The Experience: Applying to Private Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S.


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1.5 years ago, I would never had imagined myself studying in the States. I was set about to pursue Medicine locally or Economics/Engineering abroad. Then came Liberal Arts which captured my heart so hard and so fast. I chose to study Liberal Arts because I wanted a fresh and holistic approach towards education. There was freedom to explore subjects I have never come across before, and an opportunity to discover my direction. The thing is, not many people have heard of Liberal Arts. Aunties and Uncles say “Sorry girl, can repeat ah?” whenever I mention what I am studying. I guess it has a lot to do with the U.S. being so far away (I was one of the people who travelled the furthest in my class). Most people never go beyond the “Aiyah, so far so expensive better study here!” stage. However, I did and I am glad I took the effort to demystify the U.S. system through research and consultation, because I am extremely satisfied with my choice. I hope you will do the same.

So hello there! My name is Tan Cai May and I am a freshmen of Soka University of America (SUA)’s class of 2018. I am in my dorm room enjoying the Southern California breeze as I type this. Prior to applying, I studied A Level at Taylor’s College Subang Jaya, where I took 3 Science subjects, Math and Thinking Skills. As of now, I am deciding to concentrate in Environmental Studies or International Studies or both. A year ago, I attended the USAPPS two-day workshop in Klang Valley. It was extremely informative and helpful for prospective students. Of all the things I remembered, it was a facilitator’s advice to apply to a range of schools that stuck with me: apply to the top guns, middle range ones where you would stand a fair chance and the safety schools. That is what drove me to send in applications to 10 private liberal arts institutions. I was lucky enough to get into 9 of them, including Macalester, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Grinnell all with scholarship grants.

I ended up choosing Soka University of America because: 1) SUA has an intimate setting, with a student body smaller than most liberal arts colleges’. This ultimately translates to more interactions with faculty and more available opportunities. 2) Every student is required to take up a new language. We also get to study abroad in a country that speaks the language! 3) SUA’s mission is to foster a steady stream of global citizens. This captured me because I wanted to be in a place that could nurture true humanistic leaders, who concentrated more on character building and self-development than grades. This is a place where I can build a solid self, consolidate correct virtues of life and develop a skill set that would give me the right platform to step off into the post-degree world. 4) SUA offered me a generous amount of financial aid. I came here on a full ride scholarship (Merit Scholarship and Soka Opportunity Scholarship), which is a complete plus that I am extremely grateful for.

For all 10 colleges, I used the Common Application (CommonApp) for my application. The application process was tedious, but not as complicated as we make it up to be. I got to know that some institutions had different application requirements. For example, SUA required applicants to convert their academic records into CGPA format. For that I had to submit my original certificates (IGCSE and A Levels) 3 months prior to the deadline to a company specializing in these conversions so that my documents will reach on time. With CommonApp, applicants had to go to their teachers for recommendation letters and have a school counsellor for verification purposes. Some of my peers went back to their high schools and asked help from their guru kaunseling. I was lucky enough to have free counselling service in my college and they took care of that particular area. Most colleges require a minimum of 2 recommendations from teachers. I approached my Economics teacher from high school and Chemistry teacher from college. I made this choice as I believed they know me well enough, in terms of personal characteristic, work ethic and performance throughout the courses. The other motive was that I wanted the admissions panel to get to know my experience and flexibility of both arts and sciences. I thought it was an important point to make especially when applying for the Liberal Arts program.

The CommonApp also requires a submission of academic records and has a section for Extra Curricular Activities (ECAs). It will be beneficial if you are an active member in a club that interests you greatly or have a leadership role. It is definitely a plus if you have an ECA record of some sort when applying to the States. ECAs are not limited to college activities. It could be volunteering experiences, community organizations or programs. For me, I had a strong leadership experience in my religious community. I believed that helped me a lot in my application. However, bear in mind, it is never too late to start. Feel free to start whenever you can. Do not put it off, thinking you cannot. But, do not force something just because you want something on your resume. Personally, I feel ECAs are a way to express yourself and gain more exposure. It adds color to life and it certainly adds some color to your application. So go out there and have some fun.

All the colleges that I applied to only require the SAT 1 test. I started preparing approximately 2 months prior to my first test date, which was an absolute rush. Mind you, I was not even studying at that time frame. It requires consistent practice. My friend said as long as you finished up all 10 practice tests (The Official SAT Study Guide by CollegeBoard) and the online test, all will be fine. I heeded the advice and it turned out okay. The test is not like your standard IELTS or TOEFL test, as it requires you to master a wide range of vocabulary and have broad grammatical knowledge. Going through the practice tests, I identified my weaknesses and spent time on them, seeking out free online resources to improve myself. I took the test twice, but I personally think once is enough as there was minimal improvement on the second test. Two of my friends had the same experience. However, it depends on each person and whether you ACTUALLY studied *grins*.

And of course, essays. And of course, I will use this hackneyed cliché: The correct approach to essays, especially U.S. essays, is to be honest about yourself and your passions. When choosing a college, you have to find the correct FIT. Fit here means that you find yourself nodding to the goals/missions of the school or particular lifestyle or approach to education of the school. So research prior to applying is important. Do not apply just because. Personal essays require a lot of self-reflection. I spent day after day writing my essays after a prolonged period of brainstorming. I found critical questions helped me get to the point: What message do I want to get across? Is this what I want to say, honestly? So what? Talk about what you know and what you feel, honestly. Demonstrate your thought process on paper, especially if you are writing about a personal experience; demonstrate your knowledge if you are writing about something technical. This is you on a piece of paper and you have to make it good, clear and clean. Of course, the key is to do your essays early. Nothing wrong with coming up with a surface-level-deep first draft. If you work hard on revising it, you will have a solid one to submit at the end of the process. I did let my peers read my essays and I took their comments into consideration. It will be beneficial to have a couple of strangers to go through your main essays if you want an unbiased first impression. I also chose to write the optional essay questions for my application because I would be able to show more of myself on paper. In turn, the admissions panel would get to know me better. If you choose to do this, just be sure that it is not a 2.0 version of your main and personal essays.

I believe a good academic track record and engagement in social activities are strong points in an application. I made sure that the diversity of experiences and what I learned from the experiences were shown in my application. On the flipside, it is the personality that matters in some cases. Some seniors have regarded that it was their personality that saw them through to the colleges they wanted. It is always good to demonstrate your attitude towards college and learning in general. You must know your strong cards and play them right.

So my two cents: If you are sure of it, go for it. Do not underestimate yourself, do not overestimate, be intermediate and be confident. Sometimes luck may be on your side, but you will never lose by trying. I took the application as a learning process and learned to persevere through it. Going through application frustrations will shed light on a lot of things and you may figure things out (think life epiphany moments) along the way. I am a believer of non-elitism, free education and meritocracy, so what I said was based on my view points. I hope it is relevant to what you are looking for. Please do not use this as rule of thumb, but rather one of the windows you happened to peek into. All in all, good luck and have fun building your own journey!

imageedit_20_4683760315Tan Cai May is a Liberal Arts student at Soka University of America, Class of 2018, who has yet to decide on her concentration. She is an avid fan of fashion (yay instagram), non-hit chart music, deep dialogues and good books. With her years in SUA, she wishes to find her true direction, break personal boundaries and do the best of her ability. She is also extremely grateful to SUA and SUA’s donors for her full scholarship.

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