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.

Choosing between UK and Australia

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UK Universities vs Australian Universities? This wasn’t a very hard question for me. I made up my mind two years ago when I was choosing between scholarship offers from Petronas and KPM Bursary. I chose the UK, because I have been dreaming of studying in the UK since young. Plus, UK universities are more prestigious and reputable in my opinion, and I wish to be one of their students! So, I applied to 5 UK universities for Chemical Engineering last year for the Sept/Oct 2014 intake.

Of course, other than those mentioned above, there are other factors that you have to look into if you are not very sure if you want to go to the UK or Australia! Let’s see!

Criteria and Comparisons

Here are some factors that I considered when making my decision.

  • Application Process

UK universities use an online application system called UCAS. You can apply to up to 4 universities for Medicine/Dentistry, OR 5 choices for other courses. A personal statement is needed. The fee is GBP23.

Australian universities’ applications are paper-based for applicants doing qualifications such as A Levels and IB (students doing SAM or Ausmat use an online application system instead, if I am not mistaken). We have to apply through our college’s Placement Centre by getting the university application forms from them. In other cases, students apply through placement agents such as IDP. Just fill up the simple paper application form and submit it alongside certified true copies of your results (AS, A2, forecast, IB etc.). No personal statement is needed. You have to apply to each university separately and each costs about AUD 100 (application fee varies according to university). However you most likely can get the application fee waived if your results meet the universities’ requirement for application fee waiver. You can apply to as many universities as you like.

So, in comparison, applying to Australian universities is easier than applying to the UK. But as I made up my mind to go to the UK, this didn’t influence my decision much.

  • Interview

UK: Interviews (either face-to-face or virtual through Skype) are involved in the application process for the following courses:

  • All Oxbridge courses
  • Certain courses in Imperial (e.g. Chemical Engineering and Electrical & Electronics Engineering)
  • Medicine (with exception to University of Edinburgh)
  • Dentistry

Australia: Interviews are needed for applicants to Medicine and Dentistry courses only.

It would have been much easier for me to apply for Chemical Engineering to Australian universities. However, this did not influence my decision very much as I was not intimidated by the interview.

  • Admissions Tests

UK: Admissions test are required for application to certain courses (such as Oxbridge courses, Medicine, Dentistry, Law and Mathematics): BMAT, UKCAT, LNAT, CLT, TSA, PAT, STEP, etc. (Challenge: Google to find what they are :P)

Australia: No admissions test is required for courses other than Medicine and Dentistry. For these courses, the test is called International Student Admission Test (ISAT).

So, no admissions test is required for ChemEng application to UK universities (with exception to Oxbridge) and Australian universities. Fair enough! To be on the safe side, remember to check the universities’ websites to see if an admissions test is required.

  • English Language Tests

All UK universities accept IELTS for sure, but some also accept SPM English and English 1119/O-Level English. TOEFL is not encouraged as it has been banned by UK Border Agency for UK Visa application purposes.

Australian universities accept IELTS for sure and most accept TOEFL as well.

However, please check with your university for the exact list of English Language Tests they accept, and the minimum scores they want. To be on the safe side, just take the IELTS.

  • Courses’ Minimum Entry Requirements

Top UK universities have higher entry requirements compared to top Australian universities. Taking A Levels as an example, the minimum entry requirements for the following courses are:

Course UK Australia
Chemical Engineering Imperial College London

A* A* A

University of Queensland


Economics London School of Economics

A* A A

University of Melbourne


To know the minimum entry requirements, do check the university’s website. If you afraid that you are unable to achieve the high UK universities entry requirements, then why not apply to Australia? I love challenges, so I went for the UK!

  • Difficulty in Getting an Offer

For UK, it’s not guaranteed that you will get an offer even if you achieved the minimum entry requirements, because there are other factors such as your personal statement, admission tests, interviews performance (if applicable) and also the stiff competition from other equally well-qualified applicants!

For Australia, most applicants that meet the minimum entry requirements can get an offer, unless places for the courses are full (with exception to Medicine and Dentistry courses, which are competitive and admissions depends performances on admissions test and interview as well).

  • Rankings

Although many have said that rankings can’t be used to decide which university to attend, rankings are nevertheless the only official statistic that compares how good universities in the world are. This matters most if you are a sponsored student and your sponsor limits your choices to only certain top universities, according to those rankings. The most-used ranking by sponsors is the Times Higher Education University Rankings. However, QS Rankings can also provide you some useful insights.

(THE World University Rankings & QS University Rankings)

UK universities are generally ranked higher than Australian universities (of course, there are some exceptions in certain rankings). Feel free to Google and check out those rankings.

Imperial College London is ranked higher than any of the Australian universities for Engineering, and thus, I opted for Imperial College London (UK).

  • Reputation

On reputation, just ask yourself this: Which universities would you choose if given the following choices?

  • Oxford or Monash for Medicine?
  • Imperial or Queensland for Mechanical Engineering?
  • Cambridge or University of New South Wales (UNSW) for Law?
  • LSE or Melbourne for Economics?
  • UCL or Sydney for Psychology?

If you have chosen UK universities, that’s partly because these UK universities’ reputations are at work. And I chose Imperial (UK) which has a better reputation for ChemEng, for better career opportunities in the future. This is strictly the author’s opinion.

  • Academic Excellence, Education System and Quality

Both UK and Australian education are recognized as among the best and most innovative in the world, so it’s really up to your preferences. And I chose UK.

  • Costs (Tuition Fee and Living Fee)

Many sources have suggested that studying in Australia is more expensive than in the UK, but if you are a sponsored student you may not have to worry too much. However, it still hurts if the living fee is too high because the living allowances given by the sponsor will not be enough then.

And for this, I voted for UK!

(Average annual cost of studying abroad for international students, HSBC)

  • Living, Culture and People

Both UK and Australia are considered as good and safe countries to live in.Their cultures are diverse and food is plenty. They are full of interesting activities all-year-round and have many international students. Do your own readings on the internet and see which country you would like to live in! I opted for UK here!

  • Travel

If you are studying in the UK, you can travel within UK, or around Europe easily with efficient transport systems such as rail.

If you’re studying in the Australia, you can travel within Australia. I guess Australia is large enough to explore? And Australia has Kangaroos and Koalas!!

In this respect, I prefer Europe so I chose UK!


There are several pros and cons of applying to and studying in UK and Australian universities with regards to the 12 criteria above. I would say applying to Australian universities is generally easier than UK universities (except Medicine and Dentistry Courses which are equally competitive in the UK and Australia).

So follow your preferences and ability according to the 12 criteria above to make the best choice! And I’m glad that I’ve chosen UK. What about you?

Difficulties in making the decision

Generally I did not face any difficulty during my decision process. My parents are fine with me attending any UK or Australian university but not a university in United States (because they are worried that I might die in a gun shooting incident lol). I don’t have to worry about the costs as I am a sponsored student. Most importantly, it was because I had figured out what I really wanted, so I could make the decision easily.

Game Plan and Back-Up

Initially, I thought of applying to as many universities as possible, including UK, US, Australia, Hong Kong and Malaysian universities.

However, less than 2 months after I sent my UCAS application, the University of Manchester made me a conditional offer with achievable grades. Although Manchester isn’t my first-choice university, studying in the UK is my priority. So, I decided not to apply to Australian, HK and Malaysian universities since I already had an offer from a UK university (Manchester) as back-up. After that, I received offers from the University of Birmingham and University College London as well before finally getting an offer from Imperial College London.

To enhance my admissions chances, I did my best to write a good personal statement, achieve good results and prepare for the interview. To learn more about this, do read another article written by me. 😀

Right University?

I can proudly say that I have chosen the right university! Imperial College London FTW! No regrets!!

Kian Woon copy

Chen Kian Woon is a high achiever who will be pursuing his Chemical Engineering degree at Imperial College London, UK under the Public Service Department(JPA) Scholarship. He loves travelling and now he can’t wait to travel around the beautiful Europe in the next 4 years!  One of the most insane things he did in life was not taking the Petronas Scholarship offer to study in Australia, and hence, he is writing this article for you guys today!

UK or Canada?

University of British Columbia

University of British Columbia

How did you approach your search for the right uni?  How did you organise your university prospects?

I always assumed I was going to the UK, as it was the easiest and most direct for me financially and logistically. I went to a few different UK university fairs to look at what the universities had to offer pertaining to my interests, and from all the information I got, I organized them into the ones most applicable to my needs, into 5 universities.

What were your criterias when choosing your universities?

I was looking towards doing something related to journalism, be it literary or multimedia journalism. I looked at the reputation each university had on the specific course. For example while Derby is not particularly ranked high nationwide in the UK, it has specialized courses relating to journalism, while Kent, a university ranked higher, is not well known for journalism. I am already familiar with the education system and the living aspects of the UK, so that was one thing welcoming me there.

How did you finally decide on the uni you are attending?

I thought later on that focusing on only the UK was limiting my chances, so I decided to look into two other countries, Singapore and Australia. The living costs and the competitive nature of both countries turned me off, along with the lack of opportunity to explore a completely new society. I only ended up with Canada, and the University of British Columbia (UBC), due to them having a presence at my school. In the end, after looking further into UBC, its the only other university I applied to outside the UK.

Did you face any difficulties during your decision process for choosing unis?

My parents’ only problem with Canada was its distance and cost. The costs were quite high initially, but lessen over time. Of course, the university’s reputation and the country itself convinced my parents that UBC was a better choice than the other universities in the UK I got accepted into.

What were your expectations like for entering your dream uni? Did you have any back up schools?

My insurance choices were in the UK, and expectations were achievable for me. I didn’t expect to get accepted into UBC, due to how they compare to my UK choices. UBC is heaps better than the UK choices. Being accepted was a relief for me, to say the least.

What was your game plan to enhance your admission chances?

I had no game plan, honestly. I simply applied to anywhere that appealed to me and pick the best of the bunch.

Do you think you chose the right university?

UBC is no doubt the right university for me. No regrets whatsoever.


1519322_10202326021167836_775391534_oHe may not sound like it, but Syed Mustafa can be quite creative with words when the need arises. You might just stumble upon this guy who will be pursuing the Bachelor of Arts in the University of British Columbia on the streets of Vancouver with some weird camera taking photos, and if you’re lucky, he’ll take a picture of you too!