CollegeLAH’s Guide to Using Common App

Creating your CommonApp account

  • Go to and click on “Create An Account”
  • Fill in your email address and create a password. Note that the password must be between 8-16 characters, containing at least an upper case alphabetic letter, one numeric character, and a symbol (!@#$%^&*).

1 login page

2 keying in password

  • Fill in your details and click on I am a(n): “Applicant planning to enroll within the next 12 months”.
  • Tick both boxes and click on “Create” to create your brand new CommonApp account.

3 creating account

  • Once you are logged in, you are able to view your Dashboard and your full CommonApp Account.


Your CommonApp Account

4 dashboard

  • Your CommonApp Account is separated into four main functions: Dashboard, My Colleges, Common App, and College Search.
  • Dashboard: The Dashboard is the central monitor to your applications. Once you have added colleges to your applications, you will be able to view them on the dashboard, showing you the deadlines, requirements and your progress.
  • My Colleges: The My Colleges tab shows the colleges that you have added into your account. You will complete your work for each college here. Some colleges will require extra essays or questionnaires answered. As these might vary depending on the different faculties/schools within the college that you are applying to, they will appear only appear after you have completed the “Questions” section.
  • Common App: Your Common application. Here, you will fill up relevant details for your application, from your profile, educational background, SAT/TOEFL/ACT test results to your dreaded Common App Essay.
  • College Search: College Search allows you to search for colleges/universities by different criteria, i.e. by name, country, state, term, applicant type or deadline. You may also perform multiple searches by separating terms with a comma, i.e. Boston, New York, etc.

5 college search

6 adding college


The Common Application

7 personal info



This is the part where you fill in everything about yourself – name, address, contact details, demographics, geography, languages, citizenship, scholarship information, and common app fee waiver. It provides the most basic understanding of who you are to the admission officers. Most of this section is very straightforward but we will clarify the bits that might not be.

Scholarship information – This is a new feature that allows you to apply to scholarships that use the Scholar Snapp platform. Basically, it’s a “Common App” for scholarships. These can be scholarships offered by external organisations.

Read more about Scholar Snapp here:

Common App Fee Waiver – Nothing is this world is free. Likewise, applying via Common App costs money as well. However, if you think that you face sufficient financial difficulties such that you might be unable to afford the application fees, then you can apply for the fee waiver. Your counsellor will be contacted to provide evidence of financial difficulties so don’t try to cheat.



This is a relatively straightforward section, where you are required to fill in information about your family background. It is divided into 4 subsections: Household, Parent 1, Parent 2, and Sibling. You will need their basic information such as name, age, occupation, country of birth, education level etc.



This is where things get gradually less straightforward. You will provide your educational information here, from secondary school to your Pre-U studies. Here’s a clarification that will be useful for most readers here, especially if you’re from Malaysia. Even if you are enrolled in, for instance, Taylor’s College, KDU, Taylor’s University (ADTP), INTI University, you are indeed still in school. Likewise, the terms “college” and “university” are interchangeable in the USA i.e. Taylor’s College is not a college but a school while Bates College is a university and/or a college.

Current or Most Recent School: Unless you’re studying at a school in the USA or US Territories, your school might not be listed here. Search for your school’s name and if it does not appear, select “I don’t see my high school on this list”. Likewise, if you are homeschooled, select the “I am/was homeschooled” option. If you’re studying in an American-styled school, you should have a designated school counsellor. Otherwise, this can be any teacher or academic staff member who has good knowledge and understanding of the non-academic aspects of you. Therefore, it is entirely up to you whether you want a teacher from your secondary school or one from your pre-U school to be your counsellor. Common App references are significantly different from what usual Malaysian references would be, so be sure that your counsellor knows about the writing style.

Other School: If you are doing your Pre-University education in a different institution as compared to your secondary school, you will need to fill up this subsection. Just do exactly the same as the previous step for each High School you have attended. That said, please do not key in your primary school and kindergarten. Likewise, given that High School means the schools where you did SPM/IGCSE till IBDP/A-level/STPM/Matrikulasi/AP, please do not include your PMR school if it was different than the one you did your SPM/IGCSE at. Otherwise, please do.

Community-Based Organization: If any of these organisations helped you with your Common App application, then do declare them. These are generally non-profit organisations that are representative of particular civil societies e.g. Black communities, underprivileged suburban children.

Education Interruption: If you are finishing your Pre-University studies later than scheduled, please declare it in this subsection. Otherwise, tick “I have no interruption to report.”

College & Universities: If you have completed a university level course, be it online or through a physical college, fill up this subsection. For the occasional Singaporeans who might be reading this, declare your H3 Subjects here. Likewise, if you have completed an actual uni/college level course, declare here. Please keep in mind that your Pre-University education (A-level, IBDP, STPM, Matrikulasi, AP) does not count here.

Grades: There are 4 options under the class rank reporting, mainly

1) Exact: For instance, 53 out of 187 (187 will be filled in under “class size”)
2) Decile: Top 10%, 20%, 30% …  
3) Quintile: Top 20%, 40% .., 80%
4) Quartile: Top 25%, 50% … and so on.

If you are on a Pre-U programme that does not use GPA/CGPAs (A-level, IBDP), leave the relevant sections blank. Likewise, if you’re doing Matrikulasi or STPM, declare your CGPA as well as the GPA scale (‘4’ for STPM, Matrikulasi etc.) Whether or not your GPA is weighted depends on this question – do all contributing subjects/modules/aspects have the same individual contribution to your GPA? If your answer is no, then your GPA is probably weighted.

Current or Most Recent Year Courses: This is where you declare your Pre-University subjects as well as your Year 11 subjects (SPM, IGCSE etc). In other words, A-level History counts as one course, STPM Ekonomi counts as one course.

Honors: If you have won awards, competitions or scholarships, declare them here. Important point to note here is the grading system, Grade 9 refers to Form 4 and equivalent, Grade 10 being SPM/IGCSE while Grade 11 refers to your AS-level. Intuitively, Grade 12 is your A-level/IBDP/STPM. The exception here then is that if your pre-U course lasts only a year e.g. Australian year 12, SAM, Matrikulasi. In that case, Grade 12 refers to that and Grade 11 refers to IGCSE etc. Basically, it all depends on the number of academic years your Pre-U studies contribute to. PG generally applies to those who undertook gap years.

Future Plans: Write about your future career plans and highest degree you intend to earn here.



Test Taken: Check ‘yes’ to self-report your SAT, SAT II, IELTS, TOEFL, IB, A-levels scores. You should list all tests that you expect to take and have already taken.

If you have taken courses such as SPM, STPM, IGCSE, IB Middle or IBDP, elect ‘yes’ for the last column with the prompt: “Is promotion within your education system based upon standard leaving examinations by a state or national leaving examinations board?” Do note that if you took AP, you do not have to check this box.

Senior Secondary Leaving Examinations: If you check ‘yes’, a new section indicating “Senior Secondary Leaving Examinations” comes up. For each test chosen, another column will appear; this is where you should fill in the specifics of each test. This means that if you have already sat for your A-level, IBDP, STPM, then tick “yes” and fill up accordingly. For most, who are still studying for the actual examinations, tick “no”.



After indicating ‘yes’, you have a maximum of 10 columns for you to fill in all activities. You’re given a maximum of 50 characters to state the name of the activity, and another 150 characters to describe the activity. Once again, an important note on the grade level system, intuitively, Grade 12 refers to A-level/IBDP/STPM. If you are taking a gap year after your Pre-University studies, any activities done after graduation comes under “Post-Graduate”. For sports specifically, if you are in your school/state/national team, then you are involved in Varsity/JV sports. If you are not in the main team i.e. reserve, secondary or development team, then you are in JV.

For example:

Music Club – Founding President

Spearheaded 2 national music concerts; raised $10,000+ for the Malaysian Elderly Association. Honed leadership skills working with 60 members.  (142 characters)

Keep your description concise to minimize character count and convey your message clearly.

Do note that the activities included here are assumed to be the most important and relevant since Year 9. It is important to arrange the activities in order of relative importance to you and your application. Feel free to include any previous or current jobs.

You might want to consider carefully which activities to include as this section is vital in portraying who you are both as a student and as a person. It is highly recommended that you state activities that you are interested in continuing in university. You may include hobbies only if these are relevant and if you feel that you have gained a lot from these activities.



Personal Essay

You have a choice of 5 questions to choose from. Choose one from the list below:

8 essay prompts

Our advice would be to briefly write down the main outline of your response to each question. With this in mind, you can roughly compare the quality of your responses across all questions. Try not to overthink the process; choose the essay that gives you the right platform to best express yourself.

That being said, essays about everyday activities and/or volunteering work might be deemed mundane by the admission officers, unless you’re able to write creatively about the topic, or if you feel that your application will be incomplete without that particular story to reflect who you are. Ultimately, this is where you have the opportunity to showcase your unique identity and personality.

Here’s a link to another article on CollegeLAH about writing US essays.


Disciplinary History

Honesty is the best policy! Do not be afraid if you have a tainted disciplinary record. This does not mean that you will be rejected solely based on this.


Additional Information

It is not necessarily the case that your application would be in any way disadvantaged if this section is left unfilled. If there is nothing else to add, there is no need to include unnecessary details.

However, if you do wish to include additional information, here are examples of what could be added:

1) Description of the 11th extremely important activity (because you can only write about 10 activities in the previous section)

2) Clarification of extenuating circumstances –
“Took a gap year after Year 11 because …”
“SAT scores were unusually poor because…”
“Discontinued a music syllabus after Year 10 because…”

3) Information regarding yourself that you think the application will not be complete without

However, please do not continue your unfinished essay here.

Congratulations on completing this CommonApp section!


College Essays

Hurray! Don’t be too happy yet, this is not the end of your application to the States. Colleges/Universities have more questionnaires for you to answer. Most will also have extra essays, known as supplementary essays. That means more essays to write! Fret not, CollegeLAH essays editing services are here to help you!



9 recommender

In every tab for the colleges that you are applying to, there is a subsection called “Recommendations and FERPA”. This is where you invite your preferred teachers to be your counsellor and recommenders. A counsellor cannot be a recommender and vice versa. You can invite as many recommenders as you want. Ultimately, you will be the one deciding whose references to put in. Likewise, you can have non-academic referees e.g. sports coach, music tutor (more relevant for those applying for sports/music scholarships). Waiving your FERPA rights means that you agree legally not to have access to your references or transcripts and have your counsellor send them on your behalf. Please note that once your recommender is invited into your application for a particular university, his/her reference can also be used for other universities.

Written by: The CollegeLAH Team

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.

Application to Stanford University


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General Questions

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself

I’m Ying Hong. I go to Stanford University, and I’m a sophomore. A large part of my life has revolved around science and math. The culmination of this is my representing Malaysia in the annual International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) several times in secondary school. I make bad puns and am not ashamed of them. I have the uncanny ability to draw very round circles and have recently translated that skill into drawing and sketching. I can write words in very uniform straight lines on blank, unlined paper.

2. What was included in the application process to your university?

There was the CommonApp, and Stanford had plenty of shorter essay questions meant to probe my personality, among those that I have record of are “a letter to your future roommate” and “reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development”.

3. How did you approach your essays?

I talked about my experience at the last IMO I participated in. I did not focus on the competition itself, but more on my experience as a leader, being the most experienced (read ‘oldest’) in the team. The gist of it was that overall, the team did not do as well as hoped, including myself. I am not a natural leader, and telling others to accept failure and move on (the competition wasn’t over yet) would just sound contrived. But having been through many such disappointments I knew how they felt and was able to talk them through it.

How did I write it? My writing style is very economical. I do not add flowery language and fluff to distract the reader. The point I want to convey here is my personal growth through this sequence of events I am chronicling. 500 words is very little. Spend them wisely.

Did you perform any internships before applying?

Not really, but I did work as a camp facilitator several times at Olympiad math camps with Ardent Educational Consultants (run by our IMO trainer Mr. Suhaimi). These camps run for several days. I also taught and trained my secondary school (SMJK Katholik) math team.

What are some of the activities that you participated that you think helped your application?

I played chess, and represent my secondary school and district (Petaling Utama) to MSSD and MSSS.

I was concertmaster in the school symphony (playing violin).

I also volunteered at a local Tzu Chi recycling centre (probably not very helpful in application but what the heck

6. Did you have to take any tests?

SAT – The essay has to be written in a specific format. For the vocab section you just have to memorize lots of words (SAT vocab books are a great resource) and the passages portion is rather tricky. I attend the Princeton Review course, but honestly once you know the tricks, they are pretty easy to nail down. I think the books are good enough. And lots of practice. As for the math portion… well…

SAT II (subject tests) – I took physics, chemistry and math. The A-Levels should be more than sufficient to master these, but even if you’re planning to take them before you complete your A-Levels, they are not very hard, because they do not go too deep into the concepts. Again the books are good resources, and do lots of practice.

7. How was the interview session?

There was no interview for Stanford. But I did have an interview for MIT (where I got waitlisted the first time I applied). It really depends on the interviewer. They are Malaysian alumni, so in general they want to help you. Mine was very ‘chill’, and I just talked very naturally. He got me to talk about what I was passionate about, and the interesting things I do outside of school. I talked about the crazy random projects I built and some cool origami and how they were in fact very mathematical creatures (you can construct the cube root of 2 and trisect an angle with origami. Not doable with straight edge and compasses).

8. What do you think contributed to the success of your application?

I think my IMO credentials (silver medal) weighed in heavily. But I also think that wrapping it up in a cocoon of fuzzy personality stuff and showing that I am not a robot who just does math and programming all day (although sometimes I do that) helped me distinguish myself from just another nerd. Then again, Stanford IS nerd nation. Anyhow, they certainly want students of a certain calibre, but once you get past that point, there are a lot of randomness and variables that can affect your application, from the lack of coffee to the excellent Californian weather.

9. What advice would you give to future applicants?


Stress over it, have nightmares about it, fuss and cry about it, but if you really want to get into the school, it is worth it.

Don’t just apply to schools you want to go to, because most probably everyone else is applying there too. Apply to some of the lesser-known schools as well. You may have to explain to your future job interviewer where in the world it is, but the experience of living in the US or any foreign land is priceless.

START EARLY. Can’t repeat this often enough.

Ask friends or teachers or strangers to read your essays. Get honest feedback. Read them out loud (to yourself). If you don’t feel comfortable then you’re not earnest about it and they can sense fear…

US-specific Questions

1. Does your college require you to submit any supplements? If yes, how were they?

I don’t fully recall… There were some short essay questions as mentioned above, and I’m pretty sure there were short questions like what your favourite books are and favourite music and even movies… Don’t sweat it.

2. Did you apply via Regular Decision, Early Decision, or Early Action? What impacted your choice?

Regular. MIT was my top choice, but early action (or decision? I’m honestly still confused about the two) was only available for Americans. So I waited…

3. We know that the US places a focus on ECAs too. If a student wasn’t too involved in secondary school, is it too late to start during Pre-U, and where would be the best place to start?

I’d say it’s not too late, but you’ll certainly be at a slight disadvantage, given others have probably already accumulated years of experience and held many leadership positions. But as long as you show the initiative to learn and grow as a human being, and not just a certificate collector, then you should be good. Also, ECAs most certainly do not have to be ‘president of the marching band’ or ‘head prefect’. I’m sure if you weren’t too involved in those things, you must have done other things that may have profoundly impacted your life. Dig deep and find what truly drives you.

4. Any advice on how to ask for recommendations from your teachers/lecturers?

Ask. No way around it. Make eye contact. Don’t shake and convulse at the sight of your math teacher.

Get someone who knows you best as a person and not just about your academic achievements. The recommendations are there to fill in that outsider’s perspective of you as a human being, and your grades should be reflected on your side of the application.


Ying Hong Tham is pursuing a Computer Science degree at Stanford University under Astro scholarship. You can find him sneaking into lecture halls at night to use the chalkboards for math scratch work and random doodling.

Financial Aid for US Universities


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Hello prospective Class of 2019 (and later)! I am Annabelle, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College. When I applied to American universities, I remember being overwhelmed and frustrated (well… mostly frustrated) by its tedious financial aid application process, a phase I am sure most of you are going through right now. I hope my article does its part in tiding you through the process.  

Before we begin, let’s get our terminology straight.

Scholarships (merit-based) versus Financial Aid (need-based)

Merit scholarships are awarded based on merit on the nature of academics/extracurriculars. On many cases merit scholarships alone might not be sufficient to offset the total cost of attendance because they are not tailored to a student’s financial need. However, note that one or more merit scholarships can also be part of a need-based financial aid package.

Need-based financial aid is offered based on your financial need, i.e. the difference between the total cost of attendance of a university and how much your parents/guardians can afford to pay. A typical need-based financial aid package is comprised of one or more of the following: grant, merit scholarship(s), student loan and work-study.

State/public universities generally offer only merit scholarships for international students whereas private research universities and liberal arts colleges usually offer both need-based aid and merit scholarships.

Need-aware versus Need-blind

Universities that offer need-based financial aid are either need-aware or need-blind.

Need-blind universities are universities that do not consider your financial need when deciding your admissibility. In other words, applying for financial aid will not “hurt” your chances of being admitted to these universities. Conversely, universities that are need-aware will take into account the fact that you applied for financial aid when considering you for admission.

**In case you still have trouble differentiating the terms I introduced, keep in mind that the word, “need-based”, describes a financial aid policy, whereas the terms, “need-blind” and “need-aware”, are used in relation to admission.


Drawing from what you read earlier, if you are admitted and offered a need-based financial aid package by a university, you now have the financial means to attend this particular university. Is this true? (You have 5 seconds to scroll back and check if you dozed off reading just now.)






The answer is no. (“What?! But you said […]”) Okay, to be fair, that was a trick question. Note that not all universities that offer need-based aid promise to meet 100% demonstrated financial need.

Need-based versus Meets Full Need

Some people might have a hard time differentiating between the concepts of need-based and meeting 100% demonstrated need, so I am going to show some calculations below in regard to this.

Say you, an aspiring scarer, applied to Monsters University and got admitted with a need-based financial aid package.

Total cost of attendance for Monsters University: USD 58000
The amount your parents can afford to pay: USD 9500
Your financial need: USD 48500
(This is how much financial aid Monsters U should offer you in order for you to attend)

However, Monsters U does not promise to meet full need.

Monsters U adcoms are aware that you need USD 48500-worth of financial aid in order to enroll but unfortunately the university does not have sufficient funding, so you are awarded USD 30000 in financial aid and have until May 1st to decide if you want to enroll.

****** 10-minute water break ******

Choosing universities

The ideal university for a financial aid applicant would, of course, be one that offers need-based aid, is need-blind in terms of admission and promises to meet 100% demonstrated financial aid. Sounds too good to be true? Well, good news for you – they do exist! As of now, there are six need-blind universities in the States that meet full need: Amherst, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Yale. (Technically, Amherst is a liberal arts college, but for the sake of consistency I will maintain the usage of the term, “university”, in this article.)

“But… as financial aid applicants, we don’t only have six universities to choose from, do we?”

Of course not! There are many universities in the States that, albeit being need-aware, offer need-based aid and promise to meet full need upon admission. When I applied, I had the fortune of stumbling upon a website that had an almost comprehensive list of need-aware, full-need universities. Set the filters to “100% financial need met” and “financial aid available for international students”, and voilà – some 69 universities miraculously pop up.

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There are, however, two shortcomings about this site:

  1. There is a very rigid toggle limit for the %-of-financial-need-a-school-can-meet function. The next percentage down from 100 that you can select is 80. Even schools that meet 99.9% need, only 0.1% down from full need, will be ruled out if you set the filter to 100%. I believe that universities that meet more than 98% of financial need should not be ruled out because, speaking from personal experience, there is always the possibility of appealing/negotiating for more aid upon admission.
  2. Some universities don’t report data on financial aid.


For international financial aid applicants, you typically submit the CollegeBoard CSS/ Financial Aid PROFILE or the International Student Financial Aid Application (ISFAA). Sometimes the Certificate of Finances (COF) is required along with the ISFAA. In rare cases, some universities, like Bates, Franklin & Marshall, Hamilton and Middlebury, use their own financial aid application forms for international students. In addition to your main financial aid application form, most of the time universities will also ask for certified copies of your parents’ statements of income and tax return forms.

  • CollegeBoard CSS/ Financial Aid PROFILE (Base fee of USD9 + USD16 per university)

This is an online form and the only form that allows you to fill in amounts using Malaysian Ringgit. If you are applying to universities that use a combination of PROFILE and ISFAA and/or COF, I suggest you start with PROFILE and plug in the numbers using the current exchange rate to other forms later.

  • CollegeBoard International Student Financial Aid Application and (sometimes) Certification of Finances (free of charge)

These forms come in .pdf format so you can either complete these forms with Adobe or print them out and fill them in manually. Everything in both forms should be completed in USD.

  • Statement of Income

This would generally be your parents’ monthly pay slips. If they are not in English, translate them into English and have your parents’ employers certify the copies. Companies have these in soft copies – so ask your parents to try to get the soft copies for translation purposes. It does not matter in which currency the amounts are denominated as long as the currency used has been clearly stated. There is no specific requirement as to how many monthly pay slips you should submit, but I submitted three consecutive ones for both parents.

Back when I applied some universities asked for an annual statement of income instead of monthly statements. Neither of my parents’ companies had one of those, so I printed the numbers on my parents’ company letterhead and had my parents’ employers certify them. Below is a template for this in case any of you ever need it.

To Whom It May Concern,

Verification of Annual Income and Taxes Paid in Year 201X

I hereby verify the details of my employee, XXXXXXX as followed:
a) Total Amount of Income Received in Year 201X: RM XXXXX
b) Total Taxes Paid in Year 201X:  RM XXXX

Yours faithfully,

  • Tax Return Form

For parents who work in private sectors in Malaysia, this would be the EA form. If you have to translate this form, an English version is readily available in .pdf online. Again, your parents’ employers need to certify these.


The financial cost of applying to American universities can add up, and it doesn’t help that we have to multiply everything by 3.20 or so. Here’s how to not break your (parents’) bank on your way to ‘Murica:

1. Have your college application fee waived (You save:USD 60-80 per school)

Have your school counselor write an application fee waiver request on your behalf, attesting to how the application fee is going to put a strain on your family’s finances. Support with evidence like your annual household income, number of dependants in your family, the total cost of application you have to pay and the current exchange rate. Alternatively, you can write it yourself and have your counselor certify it.

How to submit your college application fee waiver request:

Most colleges want you to mail it physically. However postage can be costly (not as costly as the application fee, but still.) so I asked my counselor to scan and attach the waiver request within her online recommendation letter. For schools that specify they need to receive a fee waiver request before you apply, you can always try sending them a scanned copy of the fee waiver request, explain how posting it will strain your family’s finances, ask if they can accept the scanned copy for now and promise that you will have your counselor send it online along with the rec letter.

How to submit Common App with a fee waiver:

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 1.16.26 PM2. Have your test scores sent through counselor (You save: RM100 for IELTS per school and USD11.25 for SATs per school; not sure about TOEFL)

In order to do this, you need to write to individual schools and ask in advance, or schools will deem your application incomplete. You don’t need a formal letter like the fee waiver request; just shoot them an email stating how sending scores via CollegeBoard/ETS/IDP will strain your finances and ask if it’s possible to send them via your counselor instead.

Which score report to submit:

CollegeBoard doesn’t provide you with a physical copy of your SAT test score report unless you request and pay for it. Instead of doing this I downloaded the Online Student Score Report that is available free-of-charge to everyone who has taken the SAT and had my counselor submit the first page of both my SAT I & SAT II reports. There will be a watermark that says “NOT AN OFFICIAL SCORE REPORT” embedded somewhere highly visible on your online report, but fear not – this report will be considered official by most schools once your counselor stamp and certify it.

Where your counselor should attach your test scores:

If you have all your scores ready by the time your counselor submits the Mid-Year Report, have him/her attach them in the Mid-Year Report. Otherwise, wait till all your scores are in and have your counselor submit an Optional Report. I would suggest that you consolidate all test scores and submit them in the same report, i.e. either the Mid-Year Report or the Optional Report. Submitting them separately can be very confusing for the adcoms, and they are already doing you a favor by accepting these score reports via your counselor (this means the extra workload of entering your scores into the system manually), so be considerate!

3. Have your PROFILE fee waived (You save: Base fee of USD9 & USD16 per school)

You do this in two ways:

  • Ask for a PROFILE fee payment code by explaining your financial hardship

For reference, schools that provided me with a code were Amherst, Colorado, Cornell, Duke, Lafayette, Mount Holyoke, NYU and Skidmore. Not all schools offer a fee payment code, though. And if they don’t, go for option b.

  • Ask if they accept the ISFAA and COF in lieu of the PROFILE

Schools that I applied to had varied responses to this. Some agreed to it; some didn’t but agreed to hold off my PROFILE requirement until (if) I receive an admission offer; others sent me their own financial aid application form that they reserve for only students who cannot afford the PROFILE.

4. Have your financial documents (e.g. parents’ statements of income and tax return forms) sent electronically (You save: Whatever postage costs)

Additional Notes:

  1. The bulk of what I wrote above applies only to those with lower/mid-level household income. If you do not fall under this category and attempt to abuse these fee waivers by misrepresenting your application, know that in life what goes around ultimately comes around.
  2. When approaching the schools for waivers, be polite but persistent and assertive. You will be surprised at what you can get simply by asking.
  3. Financial aid applicants should also consider the availability of funding for unpaid summer internships and study abroad programs in a particular university before applying. This might not seem as important at the moment, but – trust me – it will be highly relevant in a year or two.


Annabelle Ooi is a neuroscience major in Mount Holyoke College. She is probably one of the few unartistic left-handers in this world who can’t draw and is tone-deaf. Feel free to email her with questions on financial aid, NeXXt scholar program, liberal arts colleges and life in an all-women’s college.

Applying to Drake, Emerson & Sarah Lawrence

DISCLAIMER: This article is written based on Shern Lyn’s own experiences, opinions and reflections. When reading her advice or suggestions, please bear in mind that you may not be in the same situation as she had been. Also, what worked or did not work for her application may not apply in your case.

Hello there. I’m Shern Lyn and I am currently in the second semester of my first year at Monash University Malaysia. I applied to colleges in the lovely country of the United States of America for the 2012/2013 intake and was offered places at Drake University and Emerson College. I was waitlisted for Sarah Lawrence College. I applied specifically to do Writing and Language. With Drake University, I was offered a $13,000 scholarship.

Let’s get personal for a bit.

As everyone knows, the essay is the defining feature of your application and that sentiment rang incredibly true for me (in ways which will be revealed later). Here are some tips to consider when writing your essay:

  1. The first thing that comes to mind is usually the best thing to write about.
  2. Pour your heart and soul into the essay. If you don’t feel utterly exposed and naked in the midst of writing your essay, it’s not good enough. Remember, only you and the admissions team will see the essay unless you choose to show it other people, of course.
  3. Honesty is the best policy.
  4. EDIT EDIT EDIT. I cannot stress this even more.
  5. Find the most unique thing about yourself and write about it. Forget achievements like president or prefect or class monitor. Everyone and anyone can be these things.

I only had the smallest handful of clubs and no voluntary experience as part of my extra-curricular activities. For ECA in high school, I only included the most important ones such as organising committee for a talent show, prefect and class monitor. I do believe that my clubs in pre-university was my selling point. I was a rather active member of the Model United Nations club back in Taylor’s College Subang Jaya.

Like every student who applies to the United States of America, I had to take the SAT as well as an English proficiency test.

I was lucky enough to have attended a study course on the SAT held by a Ms. Christine Lim in Taylor’s College which greatly helped me with the actual test. Here are some things I learnt from the course that would help:

  1. Do as many practice questions as possible.
  2. I personally did not find McGraw-Hill’s SAT questions useful as their answers are sometimes wrong and inconsistent.
  3. When doing the questions (especially Math), answer smart, not hard. The SAT questions are there to test your ability to think outside the box to achieve the right answer, not to go through complicated thought processes. If you are thinking too hard, you are probably answering the question in the wrong way.
  4. With the essay question, think back to when you were in primary school with the five paragraph structure. Have an opening, three points and a conclusion.
  5. Your opening is like a thesis statement. State briefly your stand and what your three points are. Examiners go through hundreds of essays in a day. They might not read the entire essay, just the first paragraph and the opening line of your three points and then your conclusion.
  6. When answering the essay question, have a firm stand. Your answer is either yes or no. There is no middle ground.

For the English proficiency test, I did IELTS instead of TOEFL. I did IELTS because I missed the test date for TOEFL. It is not advised to do IELTS since universities in the States prefer TOEFL but if you were pressed for time like me, IELTS is sufficient. Just be sure to email/contact the universities you are applying to take let them know that you took IELTS instead of TOEFL and what your score was. If it’s a good score, they usually don’t mind you taking IELTS.

None of my universities required an interview. However, if there are students intending on applying to Hamilton College (I began an application but never completed it), there is an interview but I spoke to the admissions officer and he said that a Skype or phone interview can be arranged (if needed).

I can say with much confidence that the success of my applications lay in my essay. Being extremely personal and talking about my personal growth as a person as well as my passion for writing helped sell my case (as the universities I applied to have amazing writing programmes).

The second point that helped the success of my applications is doing Model United Nations in pre-university. I would encourage all students to join MUN because students who do MUN are more valued (or so they say) and apparently possess qualities like leadership and communication skills.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should rush out and join MUN. Hone the skills that you currently have and show your passion for your current extra-curricular activities.

Now, here’s the part about the colleges I applied to.

With all three colleges, I applied for Regular Decision because I didn’t want to commit to any university and it also gave me extra time to work on my essay.

All three colleges asked me the same “Why do you want to attend…” and “How does your ECA/work experience give you the edge…”, paraphrased in the way I remember it. (I can’t remember the extracurricular questions accurately and I lost my application files when my computer died)

The breakdown of my application to each college will show you why personal essays are the defining component of your application.

Sarah Lawrence College

I was waitlisted, I believe, based solely on my essay. I wouldn’t want anyone to go the way I went and I don’t encourage doing this at all but A) I did not pay the application fee B) I did not complete the supplementary question which was to submit an essay similar to the one that New York University asked for. There was also the usual question of “Why do you want to attend…” and “Why do you think you would fit in…”, if I remember correctly.

Emerson College

I was accepted for the Spring intake (even though I didn’t apply for it) rather than the Fall intake because the quota for Fall was full. The university offered me a place in the Spring intake and even encouraged me to take courses elsewhere first and then transfer to Emerson. The supplementary questions weren’t difficult and again, if I remember correctly, the generic questions were asked.

Drake University

I was accepted for the Fall intake. I believe that the university accepted me because in my supplementary question on why I wanted to attend Drake, I talked about a component of Drake culture and linked it to my own background. For the question on “What ECA/work experience I had…”, I talked about MUN and once again, linked it back to my background and my personality.


A question that CollegeLAH asked me is “if a student wasn’t too involved in ECA in secondary school, is it too late to start now, and where would be the best place to start?” I believe that if you weren’t too involved in secondary school and you are currently in pre-university, it is vital that you begin now. ECA isn’t a defining point but colleges would like to see a well-rounded student and the best place to start (especially if you’ve graduated pre-university) is with volunteer work or work experience.

I hope that this article will help many applicants out there achieve success and help them get into the universities of their choice. Just remember to be yourself.

Shern Lyn

Shern Lyn Khuan is a daydreamer pursuing a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in “Most Likely Communications” at Monash University Malaysia. She can often be found hidden behind her laptop, multiple stacks of books or daydreaming about a fictional dystopian society where she reigns supreme.

Carnegie Mellon University Application Q&A

Nobel Prize Winner, Hebert Simon, was a Professor of Computer Science and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University

Image Source

General Questions

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hi! I’m Ian Quah, a 21-year-old sophomore (2nd-year student) in Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). I was an International Baccalaureate (IBDP) student in Taylor’s College Sri Hartamas.

2. What was included in the application process to your university?

The materials I included in my application to CMU were the usual application materials that are not much different from other students’. I submitted 3 letters of recommendation:

  • A recommendation letter from my Chemistry lecturer,
  • a recommendation letter from my English lecturer, and
  • a recommendation letter from my Theory of Knowledge (TOK) professor. (TOK is part of the IBDP assessment)

3. How did you write your essay?

I included some very personal information about why my major interested me. I’m interested in Cognition as well as modelling the brain because of brain diseases in the people near me. There really isn’t any point in me sharing anything more because my essay really is personal. I guess that one piece of advice that I can give is to dig deep and ask yourself why. Just keep asking “why?” and hopefully you’ll hit gold eventually.

4. What are some of the activities that you participated in that you think helped your application?

Honestly, I just did things that I loved. Schools will know if you’re trying to pad your application, especially if you suddenly start doing something that is commonly considered to be desirable like MUN or Debate near the time of application, and I think that if anything, that will work against you. If you’ve been doing ECAs already, just continue with them.

5. Did you have to take any tests?  How did you prepare for the tests?

I took the SAT reasoning test as well as the SAT Subject Tests. I don’t have any tips regarding preparation. I just studied hard and smart. The biggest thing that did help, however, was good time management.

6. Was there an interview?  How was it?

I did not have an interview with Carnegie Mellon, however, I did have an interview with another school. I think that the main difference between what the interview actually is and what people think it is, is that the interview is more of a chance for you to get to know them, and for you to get an idea of whether you fit into the school. From what I’ve heard, most interviews do not actually make a huge difference to your application, unless you come across as very different from what you’ve made yourself out to be in your application (either in a good or bad way).

7. What do think helped your success of your application?

I honestly don’t know and I think that a majority of students don’t know either. Unless you’re an IMO or IPO gold medallist, or the winner of a gold medal in the Olympics or something, you really don’t know.

8. What advice would you give to future applicants?  What are some of the useful resources you used?

The best advice that I can give is to start your application early. Not just in terms of the essay, but in terms of the ECAs, getting a feel of the schools, as well as pushing yourself to be the best that you can be.

US-specific Questions

1. Does your college require you to submit any supplements? If yes, how were they?

Yes, my college required me to submit a supplement, which wasn’t too difficult.

2. We know that the US places a focus on ECAs too. If a student wasn’t too involved in secondary school, is it too late to start now, and where would be the best place to start?

This is my personal opinion, but yes, I do think that it is too late. As I’ve mentioned earlier, they know if you’re trying to pad your resume. If you were doing things that were related that would be fine. For example, I used to be a member of the animal humane society or something back in my secondary school. So, when I went into the IB and shifted towards tutoring students there was an obvious link.

3. Any advice on how to ask for recommendations from your teachers/lecturers?

My best advice on this topic is to choose a lecturer who knows you well, and knows how to write well. I’ve heard many stories of students whose applications were brought down by a weak recommendation letter. I gave my lecturers a copy of my resume, as well as a rough outline of what I was hoping for them to convey in the letter.


Carnegie Mellon International Student Admission Requirements –

Letter of Recommendation – How to Ask for It, Peterson’s –


Ian Quah the guy in the middle

Ian Quah is a mediocre student who will be pursuing his hipster degree in Cognitive Science along with a minor in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. When he’s not working or sleeping you can normally find him in the gym or on his laptop coding. He may be contacted at for any questions.

My Journey to the States

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Read about Syaza’s Journey to the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Hello 🙂 My name is Syaza Nazura, and I am a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Class of 2017. I’m a student under the MARA loan and am currently pursuing Actuarial Science (and probably a second major in Risk Management and Insurance). Before you start asking me about how I got here, let me share the story of how I came to the land of the free (or so they called it).

I sat for my SPM in 2011 in Kolej Tuanku Ja’afar (KTJ), Mantin. In January 2012, I started my A-Levels (partly sponsored by KTJ). Back then, I only had one aim: to get into a good UK university. I only had a few choices, since there weren’t many UK universities that offer Actuarial Science. These were the usual choices: LSE, Kent, Southampton, Warwick and Heriot-Watt. (Well, that was a couple of years ago. I don’t know if anything has changed since).

I was pretty enthusiastic about starting my A-Levels. To be honest, I was psyched. I mean, I love studying, it’s fun. Three months into the A-Levels and I was really enjoying it. Then came results day at the end of March, and I received 9A+ for my SPM – Alhamdulillah. I applied for various scholarships, but there were limited scholarships available for Actuarial Science.

I was rejected by almost all the scholarships I applied for, including Bank Negara Malaysia and Yayasan Khazanah. I only made it to the second stage of the Securities Commission scholarship, since they don’t really offer Actuarial Science but were interested in my intention to pursue MORSE (Mathematics, Operational Research, Statistics and Economics) at the University of Warwick.

Needless to say, I was, of course, devastated. I no longer had the enthusiasm to study anything, but I held my head up high and moved on. In May, I sat for five modules for my Advanced Subsidiary (AS) Level Maths exam, and received 4A’s and 1C (A’s for C1, C2, C3 and S1, and a C for M1. These modules are for Edexcel A-Level Maths I applied for the MARA loan for Actuarial Science in the US, but didn’t really put much hope into it (since I didn’t really want to go to the US in the first place).

When MARA began calling students for interviews, I was shocked that I was called as well since I didn’t really fill up the form. I took it up as a challenge, and went to the interview to try my luck. I wasn’t chosen in the first batch of students, which didn’t really come as a surprise, knowing that I didn’t write the essay they asked for during the application and everything. But I tried appealing, this time for the Economics program in the US, and somehow a miracle happened and I managed to get a placement.

Then came the hardest task I had ever faced at that time: convincing my parents to allow me to leave A Levels, start over with a completely new pre-u program and go to the US. My parents weren’t convinced at first, but somehow they came through and allowed me to move to UiTM’s International Education Centre (INTEC), Shah Alam to start my one-year American Degree Foundation Programme (ADFP) program.

During my year in INTEC, I received a CGPA of 3.62. I sat for my SAT Reasoning Test twice, once in October 2012 and December 2012. I also took up the SAT Subject Tests for Physics and Math 2, since I wanted to apply to the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn’s College of Arts and Sciences requires applicants to take two SAT Subject Tests). I also sat for my TOEFL in December, and received a score of 109/120 for my Internet-Based Test (iBT).

I applied to four universities, and was accepted to three of them. I was rejected by my first choice, the University of Pennsylvania, and had to choose between these three universities – University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Iowa and Purdue University.

I ended up choosing the University of Wisconsin-Madison for several reasons:

  1. It is one of the Centers of Actuarial Excellence as stated by the Society of Actuaries, USA.
  2. It is a pretty place with lakes all around (I like lakes, and rivers, and beaches).

(Lol, okay, to be honest, I have no idea why I chose UWM over the others. I guess it was pretty much my guts, I think?)

And so, after finishing up my ADFP in June 2013, it was time to head to the States. Once I reached Madison with my parents in mid-August, I really did not regret choosing Madison over the others. The place is super-duper beautiful (in my eyes), and I fell in love instantly. The wound of being rejected by UPenn was healed, as I managed to visit UPenn during my winter break.

All in all, it was a bumpy roller-coaster ride. I certainly did not regret taking up A-Levels, even if it was only for 6 months, since I met so many awesome people from my batch in KTJ. I also certainly did not regret starting over in INTEC, since now I know how much I adore the US education system over anything else.

My advice to you is: If you’ve started on your journey, but somehow feel like it’s not the one for you, don’t be afraid to stop and start all over. Sure, people will say that you’re weak and stuff for not making it through the end, but it’s your life. Would you rather put up with something that is not what you like and regret it in the end, or would you rather start over with something you love and enjoy what life brings you afterwards?

Think, and make your decisions based on what you want.

Links you might find helpful:

  1. MORSE at University of Warwick
  2. About the TOEFL iBT Test

Syaza Nazura copy

Syaza Nazura is a business student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. While not entertaining the thoughts of whether or not Actuarial Science is the best path for her, she stuffs herself full of chocolate and blogs at This MARA scholar plays basketball and is in love with anime and manga.

US Application Essay – Just Be You.

“How do I write an essay that would help me gain admission into this particular university?”

Numerous people have asked me the same question over the past year or so, and I know hundreds, if not thousands, of other applicants out there are wondering the same thing.

My answer is simple: Just be you.

To put it differently, there is no one best way or approach to write an essay.

You may have read an article or two on the Internet about how an applicant wrote about her goldfish and gained admission into one of the top universities in the US.

You may also have heard about your friend’s brother’s classmate that wrote about his loving parents and got into an Ivy League.

Or what about your neighbor’s kid who graduated from Harvard? Didn’t he write about his first job for his application essay years ago?

But what if you have never owned a goldfish, or any other pet? What if your parents are divorced? What if you have never gotten a job in your whole life? Would you have to make something up to get the same results as they did?

(note: none of the examples stated above are real)

When you go on Google and start searching for good application essays, you’ll be thinking, “Maybe I should write something like this. If this person got in with this kind of essay, maybe it’ll work for me as well.”

Well, that’s just it. You’re not being you. You’re trying so hard to be like other people that you’re not giving yourself the chance to be the best you can.

Yes, these people were in your shoes once, and it’s okay to admire them and try to follow in their footsteps. But in terms of the application essays, you can only rely on yourself.

The admission officers are looking for originality. They are looking for the unique and personal touch in your essay. As they read your essay, they are looking for your passion. They are searching for that spark in your writing. If you write about something that you are not passionate about, well, good luck getting in. That something may result in an admission for some other applicant, but not for you.

Open up your heart. Dig down deep and find that one thing that is uniquely and truly you. What is it that makes you who you are? What is it that makes you special and different from others?

Be honest, even if it’s embarrassing or painful. Write from your heart; share your feelings with the reader. Instead of telling them how you feel, let them experience it for themselves. Hook them on your story, and they’ll be longing to know more about you. Next thing you’ll know, hey, you’re admitted!

So stop worrying yourself with things like, ‘oh, how should I write my essay so that I can get into my dream school.’ As long as you write from the heart and answer their prompt or question, you will be just fine.

Good luck 🙂

Links you might find useful:

Essays That Worked – these universities seem to agree with Syaza that you should just be yourself and write from your heart when it comes to penning application essays:

  1. Johns Hopkins University
  2. Connecticut College
  3. Tufts University

Syaza Nazura copy

Syaza Nazura is a business student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. While not entertaining the thoughts of whether or not Actuarial Science is the best path for her, she stuffs herself full of chocolate and blogs at This MARA scholar plays basketball and is in love with anime and manga.

How To Write Successful US College Application Essays?

What does it take to be a part of the UCLA community or other US universities?

How to write the essay that will gain you admission to UCLA?

I have been asked to help proofread a few US college application essays.  I have a few things to say and would like to help spark your inspiration. 🙂 Of course, this is just my humble opinion. I am in no way a professional essay writer, a spy in the admissions office, or an expert psychologist who happens to know how the admission office thinks.  

These tips and opinions are based on my own experience in writing the application essays, and feedback I got from other people. In short, it’s just my own collective perspective about the US college application essay. I hope that after reading this post, you will have the inspiration to write a piece that is one-of-a-kind, and truly yours.

1.  It’s about you

I feel that an essay should first and foremost describe you as an individual. If you find yourself describing and explaining about another person (your family member, some professor you admire or some famous movie star) more than yourself, I suggest to take a step back and restructure your essay. After all, colleges want to admit you, not someone else. If a stranger can pick up your essay, and, after reading it, give a 5-minute introduction about you, then you know you’re good to go.

2.  Uniqueness

How do you write a non-cliché essay?  After reading your own essay, you should be like “is that really me? That’s kinda embarrassing/weird/etc, but it is undeniably me” kinda thing.  Don’t assume that everyone out there is the same as you. Many people have always regarded the things that they do as normal and hence feel reluctant to showcase themselves in their genuine form. It is the things that seem normal to you that might turn out to be the most interesting. For example, I may find that making bubbles in the bathroom to be normal. Of course, I would later find out that the movement of the the colors on the surface of the bubble is somehow connected to the weather patterns of other planets.

My point is, try to write about your normal daily life and don’t try too hard to portray what you want people to think about you. There are far too many essays like that, sculptured with hand-picked words to meticulously describe yourself as if you are an object.  After all, the essay is to provide the “human” factor in the application. Have fun with it and go with the flow.

3.  Honesty

Honesty is the best policy! Sometimes, really amazing essays comes from telling a secret. Something that you wouldn’t tell your best friends or even your parents. Some things like how whenever you tell your parents that you’re going to the gym but actually go bicycling in the back alleys of your neighborhood that your parents have explicitly told you not to.  And later on, you make friends the beggars of the streets, the 20-sen-tissue-sellers, the aluminium-tin-can-collector and how those people that taught you to appreciate yourself and the life you have. Or how you actually unconsciously critique people’s clothing choice and you secretly want to have your own clothing line because there’s just too many people out there who don’t know how to wear matching colors. Sometimes, plain brute honesty will bring out your personality in your most genuine form.

4.  The classic “show, don’t tell”

If you have a hard time following this, try to write an essay without using the adjectives you want to describe yourself. Let’s say you want to describe yourself as a hard working, determined and patient person. Do this by not writing those words in your essay. That way, you will somehow force yourself to show your characteristics through an incident. For example, if you want to portray curiosity and innovation. Don’t say that “I am curious and innovative because…”; instead, try to show it by writing an essay about drinking Chinese tea. And that when you stir the tea, you observe that the tea leaves swirl around the cup and will only stop in the middle of the cup. You then take this idea and observation to the next level and invent a water cleaner which uses the same concept. Well, you get the picture.

With all these things combined, you will ultimately end up with an essay that isn’t like any other on the planet. Who else in this world blow bubbles when they’re bathing, invents a water cleaner, critiques people’s fashion, and personally know the alleys of their neighborhood inside out? The answer is you, and only you can come up with an essay like that.

I hope this post will help all of you to write great essays.  Enjoy the application process: it’s a time of self-reflection, and a time to get to know yourself better. Take your time, question yourself and most of all, have fun!

Wishing all who are applying the best of luck and may the odds be ever in your favor. And don’t forget to proofread your essays!


A blogger at, Dylan Ler Hong Jing is a student in University of California, Los Angeles. You contact him at if you have any questions regarding US, UK applications or anything related to education and scholarship.

How I got into UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley- isn’t it beautiful?

Greetings to fellow readers! I’m May Lyn from Penang and I’ve been admitted to UC Berkeley or more commonly known as Cal, as a freshman for fall 2014. Just a brief introduction about myself before I proceed further. I studied in Convent Green Lane Secondary School and took my SPM examination in 2011. In April 2012, I was awarded the National Scholarship by the Public Service Department of Malaysia for being one of the top 50 scorers of SPM 2011. Then, I spent two years in Kolej Yayasan UEM, Lembah Beringin for my A-levels program.

Studying in the UK had always been my dream. However, after attending the half-day USAPPS workshop in Penang, I was inspired and motivated to apply to universities in the United States. I believe that the liberal arts education there will mold me into a more well-rounded individual, preparing me for challenges in the competitive working world.

 Application Process

There are altogether 9 University Of California campuses, namely UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Merced, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz. You can apply to as many UC campuses as you want using the UC Application at

I applied to UC Berkeley and UCLA so I had to pay a total application fee of USD 160. For each campus selected, international students have to pay an application fee of USD 80. Application opens for applicants for fall 2015 on 1st August 2014, so you can get started by creating an account for your UC Application from 1st August onwards. You may start to fill up your details on your UC Application. However, the submission period for applicants for fall 2015 is Nov 1-30.

I applied to College of Letters and Sciences in UC Berkeley and my intended major is Economics. (Note: Under this college, all students will be admitted as “Undeclared” and a non-transfer student will be expected to declare his/her major before the first semester of his/her junior (third) year). The complete list of majors offered by UC Berkeley can be found using this link .

The following are a few main sections of the UC Application:

I) Academic History

In the Academic History section of the UC Application, I was required to enter all my grades for all the tests and exams which I took in 9th, 10th and 11th Grade (Form 3,4 and 5). It is very important for you to enter all your grades as shown in your secondary school’s report cards. You will have to submit certified translated copies of your transcripts after you have been admitted into UC Berkeley. I was also required to enter my grades for my college’s exams which I took in 12th Grade (first year of A-levels).

II) Activities & Awards

This section allows you to list up to 5 activities/awards for each of the following:

Courses other than A-G

This encompasses all the courses which you have taken for leisure or out of interest. I did not report any courses for this.

Education prep programs

My example: Job attachment at an accounting firm

Volunteer & Community Service

My examples:

  • Asia Community Service – Asia Community Service is a not for profit organization helping people with special needs to lead a meaningful life. I helped to care for autistic children.
  • Children’s Protection Society- Children’s Protection Society provides shelter for children who come from abusive or broken families. I tutored them and taught them how to make handicrafts.

Work experience

My examples:

  • Brand Ambassador- Creating awareness about a product (Tropicana Twister) by attracting traffic to my booth in a shopping mall. I distributed free samples of the orange juice.
  • Administrative assistant- Answer phone calls, process data, issue receipts, talk to parents about the tuition classes offered at the centre which I worked at.

Awards & Honours

  • National Merit Scholar
  • Merit Award for Mag Inc Competition organized by the Star
  • Awarded High Distinction on National Chemistry Quiz
  • Mathematics Book Prize
  • Won Fourth Place in Mighty Minds State Challenge

Extracurricular activities

  • Secretary for Natural History Society in college
  • Finished among the top 10 for my secondary school’s cross country
  • Editor-in-chief for my school’s Golden Anniversary magazine
  • Patrol Leader for Girl Guide Society
  • Prefect in Secondary School

III) Test Scores

I reported my test scores for the following:

  • SAT Reasoning Test
  • SAT Subject Tests (Maths Level 2 and Physics)
  • GCE AS-Level
  • GCE A-level (Predicted Grades)
  • SPM examination

IV) Personal Statement

My essay prompts are as follows:

Freshman applicant prompt : Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

General prompt: Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?

Directions obtained from You may obtain tips and techniques for writing this personal statement from the link too!

All applicants must respond to two essay prompts — the general prompt and either the freshman or transfer prompt, depending on your status.

  • Responses to your two prompts must be a maximum of 1,000 words total.
  • Allocate the word count as you wish. If you choose to respond to one prompt at greater length, we suggest your shorter answer be no less than 250 words.

For the freshman applicant prompt, I wrote about my family background and my upbringing, and how they shaped my dreams and aspirations.

As for the general prompt, I wrote about my experience in my ballet class. When I first joined ballet at the age of 10, I found it hard to do a “split”. However, my ballet instructor did not give up on me and stood behind me, giving me a forceful push to help me achieve the perfect split. In life, very few people will be standing by me, giving me the necessary push or motivation to achieve my goals. Ultimately, I have to be my own greatest source of inspiration.

It is very important for you to tell your OWN story because only an authentic piece from you will win the hearts of the admissions officers. Start brainstorming and reflecting on yourself. I’m sure you will be able to pen a personal statement which truly reflects who you are and your dreams as well as aspirations.

The whole process of applying to US universities has been very fulfilling to me. I learned to reflect on myself and discover more about myself. The whole application process isn’t too burdensome if you start doing your research on the universities which you want to apply to early. I wish you all the best in applying to universities and may you succeed in getting the university of your choice.

Links which you may find useful:


Cheah May Lyn copy

Cheah May Lyn will be pursuing her Economics degree in University of California, Berkeley this fall under the National Scholarship by the Public Service Department, Malaysia. She is an adventurous girl who likes outdoor activities such as hiking, swimming and cycling.