Crafting Your Own Journey – Chiang Kah Yee (Minerva Schools @ KGI ’19)

Indecisive over what to do with life after high school. Lost in a plethora of pre-u choices. Confused over whether to follow your head, your heart, or what your relatives say you should do. We’ve all been there. So did Chiang Kah Yee (Minerva Schools @ KGI ’19). But it’s important to know what happens after: she did fine, and so will you. Trust her – she knows exactly how you feel and that’s why she’s here to offer you her practical advice on how to tackle this, head on!

Crafting Your Own Journey 

We’ve all been there – confused and unsure of what to do after SPM. You’re probably thinking:

  • “Do I jump into A-Levels January intake?”
  • “Wait… if I do A-Levels, does that mean I can only apply to the U.K.?”
  • “Wait… do I want to go to the U.K.?”
  • “Wait… where do I want to go to university?”
  • “Wait… what do I want to study at university?”
  • “Wait… how do I get into the university of my dreams?
  • Which pre-u program do I have to do? Do I even have to do pre-u?”
  • “Wait… do I even want to go to university?”
  • “Wait… how much is this all going to cost?”
  • “Wait… can I even afford that?”

Seems like a familiar slippery slope? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. When I say we, I mean everyone – me, your seniors, your parents, your cousins, your teachers.

Step one: breathe. It is an overwhelming time in your life. You’ve just finished secondary school, the last predetermined step in your education career decided by someone else, the Ministry of Education. After SPM, the options are endless: A-Levels, matriculation, foundation, SAM/Ausmat, CIMP/CPU, STPM, IB, ADP, if I were to name the popular ones.


Your friends are already enrolled in their pre-university program. Your parents are asking. Your relatives are prying. “I don’t know!” you want to scream. I understand how you feel. It’s a heavy decision for an 18-year-old to make. It’s a heavy decision for anyone to make.

There are plenty of strategies you can deploy to tackle this:

Photo: Bethany Jana

1. Try imagining your ideal future career.

What do you want your day-to-day to be? Helping people? Solving problems? Your career decision is very individual and ultimately, you will be the one doing the work. If your <insert authoritative figure here> wants you to be either a doctor, lawyer or accountant, you need to try to block their opinion in this matter. Yes, they may be paying for your education but it is your life. It isn’t a life worth living if you dread your job and material.

Remember struggling with <insert challenging subject here> (like Sejarah or Additional Mathematics)? Pursuing an undergraduate degree that you have zero interest or passion in will be exponentially worse. Trust me.

Don’t know what you want to do with your life? That’s fine too! I’m a rising junior and I’ve already declared my major, but to be completely honest, I still have days when I question my major and wonder if it’s my true calling. Not knowing what you want to be in the future is a) completely normal, and b) does not mean you can’t make any decisions.

I thought I wanted to be a journalist but after doing a short internship stint at The Star Malaysia, I realized it wasn’t what I envisioned myself doing for the rest of my life. Does that mean I wasted 2 months of my life? Absolutely not! If I hadn’t shadowed seasoned journalists and got a proper feel of the career and industry, I wouldn’t be able to completely rule out the occupation.

Knowing what you DON’T want to do is a step closer to knowing what you want to do

I felt overwhelmed and frankly ill-equipped to make a solid decision about my future. So, I looked for education paths that were more open-ended and less binding. If you’re unsure of what you want to do, avoid pathways that don’t allow for flexibility, i.e. foundation, matriculation.

Personally, I wanted the option of being able to apply to a variety of universities and was almost sure I wanted to pursue my education in the U.S. or the U.K. Thus, I narrowed my search to three programs: A-Levels, IB, and ADP.

After accepting a scholarship for a local IB program, I got accepted to the Minerva Schools at KGI. Minerva is an innovative liberal arts college based in San Francisco and funded by Venture Capitalists. I wasn’t sure if I was good enough for the university; I felt like an imposter. I had just finished SPM, was I ready to go to university? Minerva has a global rotation: students spend their four years of university living in: San Francisco, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul, Hyderabad, London, and Taipei.

Like other universities in the U.S., Minerva is not for everyone. Every university is unique and has different value propositions. Make sure to be well-informed of the characteristics of your dream university and fall in love with those, not the idea of a big name.

It has been 2 years and I have zero regrets. I’ve experienced so many cultures, taken courses outside my comfort zone, made friends I hope I’ll have for life, and learned how to “adult.” My only regret? Not taking the initiative pre and post-SPM to find out about the plethora of pre-u and university options out there. I was lucky – I applied to my university on an impulse and was totally uninformed. I didn’t know what I was signing myself up for, but I’m glad I did it anyway.

Go explore. Read. Meet new people. Gain self-understanding. Figure out what works best for you – you’re the only one who will be able to. This leads me to advice #2:

2. See what the options are, and ask yourself what would suit you best.

Let’s go through some facts about the various options in the U.S.:

P.s. there’s a ton of information here, but there’ll be much more at the USApps workshop! Plus willing facilitators who will answer specific questions you may have. Sign up here.

There are many types of universities in the U.S. I’ll briefly go through a few:

i. Public research universities

Universities under this category are state-funded (United States of America) and are usually large (student body > 20,000). These universities have graduate programs and conduct scientific research – it helps their university rankings.

Generally, these universities will be significantly more affordable for in-state students (students born or who live in the state of the university) as opposed to out-of-state and international students.


  • UC schools (UCLA, UC Berkeley, UCSD)
  • Penn State (any school with the word “State,” really)
  • University of Virginia, University of Madison-Wisconsin (not all University of X’s are public schools though)

ii. Private research universities

Here’s the category in which all Ivy Leagues and most Tier 1 schools fall under. These are private-funded – through alumni donations, endowments, and a hefty price tag.


  • Ivy Leagues (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, UPenn, Dartmouth)
  • Stanford, MIT
  • New York University, University of Chicago, Boston University

iii. Liberal arts colleges

LACs, which only offers undergraduate degrees, want students to be exposed to a breadth of disciplines. Even if you’re an intended physics major, you will probably have to take a philosophy course and a language course. Generally, LACs are small (student body < 2,500) which means less competition and higher chances of being involved with research opportunities and study abroad programs. In most LACs, students can take classes like other institutions. Wellesley College allows students to take classes at MIT- go take a look at the Five College Consortium, too!


  • Mount Holyoke, Middlebury, Swarthmore, Wesleyan
  • Oberlin, Ponoma, Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna
  • Minerva Schools at KGI (where I go)

iv. Community colleges

Generally only a two-year program, these colleges serve a similar purpose as ADP programs in Malaysia. Students are placed in small classes and have to prepare to apply to transfer to a non-community college institution.


I’m definitely biased towards the education system in the United States. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Flexible curriculum

Many U.S. universities don’t require undergrads to declare their major until the end of their sophomore year. That buys you 2 extra years to try out classes in colleges (college of social science, college of business, etc) before settling on a major. It is like trying on a really expensive pair of shoes – even if you’re really sure you like it, you should try it on before purchasing to be sure. It’s a pretty expensive pair of shoes that you’ll wear for 4 years. High commitment, high stakes.

  • Opportunity for financial aid

U.S. universities have various forms of aid to subsidize the cost of attending: merit-based scholarships, need-based aid, work-study, loans, grants, etc.

You have to ask yourself a bunch of questions (beyond this list):

Do I want to live in a city or on a college campus? Do I want to go to a large-sized university with thousands of students or a small college with hundreds? Do I want flexibility in deciding what I want to major in?

I personally wanted to:

  • live in a city, right smack in the middle of the hustle-bustle;
  • be in a small, tight-knit community;
  • high flexibility in deciding my major, and having a lot of opportunities to explore;
  • experience different cultures and mingle with people from different walks of life.

If your criteria fit mine, you should consider looking into small sized Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs) with high percentage of international students in a metropolitan.

3. Do your research, talk to alumni/current students, reach out, email them!

Look how ready we are to talk to interested students!

Online research is great because you don’t feel like you’re bothering anyone but it can be extremely subjective because it’s a one-way information flow. Your situation and someone else’s situation could be worlds apart.

My best advice: talk to current students and seniors. Most people are very willing to help – they’ve all been there! Think about the people in your network who might be willing to spare 10 minutes to talk to you. Be polite, patient, and nice about it!

I’ve been on both sides but more extensively, the side of helping juniors. Personally, I’m more than willing to answer questions that are specific to me – ask me about my experience and my opinions. Do your own online research to avoid asking me questions that you can Google to find the answer. I’ve Skyped with interested people (if timezones and scheduling permits) and answered a bunch of e-mails. I usually get back to people within a week – if not drop me a gentle reminder. I’m in school/working/busy but definitely willing to help if you’re eager to listen and respectful!

Self-plug: attend USAPPS! USAPPS is an event organized by current students and alumni tailored specifically to share their experiences and guide current applicants through the strenuous application process of applying to U.S. universities.

You may think: “But I just finished SPM! I’m not applying to university yet.”

Applying to universities is not an ad-hog decision or process. A lot goes into it: where you want to apply to (U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, Singapore, locally), and what pre-university requirements different universities have.

USAPPS is a very sharing, fun, and enthusiastic community. Attending the workshop will give you a better idea of which path you want to pursue, especially if you’re considering applying to universities in the U.S.

Facilitators are usually more than willing to help you proofread your CollegeApp essay and give advice on other issues based on their experiences. You’ll get a booklet with contact details!

Hopefully, this post was helpful and enjoyable. You can contact me here or read more of my writing on my personal blog.