Choosing the right uni as a sponsored student (UK v. USA)


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I received the JPA Biasiswa Nasional scholarship right after SPM results were released. Since JPA wanted the scholarship recipients to inform them of our choice of course and country, I wrote that I wanted to pursue Actuarial Science in the US. That was before I started A-Level at Taylor’s College. However, I was actually undecided about my future career and hence degree course. But at that time I’d heard that the actuarial field was lucrative and US universities were “better” in that field, so that was why I chose them. Plus, I wasn’t too serious while making that decision because JPA told us that we could change the course and country choices afterwards.

Up until it was time to apply to universities, I still did not have a country or even course in mind. One thing was for sure, I had always known that I would at least apply to the UK, but whether or not I would attend a British university was another matter. So to apply to the UK, I needed to know exactly which degree I wanted to pursue. At first I “decided” to apply for Electrical Engineering. After some really long nights trying to come up with a personal statement to show my “passion” towards Electrical Engineering, the end product wound up sounding like a Physics or Materials Science application. That was really frustrating, so I backed up and thought long and hard about what I wanted to do with my life after school and what interests me the most. Long story short, I arrived at Mathematics and finally settled on it.

Now that I’d decided to study Mathematics, choosing which five UK universities to apply to was an easy task because there were only five UK universities on the Times Higher Education Top 50 Universities Ranking for Physical Sciences that year.

After submitting my UK application, I started to work on my application to University of California and Commonapp. The primary reason that got me interested in US universities was that they took about 70% of the entire Top 50 list. But later, as I learned more about US education and college life, I began to seriously consider them. Choosing a subject was not so much of a problem when applying to the US, because it is perfectly acceptable to apply as an Undeclared major. This was the main reason I eventually chose to go to a US university over a UK university.

The real headache when it comes to applying to US universities was choosing which schools to apply to. Since application fees are quite hefty, I limited the number of universities to five. The most important factor that narrowed my choices was how well-rounded the school was. I was looking for a school that has a solid reputation in not only math and sciences but also humanities and social sciences because I wanted to explore my interests in these areas and get a balanced education. I also looked at academic opportunities e.g. undergraduate research, the physical environment of the campus and the town surrounding it.

When it comes to game plan, I took nothing more than a realistic view. Generally, applicants are advised to apply to a few dream schools that are hard to get into, a few good schools that are less hard to get into, and a few safety schools that the applicant is very confident of getting into. But then hard and easy take on varying definitions to different people, and not everybody adheres to this general rule. As for me, I had already gotten a few offers from UK universities when I was choosing US schools to apply to, so I did not have to think of back-up schools and just chose five that I would definitely be happy to attend. I chose UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles, Chicago, Cornell and Michigan. As for major, I applied as an Undeclared Physical Science major to the UCs, Statistics major to Chicago and Cornell, and Financial and Actuarial Mathematics major to Michigan.

On the first day of Chinese New Year, I was so happy to find out through email that I was admitted to Michigan. Then in late March through early April, I was admitted to UCLA and Cornell, but waitlisted by UCB and Chicago. I was eventually rejected by both these schools.

I chose UCLA by early May. As I said, I would love to attend any of the schools I applied to so finally coming to a decision was really hard. It came down to a battle between UCLA and Cornell, and the reasons that prompted my final decision were pretty trivial. One, I wanted to be in a big city yet have access to nature e.g. national parks so Los Angeles, California is perfect. While Ithaca has a lot of nature, it is not at all a big city. Two, it can get very cold in upstate New York where Cornell is during winter while the weather at LA is always warm and inviting. My scholarship also encouraged me to enter a Top 10 school because I would get to maintain my current benefits that included higher allowance rates. UCLA was in the Top 10 while Cornell was just outside. But the difference in allowance rates could easily be cancelled by the difference in living expenses between a big city and a smaller college town, so that didn’t play a huge part in my making the decision.

I’ve been in LA for a week now and I’ll say that I’ve definitely made a good call! The campus is gorgeous, the energy among students is inspiring and I can just see myself learn and grow here over these next few years. Although classes have not even started yet, I am excited for the adventures ahead.

Some final thoughts:

Although it is possible to apply with major undecided to US universities, it is good to know what you want to study and/or explore or at least have an idea of it. If you feel like you are passionate about everything but nothing in particular, take concrete actions to find out where your passions lie a little more specifically. It helps not only your application but also self-development to have more specificity and depth to your interests, instead of merely having breadth.

At first, you might feel that it is impossible for you to get into a good university, due to perhaps unreal expectations of university admissions, low confidence or just pessimism. You might give up applying to some universities just because you think you don’t stand a chance or because you need to write a lot of application essays. Don’t let these be reasons for you not chasing your dream.

Yeong Wern Yeen

Yeong Wern Yeen is a JPA scholar who will be going to University of California, Los Angeles this fall. She likes to indulge unapologetically in good food, all sorts of films (especially sci-fi and fantasy) and music, the company of friends and adventures! She is also co-founder and one of the site managers of CollegeLAH.


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