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


Image Source

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.

Essays for Applications to University of California

The essays below, which are required by the University of California (UC) application system, successfully got him admitted into UC San Diego, UC Los Angeles, and wait-listed at UC Berkeley.

All identifying names have been removed as the owner would prefer to be anonymous

Prompt #1

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.

A crowd slowly gathered beneath me as I mounted the last few steps. Despite their shouts, I’ve made up my mind clearly. Next thing I knew, I was free falling from this towering height.


When I was 5, my dad gave me a dull, aged coin. I would grip that magical metal in my tiny hands wherever I went, even to the washroom. Once, sitting on the toilet bowl, I stretched out my fingers to once again admire its glimmer. Suddenly, it slipped through my hand – “Ploop”. It sank to the bottom of the toilet bowl. Although it was just a 1 Ringgit Malaysia coin, I remembered how dad still insisted on fishing it out.

Since young, my dad has taught me to appreciate every cent the universe offers. He sent me to various financial management courses and trainings that only adults would join. Because of this, I was exposed to quite a bit of financial knowledge relatively earlier than my peers. There, I made friends who are even older than my dad. I learned my basics in stocks trading and multi level marketing through them. They gave me encouragement when I felt unconfident and would give me advice before I proposed my business ideas to my college societies.

Under their guidance and influence, I began to realize my dream for the future.


Jumping down from the tree house was an activity in one of the financial management camps. I was instructed to declare my financial goal to the universe before the jump.

As my feet left the platform, I knew exactly what I was going to say.
“I, [NAME], will be financially free in 17 years, 2035”

Prompt #2

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?

“Can I do this?” I asked myself. It was already challenging for the 16 year-old me to talk to strangers, but now, I have to bargain prices and close deals!

I started my own business when I was 16; it was named by extracting the first and the last 2 letters from my name – [COMPANY NAME].

Business Guru’s advice 1: Make obstacles into opportunities. (CHECK)
After receiving instructions from my experienced venture partner, I spent countless nights staring at the computer screen to produce a webpage. Back then, I didn’t know what Photoshop was, so most of the graphics were designed and edited using my childhood-doodling program – Paint. It took me one whole week to complete all the tasks that my venture partner had assigned. However, she told me that due to her overwhelming schedule, she wanted to quit. With little knowledge of the tricks and trades of doing a business and with no prior experience, I was left with nothing but a short sorry note and a 10-digit supplier’s phone number. I trembled during my first call to the supplier. Somehow, out of sheer luck, I manage to get a good price. Soon before I realized, I became friends with the supplier. The following deals were never had been easier.

Business Guru’s advice 2: Take one step at a time. (CHECK)
I learned the ways to attract customers through shadowing other competitor’s blog pages – the font they use, the system, and the psychology behind every detail. In one month, the RM22 Malaysian Ringgit bill from my first sale lied comfortably on my hand. Before this, I would not have believed that a high school student could generate money by starting his or her own business. Although RM22 is not a generous amount of money, it certainly has boosted my confidence and fueled the momentum for the second, third, more future sales.

Business Guru’s advice 3: Complete what you have started. (                )
[COMPANY NAME] Blogshop grew from bringing me a few ringgit to a few hundred in 5 months. It became a routine for me to constantly check my messages. Sometimes, I would even withstand my mother’s nagging and skip meals just to reply the emails and confirm the delivery statuses. The time I spent with [COMPANY NAME] was so ample to the extent that my younger brother was getting a little bit jealous. [COMPANY NAME] became the main focus in my life. From time to time, I would proudly share my happiness with my best friend, telling him stories behind [COMPANY NAME]’s “success”.

However, the “success” did not last long. With my parents demanding me to prioritize my studies and friends around me starting to revise intensely for high school examination (SPM), I chose to give up on [COMPANY NAME]. I thought that I could always go back to [COMPANY NAME] whenever I choose to, but it’d been 2 years now, and I haven’t.

[COMPANY NAME] was more like a friend than a business that I owned. Through knowing him, I learned to reflect on my mistakes – there were times when customers were not satisfied with my product, but [COMPANY NAME] taught me to respect every customer’s feedback and make every possible amendment that I can. Besides, through knowing him, I became a better negotiator, a better marketer and certainty, a better businessman. He taught me interpersonal values that were far greater than any of the business guru’s advices.

Even leaving him made me more conscious of my choices. I realize how inconsistent I was in handling matters in my life. He would still be here if I had say “one more step..” when I was on the verge of giving up. No matter what, I’ll make this an anecdote that I hold close and dear to when I start a new business in the future. Giving up is no longer an option. Till then, allow me to leave Business Guru’s advice 3 unchecked.

I would ask myself again. “Can I do this?”

Yes. Yes I can.

Links which you might find useful:

  1. More about University of California essays here

DISCLAIMER: The essays on this site are strictly meant as a starting point to give an idea of how successful essays look like. There is no surefire formula to writing good essays. COLLEGELAH IS STRICTLY AGAINST PLAGIARISM OF ANY KIND. Plagiarism can have serious consequences so please DO NOT PLAGIARISE.

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.