send someone overseas when they can’t even speak the national language?
- Get informed. Know things that you would be expected to know as an informed citizen of this country. Do not compromise on reading the news, do not compromise on being updated about current affairs. If you don’t even take the effort to find out about how your country is being run or what’s happening in the world, nobody is going to be impressed by you no matter how well you’ve done academically.
- Dress well, cut your hair, and always be aware of how you are perceived. Granted, this may come off as hypocrisy considering the fact that I now have blonde hair and look like an ‘Ah Beng’, but I wore a suit on the day of the interview and I looked like a perfect ‘guaikia’. However, let me share the following anecdote with you: One of the scholarship applicants, an Imperial kid, if I’m not wrong, was in an elevator with me and an elderly gentleman as we moved from one floor of the JPA building to the venue where the interviews were being held – He was dressed in business casual, yes, but he hadn’t cut his hair. The elderly gentleman noted the following :”You’re going for an interview, and you look like a mess. How can we give you the scholarship like this?”
It’s true that this little incident may not have affected the overall outcome, considering that only five people did get the scholarship. However, it’s always important to be aware of how you are perceived and the way you carry yourself, because again, as a JPA scholar, you will be a REPRESENTATIVE of this country. Act like it.
- Hang out with other scholarship applicants! Use Google, add people on Facebook, organize organize organize! A great resource to use is www.recom.org, a scholarship forum on which I met a lot of different people who were applying for the scholarship – In fact, I’m willing to bet that the majority of you who are applying for this scholarship at this point in time have read Recom. Malaysia is a small country, with a small pool of people who are vying for the same thing. Don’t view people simply as competitors but rather as collaborators – Meet up, talk to each other, learn from one another, because you have nothing to lose and everything to gain!
- PRACTICE. Your interview is important, and it is the only factor that you can control. You can’t influence which university you’ve already gotten into, and this is the only real way that you can have an influence on the outcome as an applicant, your only shot to engage with your stakeholders as a human being. Remember that in your interview, every word has significance; everything you say forms an opinion on someone’s part about you, every gesture that you make informs someone about your character. If you lack confidence, it will show. If you lack the ability to speak in public, it will show. If you’re not someone that the scholarship body would want to interact with over a meaningful period of time… It will show. With that in mind, always make sure to practice. Get used to speaking in public, get used to talking to people and having a conversation, because these conversations with your JPA officers will not be one-dimensional. Maybe get a little group together, and conduct mock interviews among yourselves to see the extent to which you are prepared for the interview, and you’ll have at least some measure of preparation (and hopefully a better performance!) by the actual day.
- Ask for help and reach out! If you’re not sure about certain things, or if you’d like to get help with the scholarship application, don’t be afraid to ask previous scholars, because chances are we were in your position not all that long ago, and we will be willing to help. Drop emails, be nice – We won’t bite!
All in all, if you decide to apply for the scholarship, good luck! It was an extremely rewarding experience, and I made a bunch of new friends after my involvement in the process, so that was great. I still conduct mock interviews upon request (over Google Hangouts and Google Docs), so I still get involved from time to time. If you’re interested in getting in touch, do drop me an email at victortanws (AT) gmail (DOT) com. All the best
The University of Chicago ’17.
Victor Tan constantly questions why JPA thought that giving him a scholarship was a good idea. He is currently blonde and therefore a DVD-selling ahbeng, he occasionally blogs at http://theprimeconvergence.blogspot.com: Please make sure that your children never end up like him. He will (eventually!) finish reading Economics at The University of Chicago in 2017.