A-level Life in the UK

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A-level lasted two years, and I finished mine at a private girls school, full boarding, in the UK. I must admit, a year before that I had never even considered going abroad for studies, as no one else in my family had done so before. But when many of my other friends were applying it led me to start researching a little about boarding schools in the UK just to see what the big deal was about.  It was then I realized that going abroad is a wonderful experience that could potentially bring in new opportunities and also means a fresh start. After 4 years at the same high school, I was then quite eager to meet new people and try new things. In that sense, I was never ‘afraid’ of the prospect of leaving home, in fact it made me the more excited to be able to demonstrate my independence overseas.  I was never ‘forced’ to go abroad for studies, it was all completely my choice and I really appreciated my parents for that freedom.

I only applied to only 2 colleges in the UK. It was common for students to apply to at least 4-5 schools in order to increase chances of acceptance, but unlike some of my peers, I didn’t share that whole ‘must-go-abroad-no-matter-what’ mentality. I did really want to go, mind you. But to me, I decided to apply to try my chances, and if I wasn’t successful, then so be it. Hey, at least I tried right? Application wasn’t that difficult. All you need to do (with your parents help, of course) is to fill in application forms, pay the application fees and sit the entrance examinations. Anyone can apply, as long as you have the appropriate prior qualifications. For many schools, all they require is IGCSEs, O-levels, or something equivalent like SPM. The application fees are roughly around £200 but they differ between schools. The tricky part of application is the entrance examinations. Boarding schools are competitive; you are trying for limited amount of places with students from all over the world. I only discovered upon starting that they only accepted 12 new girls in my year. You must know which A-level subjects you are applying for, and those will be the subjects you will be tested in. I found my exams to be quite tricky, and much of it was testing me A-level knowledge that at the time I was completely new to. I did try my best and I’ve been told that the teachers just want to see the way you think and work out solutions rather than achieving the right answers. In addition to my entrance examinations I had a short interview with one of the teachers. The interview was relatively creative and they asked wacky Google-like questions like “Who would you choose to meet if you were to travel back in time?” to which I made a confused face and blurted out “Hitler” (but for the right reasons, trust me). I wouldn’t necessarily advise anyone to bring up Hitler in any interview, but I guess what I’m saying is to keep an open mind and just deal with any curveball they throw at you. Like I said, I suppose they just want to see what type of person you are! (Just as I’m writing this it hits me that I must have come off as some eccentric psychopath who constantly thinks about Hitler, great).

Oh and for scholarship applicants, the entrance procedure is similar, only that I’ve heard they undergo a more vigorous interview process. Some of the new girls in my year were academic scholars, as well as musical and sport scholars. Don’t be afraid to try out for a scholarship. They’re tough, but they won’t diminish your chances (unless you screw up super badly). Worse case scenario is you don’t get a spot, but it is also very possible that they offer you a place without the scholarship.

In my two years at boarding school, I’ve got to say that the experience was worth it, as a whole. If you have the opportunity, don’t be afraid to take it even though it must seem scary to leave home and study overseas all by yourself, away from friends and family. That is indeed tough, a few other overseas new students and myself included were often counting down the days until the next holiday in the first term, not because we were super homesick but because boarding school life is just so different and hectic. Your day is literally filled with activities and classes and you don’t get back to your room until the day is dark and you’re tired. It was such a contrast to when I was in high school and back home by 4pm. Then there’s also the part about your social life. Girls at my school were nice, they were friendly and approachable. But what you’re probably forgetting is the difference between friendly people and friends. When you’re so far from family you need good, trustworthy friends who make you feel at home. It was difficult to make those types of friends when you’re new. The existing girls in my school had already formed their social circles having boarded since they were 12 previously. As an outsider and newcomer, it was hard trying to find your place in such an established social situation. I guess this was only the case of my school, as there were so few new girls, let alone Asians or Malaysians. I was lucky in the sense that the other new girl in my house and I became really good friends throughout my college years, and we were able to go through everything together. From getting lost and finding our way around the school, to helping each other out with our work and attending events together. It’s always easier when you bond with someone in your position. So yeah, find a newbie and stick to them. But here’s the positive part – having spoken to the new girls when we graduated, we all agreed that there were definitely ups and downs throughout our 2 years there. There were times when you’re dead tired and missing Malaysian food and just want to go home, but there are also times when you’ve bonded with the house watching Downtown Abbey, or cooking with your friends while jamming out to MTV. Although I’ve made only a few close friends, I do appreciate that I’ve at least had the opportunity to know the other girls in my year as they are all very cool and interesting. My school was a very traditional, British school, and naturally about 92% of the student body was girls from privileged, London families and they would all bond together. It’s tough when you’re not from similar backgrounds, and don’t have mutual friends, but I got on with them fine and had lots of fun. I do however, know of people who struggle with the social aspects of going to boarding school, so do consider this aspect when deciding to apply.

Academic-wise, it was fine for me, but I guess that’s because I was previously attending a British curriculum back in KL in an international school. The pace in my college was much quicker though, and the jump between IGCSEs and AS level very high, but I managed to cope eventually. Teachers were very helpful and always willing to provide extra help if you need it. There’s a lot of self-studying involved, which I’ve always enjoyed anyway. If you have previously been heavily reliant on tuition in high school, make sure you know you can cope in boarding school if you are to apply, as I do know several people in this position. The Westerners are often heavily opinionated and loud-spoken, stimulating debates in classes as opposed to the Asian way of ‘listening to the teacher and making notes’. The British way of teaching is definitely something different, but I really liked it and I grew to be more confident throughout as I learn from others to develop thoughtful opinions and be more assertive. Extra-curricular is good too (well, they should be, for the price you pay) and there are a lot of opportunities offered outside of academics in boarding schools. I got involved with new sports, new musical skills, as well as Young Enterprise, drama production and various other school officer positions. Schools like this encourage you to be an all-rounder and you really get the feel of belonging to a community. My college also provided very good university entrance support, with university preparations in the 1st year to very hands-on help with personal statements, university entrance examination help, and interview practice. This is because majority of students from my school often apply to Oxbridge, and this is the typical entrance procedure. It’s good if you’re aiming for Oxbridge as it is schools like this that have inside knowledge about the tips and tricks that might otherwise not be available to local Malaysian teachers. Pastoral support is great too, the teachers are kind and helpful, in non-academic matters as well and they really do have your best interests at heart for all things concerned.

My time at boarding school was great. Looking back, I do not one bit regret ever going over. That said, I do admit that it wasn’t smooth sailing the entire time, but I’m just the sort of person to take risks and welcome new things that are outside my comfort zone. I also fully appreciate being able to experience it, as I understand that not everybody has the same opportunities. But if you do, I would definitely recommend trying out for boarding school, but do so with an open mind and don’t be afraid to try new things!


Due to personal reasons, the author of this article has requested for his/her institution to remain anonymous. If you wish to find out more, feel free to contact the CollegeLAH Team and we will direct you to the author, subject to his/her consent.

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