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


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I received the JPA Biasiswa Nasional scholarship right after SPM results were released. Since JPA wanted the scholarship recipients to inform them of our choice of course and country, I wrote that I wanted to pursue Actuarial Science in the US. That was before I started A-Level at Taylor’s College. However, I was actually undecided about my future career and hence degree course. But at that time I’d heard that the actuarial field was lucrative and US universities were “better” in that field, so that was why I chose them. Plus, I wasn’t too serious while making that decision because JPA told us that we could change the course and country choices afterwards.

Up until it was time to apply to universities, I still did not have a country or even course in mind. One thing was for sure, I had always known that I would at least apply to the UK, but whether or not I would attend a British university was another matter. So to apply to the UK, I needed to know exactly which degree I wanted to pursue. At first I “decided” to apply for Electrical Engineering. After some really long nights trying to come up with a personal statement to show my “passion” towards Electrical Engineering, the end product wound up sounding like a Physics or Materials Science application. That was really frustrating, so I backed up and thought long and hard about what I wanted to do with my life after school and what interests me the most. Long story short, I arrived at Mathematics and finally settled on it.

Now that I’d decided to study Mathematics, choosing which five UK universities to apply to was an easy task because there were only five UK universities on the Times Higher Education Top 50 Universities Ranking for Physical Sciences that year.

After submitting my UK application, I started to work on my application to University of California and Commonapp. The primary reason that got me interested in US universities was that they took about 70% of the entire Top 50 list. But later, as I learned more about US education and college life, I began to seriously consider them. Choosing a subject was not so much of a problem when applying to the US, because it is perfectly acceptable to apply as an Undeclared major. This was the main reason I eventually chose to go to a US university over a UK university.

The real headache when it comes to applying to US universities was choosing which schools to apply to. Since application fees are quite hefty, I limited the number of universities to five. The most important factor that narrowed my choices was how well-rounded the school was. I was looking for a school that has a solid reputation in not only math and sciences but also humanities and social sciences because I wanted to explore my interests in these areas and get a balanced education. I also looked at academic opportunities e.g. undergraduate research, the physical environment of the campus and the town surrounding it.

When it comes to game plan, I took nothing more than a realistic view. Generally, applicants are advised to apply to a few dream schools that are hard to get into, a few good schools that are less hard to get into, and a few safety schools that the applicant is very confident of getting into. But then hard and easy take on varying definitions to different people, and not everybody adheres to this general rule. As for me, I had already gotten a few offers from UK universities when I was choosing US schools to apply to, so I did not have to think of back-up schools and just chose five that I would definitely be happy to attend. I chose UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles, Chicago, Cornell and Michigan. As for major, I applied as an Undeclared Physical Science major to the UCs, Statistics major to Chicago and Cornell, and Financial and Actuarial Mathematics major to Michigan.

On the first day of Chinese New Year, I was so happy to find out through email that I was admitted to Michigan. Then in late March through early April, I was admitted to UCLA and Cornell, but waitlisted by UCB and Chicago. I was eventually rejected by both these schools.

I chose UCLA by early May. As I said, I would love to attend any of the schools I applied to so finally coming to a decision was really hard. It came down to a battle between UCLA and Cornell, and the reasons that prompted my final decision were pretty trivial. One, I wanted to be in a big city yet have access to nature e.g. national parks so Los Angeles, California is perfect. While Ithaca has a lot of nature, it is not at all a big city. Two, it can get very cold in upstate New York where Cornell is during winter while the weather at LA is always warm and inviting. My scholarship also encouraged me to enter a Top 10 school because I would get to maintain my current benefits that included higher allowance rates. UCLA was in the Top 10 while Cornell was just outside. But the difference in allowance rates could easily be cancelled by the difference in living expenses between a big city and a smaller college town, so that didn’t play a huge part in my making the decision.

I’ve been in LA for a week now and I’ll say that I’ve definitely made a good call! The campus is gorgeous, the energy among students is inspiring and I can just see myself learn and grow here over these next few years. Although classes have not even started yet, I am excited for the adventures ahead.

Some final thoughts:

Although it is possible to apply with major undecided to US universities, it is good to know what you want to study and/or explore or at least have an idea of it. If you feel like you are passionate about everything but nothing in particular, take concrete actions to find out where your passions lie a little more specifically. It helps not only your application but also self-development to have more specificity and depth to your interests, instead of merely having breadth.

At first, you might feel that it is impossible for you to get into a good university, due to perhaps unreal expectations of university admissions, low confidence or just pessimism. You might give up applying to some universities just because you think you don’t stand a chance or because you need to write a lot of application essays. Don’t let these be reasons for you not chasing your dream.

Yeong Wern Yeen

Yeong Wern Yeen is a JPA scholar who will be going to University of California, Los Angeles this fall. She likes to indulge unapologetically in good food, all sorts of films (especially sci-fi and fantasy) and music, the company of friends and adventures! She is also co-founder and one of the site managers of CollegeLAH.

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

Is it possible to apply for US colleges without Pre-U?


Is it possible to apply for colleges in US without taking A-Levels,form6 or any other Pre-U(Grade 12)? Can I be admitted into colleges in US by just using SAT scores,TOEFL/IELTS & SPM grades?


In short: it is possible to get into US colleges without completing Grade 12; I personally know people that have gotten into college after Form 5.

However, bear in mind that you will be in the same pool with applicants that have gone through Grade 12 (hence more material and rigor in their education). So in order to not let your lack of Grade 12 education be a disadvantage to your admission chances, you have to put together a strong overall application taking into account your extra-curriculars, essays, outside study, personality, etc. (read “holistic admissions”). In other words, you have to be a really strong applicant, “better” than the people that have done Grade 12.

How much it affects your admission chances also depends on the kind of schools you are looking at. Community colleges are a good option. If you don’t already know, community colleges are 2-year institutions, meaning after spending their 1st and 2nd years there, students transfer to a normal 4-year college to do their 3rd and 4th years. The reasons why they are a good option are (1) they are less selective than normal 4-year colleges so more likely to take students graduating with Grade 11, (2) they save time (after SPM: 2 years @ community college + 2 years @ 4-year college). On the other hand, if you’re looking at prestigious, highly-selective Ivy Leagues (for instance), it might not be such a good idea to apply with just Grade 11.

Answered by: Yeong Wern Yeen, a JPA scholar who is studying in the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). 

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.

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.

CommonApp Essay – To Dare

The essay below, which was required by The Common Application, successfully got Lim Sheau Yun admitted into Yale University, Stanford University, Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, Brown University, University of Chicago, Duke University, Barnard College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges. 

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. Share your story.

To Dare

“Chinese girls don’t shave their hair.”

Or at least, that’s what my grandfather, traditional man and Feng Shui enthusiast, told me.

“The only people who willingly shave their heads are true believers in Buddha. Others are being punished or are psychotic. You are none of the above.”

“And to top it all off, you’re a girl.”

So imagine his expression on the 22nd of May 2010, when this eighth grade girl went bald. To him, it didn’t matter if it was to raise money for a local cancer hospital in need of repaying a loan.

Understandably, my grandfather felt betrayed. Years ago, he and his father fled Mao’s China, choosing to preserve their Confucian legacy in Malaysia. My actions were against everything he fought to maintain: tradition, order and filial piety.

Chinese culture is a difficult environment to dare in. The primary school I used to attend had a strict rule: your hair had to be between three and five centimetres below your ear. Not one, not two, but between three and five, to be measured every two weeks or so. I was one of those in-betweeners caught between the paralysing boundaries of a ruler: a statistic, a short-haired bob in the midst of other girls who were taught to look and act the same. Feminine, but not too feminine. Intelligent, but not too bold, not too original. We were taught to be bright, but not to have a spark.

I don’t dwell too much on the why I shaved. It was mostly a blur of forms and raising money. What I do remember is that I cried a total of five times after. I was an outsider in my own home, at the mercy of my grandfather’s disapproval. After all, I was an absurd sight to see with my buzz cut, and my chin held so far high you couldn’t see the tears in my eyes.

But what I didn’t expect was the eventual respect my grandfather had for me. The ridicule stopped, and he started taking an interest in my academic and extracurricular pursuits. I think he had to begrudgingly acknowledge the courage it took to dare. As my mother once said: “If it’s one thing Chinese admire more than anything else, it’s strength.”

In some sense, it took a drastic act of rejection of tradition for my grandfather to realise that I was beyond a child, beyond another granddaughter he could safely protect in his anachronistic bubble which forbade risks. Certainly, my head shaving wasn’t the only event that spawned his change in perspective, but I like to think it helped.

The day I shaved my head was the day I discovered that a ruler could not define me and tradition would not hold me back. Fear used to be my breakfast, lunch, dinner. Fear of consequences, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of losing family, friends. I feared to venture outside the age-old path traipsed by countless Chinese women before me. But I did. And my grandfather’s mindset for his remaining two years on Earth also diverged from a path I once thought was concrete: he came to respect me not only as his granddaughter, but also as an independent woman who was free to make her own choices.

And I continue that legacy today. I’m certainly not fearless yet, but with each day, I grow a little bolder and a little more willing to dare, changing perspectives and destroying boundaries like the twenty-first century hybrid I am.

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.

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.

Can I apply for early action and regular decision at US colleges?


For US uni applications, are we allowed to apply for both early action and regular decision for the same college? If I am rejected in the early action pool, can i still apply for regular decision?


Do take note that not many universities offer early action as compared to early decision, so you would have to check with the universities about that. And also make sure to check if it’s ‘restrictive’ or ‘single-choice’ early action meaning that you can only apply to one university with early action. For example, Yale and Stanford offer single-choice early action, whereas UChicago has an open policy on early action.

In answer to your question, that again depends on the universities’ admission policy. Some universities will not reconsider rejected early action applicants at all during the regular decision process in the same year, while some universities will automatically defer rejected applicants into the regular decision pile so you will not have to resubmit your application (you may be allowed to submit additional supplementary documents though), or some may even have both possibilities. In any case, do check the website of the university you intend to apply to for the most accurate information, and do not hesitate to email them if you have any queries! 🙂

Answered by: Teh Wen Wen is a rising freshman at Johns Hopkins University who finds comfort in wearing her egg doodle covered socks around her house.

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.