Charissa Lee (she/her) is a Sophomore (second year student) at Wesleyan University and a Freeman Asian Scholar. This article is divided into two parts, her application journey, and key takeaways and tips.
The autumn of 2011, my family and I went to London to help my sister move-in as she began her undergraduate studies at King’s College London. During the trip, we went on a short road trip to Oxford. We toured the grounds of the university and I completely fell in love with the city. At 11 years old, my heart was set on reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University. Throughout secondary school at SMK Assunta, everything I did contributed to increasing my chances of being accepted to Oxford: joining the debate club, participating in public speaking competitions, securing an internship with a prominent Malaysian politician, and of course scoring top grades in SPM. I was awarded a full scholarship to pursue the A-Level program in The Alice Smith School, which had a track record of sending students to Oxford and Cambridge. For A-Levels, I studied History, Mathematics, Economics and Chemistry. At Alice Smith, I was on an accelerated program for A-Levels i.e. I completed my AS in 6 months and I scored 4As. The summer before Y13, I was awarded a full scholarship to participate in a 2-week, residential summer school programme in Summerville College, Oxford under Varsity Education.
Everything was in place: I had the grades in the ‘right’ subjects, I had the extracurriculars and this summer programme was the icing on the cake – until it wasn’t. The teachers at the summer school program were experts in their field and were themselves Oxbridge students/graduates. Being in the city was exhilarating and I could really picture myself studying and thriving in Oxford for the next three years. As I learnt more about the structure of PPE at Oxford over the programme, I soon realised that this dream course was not for me. Essentially, first year students don’t get an opportunity to select any modules and there are a lot of restrictions even in second and third year. So I spent a lot of time with my assigned mentor who told me that based on my interests and goals, PPE was not the right course for me and I would be unhappy pursuing the degree because of a romanticised idea I had when I was 11. At the time, I was too stubborn to believe him.
Going into Y13, I was less sure about my university application journey. I knew the course at Oxford was not right for me but I couldn’t really apply for other subjects because all the preparation and additional reading I had done up until that point was very PPE-focused. So I decided to apply for PPE anyway and Alice Smith gave me tremendous support throughout my Oxford application. While in frantic stress preparing for the TSA and interviews, almost all of my friends were applying to U.S. universities. As there was so much talk of the Common App essay and SATs, I naturally began to be more interested in U.S. universities. I went home and researched the course offerings at U.S. colleges. The flexibility of a liberal arts programme was very attractive to me, in comparison to the rigidity at Oxford. But what got me set on applying was the generous financial aid offered by most U.S. universities. Most Ivy League colleges have generous financial aid packages, but other small private colleges have special programs for international students, such as Wesleyan, Clark, Brandeis, Duke, etc. So I registered to take the SAT in October, the SAT subject test in November and I applied early to Yale; I was deferred and ultimately rejected. By late December, I didn’t get an interview for Oxford but gained admission to LSE, King’s, Durham and Exeter. I knew I would be able to meet my grades for my UK offers so I only applied to the four U.S. universities I really wanted to attend: Cornell, Dartmouth, Wesleyan and Yale.
I was offered an interview with Dartmouth and Wesleyan. For Dartmouth, I drove up to Penang for the interview and had a lovely 3-day food trip with my father. I met the seven other students being interviewed and the alumni interviewer who was willing to share his interesting college experiences. Ultimately, I was rejected from Dartmouth but I now know that was for the best, since I do not fare well in extreme weathers, such as that of New Hampshire.
For Wesleyan, I had an interview for admission and a separate interview for the Freeman Asian Scholarship, both interviews were conducted by alumni. During the second interview, I talked about my research on educational barriers for indigenous students in Malaysia. This discussion sparked a debate between me and one of the interviewers in relation to the benefits and harms of vernacular education and segregation in the school system. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion and I knew, at that moment, I had to be surrounded by other students who had the capacity to think and argue like him. During the lunch reception after the interview sessions, where parents were invited, we got to meet 10 other Freeman alumni. I talked to them about their college experience and their current work, and all of them were as interesting and impressive as the last one. I left the lunch reception feeling confident about my chances because I performed well at the interview and had an eye-opening time getting to know the alumni and other candidates.
When decisions were released in April, I was shocked. Cornell: rejected, Dartmouth: rejected, Wesleyan: rejected. I had spent hours preparing for the SATs, writing and re-writing personal statements and supplemental essays, driving hours for interviews, speaking for hours at interviews; all for nothing? I was very disappointed and sad, angry at myself for not doing better. After letting go of that childhood dream, I found a new direction, but it seemed like I had to make another turn. Eventually, I selected King’s to be my firm choice in April and my heart and mind were set on moving to London in September 2019. However, a classmate who was offered both the Freeman scholarship and financial aid from Yale decided on Yale. So, when I found out that the spot for the Freeman scholarship had opened up, I frequently checked my email in anticipation to see if I had been selected. One week had passed, no email. Two, three, four weeks, no email. I told myself there was no chance of me getting the spot so I stopped checking my email so frequently and I let this Wesleyan dream go.
On 8th May 2019, I received an email from the Wesleyan Associate Dean of Admissions stating that they would like to arrange a Skype call with me. I was confused because I had not heard from them in weeks and the deadline to commit to a school had already passed. On the 10th, I virtually met with the Associate Dean and they told me that they really liked my application and wanted to offer me the Freeman Asian Scholarship for the class of 2023. Overwhelmed, I cried a lot (after the call that is). I felt very blessed but very confused. I was so ready for London but I didn’t get a scholarship to go to King’s. On the other hand, America was a new and exciting place, which made me feel scared and insecure. I waited for the official letter to arrive and discussed the details with my parents for many days. I finally decided to commit to Wesleyan and withdraw my application to the UK because of the academic flexibility and financial aid that Wesleyan offered. I was excited about the complete autonomy over my curriculum, the curiosities and interests I could explore.This was enticing to me because I wanted to explore dance, religion, music and gender studies in a more structured and intellectual setting but PPE at King’s would not offer me this opportunity. Wesleyan offered me USD73,000 a year without a bond, which meant I could do anything I wanted to after graduation.
Key takeaways and tips
After this lengthy story, what are my takeaways?
- Be flexible and recognise that your values and passion change as you get older. You do not owe anything to your 11 year old self, you owe your future self. Do not think of yourself as a failure because you did not fulfil your ‘dream’, but recognise the value in your new found passion and direction. Ultimately, I did get accepted with a full scholarship to one of the best liberal arts colleges in America and I am so grateful for it, but it was not something I would have predicted given the circumstances.
- I also learned that value is not solely derived from the outcome, but also the process. As mentioned earlier in the article, I felt like my efforts to apply to U.S. universities were futile because I got rejected from all the schools I applied to, technically. But in the process of writing essays, I learnt so much about myself.
- Moreover, resilience is crucial to success, especially when I had to experience the SATs, TSA, IELTS and personal statements. Pushing through even though I was under a mountain of stress was important, but it took a big hit on my mental health. Although I recognise the merits of resilience, it should not come at the expense of your mental and spiritual well-being. Applying to college is an extremely stressful experience, so you must reach out for help.
- Always explore all your options and talk to as many people as possible. As heartbroken as I was from my Oxford rejection, my experience at summer school and my conversations with other Oxford students made me realise that Oxford was not the right institution for me. Conversely, Wesleyan students captured my attention instantly and made me fall in love with the school.
- Speaking to people who have graduated from university was helpful because it gave me a lot of perspective on what matters. To a very large extent, the name of your school does not matter. What you learn matters (and I don’t mean the type of degree you attain), how much you grow as a person matters, and most importantly, how much your perspective broadens matters.
- Be yourself in interviews and do not recite prepared answers! Let the conversation flow naturally and you will be fine. With that being said, you should have a few points/stories prepared for popular questions so that you wouldn’t leave the interviewer in silence.
- Lastly, recognising that I am not a failure for not getting into ‘X’ school, but acknowledging that I wasn’t the right fit for the institution. The admissions process is structured in such a way that it filters out students who will not thrive in the university’s system. For example, Oxford’s TSA and interviews are a preview of what day-to-day academic life would look like on campus. And if you are struggling to go through the simplified version of it – the admissions process- you would not likely be successful in the university. This is not to say that I am not smart enough, however it is acknowledging that my approach to education and my values are very different from institutions that have rejected me. You should go to a university that cultivates the right environment for you to thrive, and not force yourself to excel in a place that was not necessarily built for you and other students like yourself.
As cliche as it sounds, everything works out and I turned out to be where I am meant to be. Don’t over-stress your application journey. I liked the Wesleyan curriculum, I loved the alumni, and the opportunity to grow as an individual and an intellectual at Wesleyan was heaps and bounds more than the other universities I had offers from. Choosing Wesleyan was not an easy decision, but it was the right decision.
Charissa Lee (she/her) is a Sophomore (second year student) at Wesleyan University and a Freeman Asian Scholar. She intends to double-major in Dance and History. She has been dancing ballet all her life but has been branching out to different dance styles. She spends way too much time in the library either sleeping or watching The Office, studying sometimes. She really enjoys meeting new people and building solid relationships over good conversations that give her new perspectives. Ask her any dance-related questions and/or deciding between the UK and the US! Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org