Why The US? – Ben Yap (Princeton ’20)


Let’s face it, education in the US is not cheap at all. However, there are numerous ways to finance a US tertiary education. Some of the options include scholarships and financial aid from universities. Scholarships are mainly local and they are provided by, inter alia, Khazanah Nasional, JPA, and CIMB ASEAN. However, most of us are not aware of need-based and merit-based financial aids.

Ben Yap is a rising sophomore at Princeton and he intends to major in Computer Science. Ben had a very humble background: his father was a sole-breadwinner who works as a food vendor at a food court in Ipoh. There was no way that his parents were going to pay for his tertiary education but he has always wanted to study abroad, so Ben took up the Sime Darby scholarship after SPM and pursued A-Level at KYUEM.

Ben and his KYUEM schoolmate at Mather College, one of the six residential colleges at Princeton University!

Ben did not think much about studying in the US, but when his offer letter from Princeton came in, he knew that it was the right choice to make. However, Sime Darby did not agree on sponsoring him to the US, so Ben dropped the scholarship and looked into other options amidst the chaos of A-Level exams. He knew there was so much more that the US has to offer but he was uncertain of his intended major, which was a huge deterring factor for corporate companies when offering Malaysian students scholarships. Luckily, Princeton offers need-blind financial aid for any admitted students, irrespective of their nationalities.

Princeton gave Ben a very generous offer: Instead of having to pay $65,000 every academic year, he only had to pay $1000 in his first year, and $600 per annum in his subsequent years at Princeton. His financial aid covers his tuition, accommodation and dining meal plans. Princeton even provides Ben with $500 annually for his miscellaneous spendings. To fund his personal expenses, Ben works in Princeton’s dining hall in his freshman year. Although working at a dining hall might not sound glamorous, he got to meet many people from different backgrounds, classes and academic fields. He is also a guide at Princeton during summer, where he brings visitors around the university for tours.

Throughout his freshman year, Ben has studied a wide range of subjects including Spanish, Computer Science, and Cryptography. He is also part of Princeton’s Poker Club and the Institute for Chocolate Studies. He stays on campus over the summer to plan the Community Action Program which is part of Princeton’s orientation for incoming freshmen.

Through his involvement in the Community Action program, Ben got to participate in cool opportunities such as watching an alternative sentencing process in the Center for Court Innovation.

Ben will not be bonded to any company upon his graduation and he intends to seek for career opportunities in the US. This is the beauty of financial aid in the US; no other nation in this world offers such kind of scholastic opportunity. Ben’s journey to Princeton had not been easy at all, but he would tell you that every hardship he has encountered had taught him important life lessons. Despite attending one of the most prestigious universities in the world, he remains the cheekiest, coolest and funniest person you’ll ever meet.

“Follow me on Instagram @the.benyap.”

Ben Yap


Why The US? – Jia Yi (Harvard ’21)

As admissions decisions season welcomed itself earlier this year, Jia Yi (Harvard University ’21) was presented with a commonly met dichotomy among Malaysian students: the U.K. or the U.S.? Among acceptances to stellar schools from Stanford University and the University of Cambridge, she ultimately chose Harvard for several reasons. Continue reading to find out why!

Why The US?

Hi, everyone!

I hope that you’re all well.

I’m Jia Yi and I am a rising freshman and a prospective Economics major at Harvard College Class of 2021.

In this post, I will try my best to summarise why I ultimately picked the US (and why you should too!) and how I navigated through the US application process. Hopefully, my advice will be beneficial in your future application endeavours and decision processes.

Before entering into the crux of this post, I will provide a short background about myself for context:

For my secondary education, I attended an International School in Malaysia. I did the British curriculum ie IGCSE and A-Levels and was widely encouraged by my teachers, peers, and family to apply for higher education in the UK.

At my high school’s Graduation & Awards Ceremony- so proud to be Garden International School class of 2017!

The UK had always seemed like a natural choice, after all, I was already familiar with the expectations of the UK programme. Coupled with the fact that most of my friends and siblings were planning to apply to the UK and the relative geographical proximity of UK to Malaysia (compared to the US), the UK seemed like an obvious and safe choice.

However, I was attracted to the liberal arts program in the US. Though studying in the US had been a childhood dream, it seemed unpragmatic: geographically far and culturally dichotomous – an unlikely and far-fetched option for someone who had always been streamed into the British route. I was not sure whether I would be suitable for this program.

It was only after I competed in an academic decathlon competition at Yale University that I began to seriously consider higher education in the US.

To me, the most significant attraction about the US is how its academic institutions are at the forefront of academia, technology and ideas. The US is generally more reflexive to the structural changes in society and to the academic interest of students. I was enthralled by this opportunity and wanted to be at the frontier of cutting-edge knowledge and experience.

I began planning out my university application schedule in early January of 2016. Starting out with fixing dates for standardised testing, I remember spanning them across January until October. *Just some advice, if you’re planning to apply for early action, please take all your standardised testing preferably before September. During August- October, things do get very stressful and standardised testing only amplifies unhealthy cortisol levels.* Upon receiving some of my standardised testing scores and speaking to my guidance counsellor, I narrowed my university choices and started looking at the essay requirements for each university in the common application website. My actual writing process only began in July. Then, I had thought that I had given myself ample time to craft all my application essays. However, I only finished every component of my application in  October, very close to the deadline for early application. So, please make sure to think, plan and start your university application early- you will definitely not regret it!

For me, deciding to apply to the US added a significant load to my already heavy academic and extracurricular commitments. Even though I had foreseen the differences between the UK and US education, I had underestimated the stark stylistic differences between these applications. The US application required a deeper sense of self-introspection – a format which I was not comfortable with. I was more accustomed to the format of the UK personal statement which was partially impersonal and more academically focused.

So when I first started my US application, I felt lost and overwhelmed by the essays and standardised tests. There were so many essays, activity logs and requirements to fill up – was it possible to finish all these in one summer?

On top of juggling the many components of the demanding application process, I was also establishing my own extracurricular pursuit: Project Smile! Through sports and art activities , we help to mentally stimulate these individuals by providing them with a channel for artistic self-expression.

Moreover, I felt a seeming disconnection between my home culture and the American culture. My writing style looked stale next to their richly descriptive essays. My thought process and ideas also seemed different and out of sync to theirs. And after hours of surfing College Confidential, I began feeling as though I wasn’t good enough. A niggling voice in my head kept telling me that maybe I was too different. Perhaps, I did not belong in the US.

Yet I remained resolute in my applications. Deep inside, I felt that the US was the right place for me and that I just had to try no matter how difficult it seemed.

All the required essays took a few months to refine. I remember ‘Americanizing’ my British writing style into a more active and confident voice. I also harmonised my home culture with the American culture. My culture had taught me that to be humble is to be demure and to not brag about your achievements. The US application process taught me that being humble does not mean self-deprecation or silence. To be humble means knowing yourself and being confident about your strengths and weaknesses. Upon reconciling my perceived polarising home culture with the American culture, the disconnection did not seem so jarring anymore. In fact, I began seeing American values through a different lens. This mutual understanding and realisation empowered my conviction that perhaps the US was the right place for me.

What I’ve learned from the US application process is that everyone, no matter how unexciting you may think you seem, has a story to tell. Do not be afraid to share your voice, your story, and your wit. Let your personality shine through in your essays.

Upon receiving all my university decisions, I ultimately chose the US over the UK for three reasons:

1. The flexibility of the US degree:

At 17, I was not set on a specific course and wanted the academic freedom for self-discovery.

I had always enjoyed a combination of sciences, humanities and the arts. So the liberal arts program was perfect as it provided me with the academic freedom and flexibility to pursue this combination of subjects – this would not have been possible in the UK.

Moreover, I feel that learning and new perspectives best came from the cross-fertilisation of ideas across different fields. So, I prefer the holistic education available at US institutions.

2. The supposed trade-off between extracurriculars and academics:

Previously, I had always thought that the tradeoff was between coming to the US for extracurriculars and going to the UK for academics.

However, after speaking to many of my seniors who studies in both the US and UK universities, I was very excited to learn that you get direct teaching from the professors in the US while in the UK, you tend to get lecturers instead. So, there was not really a trade-off in academics in the US.

In addition, there are also more extracurricular opportunities e.g undergraduate research opportunities, academic fellowship, internships in famous companies etc in the US. Of course, these opportunities would still be possible in the UK, but it is a lot more challenging because of existing UK Student Visa restrictions.

3. The Culture of Daringness

I greatly appreciate and value the culture of daringness in the US. After communicating with many of the seniors (in the US) and learning about their current achievements and future goals, I became deeply inspired by their dreams. I wanted to be emboldened and share a similar outlook as them.

Ultimately, the choice of going to the US was a very personal choice- it really depends on you and what you are looking for in higher education. Admittedly, I had oscillated frequently between going to the US and to the UK for several months. However, I decided that I wanted to challenge myself in a new environment and in a place where I greatly admire its culture of daringness.

If you are very clear on your future career aspirations and want to pursue a professional course e.g Medicine, Law etc, the UK could be the right place for you. If you are like me and want to have the academic and career flexibility, the US could be the place for you.

I hope that going to the US would be an enriching experience filled with many opportunities for personal and academic growth. I am beyond excited to see where this path will take me in the coming years!


Please feel free to introduce yourselves to me at USAPPS 2017. (I promise that I’m really friendly!! :) ) I look forward to meeting all of you at this event and I wish all of you the best of luck in your applications.

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. http://bit.ly/USAPPS2017

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.

The Boy Who Dreamed Out of His League – Kauutam Uthaya Suriyan (UC Berkeley ’20)

Your dream of studying in the U.S. shouldn’t just remain a dream, as Kauutam Uthaya Suriyan (University of California, Berkeley ’20) has proven to himself. Against all odds, Kauutam showed that with hard work, one can reach for what is deemed impossible. Everybody has a different college application journey- come to USAPPS 2017 to learn about the different journeys our facilitators have braved through to get where they are today! You can register here: http://bit.ly/USAPPS2017

The Boy Who Dreamed Out of His League

After a 20 hour back-breaking flight, I finally reached the place I have heard so much about in the Hollywood movies I have watched throughout my life. “The United States of America,” they call it. For many others, it’s the “Theatre of Dreams”. I walked out of the plane with my head held high and a voice in it saying, ”Champ you made it!!!”. Soon, the same smile and confidence were humbled by the customs officer and a stern look on her face. She gave my passport a good stare and sent me to the immigration office. A gruelling one hour wait in the Immigration office gave me the chills and lead me to start asking questions: Will I ever belong here? Will I ever be able to call this place home? After secondary checks by the immigration officers, I was cleared to leave the airport and be on my way to my dream college: University of  California, Berkeley.

I wasn’t just walking to my college dorm, but down memory lane as I reminisced the struggles I had to brave in order to get here. Since I was 7, I would cut newspaper articles of university rankings and paste it on my bedroom wall, dreaming of reaching the impossible. My love for UC Berkeley begun after I watched Vaaranam Aayiram, a Tamil movie where the protagonist falls head over heels for a girl in a train. He would go all the way to the girl’s college- UC Berkeley- to woo her over. Watching the beautiful scenes taken on campus, I remember telling myself that that was where I wanted to go.

However, I was told that I was dreaming for something out of my league, especially as the son of a taxi driver who struggled to make ends meet. Years of hard work, sleepless nights, and the beautiful support of my family and friends later, I received a scholarship to study in UC Berkeley. 8 years later, on UC Berkeley grounds I stood: I am a Golden Bear at last.

In a stadium full of Golden Bears!


I dragged all my suitcases to the campus dorms. Though my confidence returned, it was constantly attacked by the voices in my head reminding me, “you are an immigrant. You are to be extra cautious with each and every step of your way.” I got my keys and was greeted by one of the warmest smile I have ever seen in my life. I never would have suspected that the beholder of the smile would later turn out to be a very special friend to me. A Vietnamese refugee, Hung Hyunh moved to the states for a cardiac surgery. 8 months forward into his new life which America had leased him, Hung was elected by the students to be a senator and represent them.

Hung was only one of the unique and inspiring individuals I was going to meet in my forthcoming year at Berkeley. As I began to meet more people, I realized that not only was I surrounded by a community of diverse backgrounds but also one that had the identical hope and dreams that I had. That dream was to strive and be the best versions of ourselves.

The people here want to make this world a better place for all the inhabitants. They had endless ideas for a start up and public policies. I met two people in a party who agreed the walks to cafeterias for late night meals were troublesome, which lead to a startup idea three months later for late night food delivery. Every conversation I had the privilege to participate in enlightened my mind; they served as a gateway to a new world for me to understand the varying personalities and societies that make up this world. I started to become more accepting of those who were different from me. I stopped taking others as weird, but as special and individualized.


I attended social gatherings and frat parties, literally bumped into so many people and started to realise how important networking is because you can’t take for granted what you might learn from the next person you are about to meet.

During the first couple of weeks alone, I was already being exposed to various opportunities the American education had to offer. From consulting clubs to dance clubs, you can learn anything and be anyone you want to be. All you have to do is step up, approach people and show your commitment. The quote, “Opportunities are up for grabs” is what the American college strives on. The system equips you with everything they deem necessary for your development and maturing; all you have to do is be brave enough to leverage it.

The Kaautam who boards the plane back home to Malaysia for summer break is a different man. This Kaautam is one who is braver, more curious and a higher fervor to learn. Though broken by failures, he is stronger than before and not to forget, just a little bit “cooler” than the Kaautam, 9 months back. Obstacles were no longer just obstacles, but a platform for self-improvement. Foreign ideas and concepts did not remain foreign, but as an opportunity to learn something new.

America may not be everything I imagined it to be. It is beyond the Friday night parties, the beautiful Californian beaches, the freedom to do anything and the Hollywood glamour you see on the TV screen. This is a place for second chances, for as much failures it takes to find your true passion, for the liberty to transform into anything and anyone you want to be. This is America. The land of the free, home of the brave.

With my fellow Malaysians in UC Berkeley!

Why The US? – Kaviarasan Selvam (Boston University ’18)

So why did Kavi chose to study in the states and not anywhere else? So he can merge both of his interests in Astrophysics and Computer Science! Oh, did we mention cool opportunities like a semester abroad in Switzerland for an internship with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to work on an Artificial Intelligence in Particle Physics project? What’s even cooler is that these opportunities can be yours, too!


Why The US?

That’s a question I’ve been asked multiple times over the years. Every single time, I ponder about that time in my life when I had to make a crucial decision on charting my next path in life. I had many options, but America stood out for no apparent reason. At that point in life, I could not come up with a reason as to why America seemed like a very appealing option, but it just was. With a skip of a heartbeat, I trusted my intuition and chose to go to the United States for college.

Now, 3 years on, I consider that decision to be one of the best I’ve made in my life. Why?

Over the last 3 years, I have grown so much as a person. I would attribute that personal growth to the flexibility of the American college education system. The fact that this system allows you to take control and plan your college life helps you think about your interests and goals in life. The system allows you to develop your passion and add some elements to it and then connect all the dots together. For example, I started off my college career wanting to be an Astrophysics major. Some time along freshmen year, I stumbled upon Computer Science and really liked it. And guess what? The American college system told me that I could extensively study both fields and graduate with a double major at the same time.

The options that this system provides you is limitless. I learned to speak a new language. I learned about archeology around the world. I had an amazing professor who taught me about medieval European history. I will be learning how to swim next semester. And the list goes on.

Wow, it seems like I have a considerable amount of free time to do all these things that are not related to my major. And all those things that I mentioned are actual classes and not “extra-curricular activities”. So do I have more free time? How?

Yes, and this “free time” is absolutely why you should choose to go to college in the US. An undergraduate degree in the US typically takes 4 years to complete. The system is designed to give students the flexibility of planning their college lives, meaning you choose what you want to do besides school work and you choose when you want to have fun. I chose to use this extra time to try my hands out at some astronomy research. During my sophomore year, I studied meteor showers and their various effects in the lower atmosphere. The reason I was able to get this research job was my background as an Astrophysics and Computer Science double major, which was only made possible by the college education system!


My 1st day working at Boston University’s Department of Astronomy!

This American college education system that allowed me to learn French and do multiple degrees at the same time gave me the opportunity to use these skills through a study abroad program. Study abroad programs are programs for students to typically spend a semester in another university, which could also be in another country.  This past semester, I studied abroad in Geneva, Switzerland. I took Physics classes in French at the University of Geneva. I also did an internship at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where I worked on an Artificial Intelligence in Particle Physics project. All of this was made possible because I had the opportunity to learn multiple skills throughout my college life.

With my mates at the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a general-purpose detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)!

I’ve had to work hard to be given such opportunities, but the American college education system gave me an avenue to invest my effort. This system provided the framework that allowed me to grow as a person, learn new skills and expand my boundaries. I might not have known why the US before I chose to go there for college, but now I can tell you why you should choose to go to the US for college. Come talk to me and other amazing facilitators about our American college experience at the USAPPS workshops!

Hiking the Swiss Alps!

Dear Past Self – Lina Sim (Brown ’20)

Say hello to another one of our core committee member – Lina Sim! A rising sophomore at Brown University, Lina hopes to declare a double major in Computer Science and Economics. As freshman year comes to a close, there is much for Lina to reflect upon – from considering factors besides prestige when choosing schools to taking the time to be grateful, regardless of the situation. As she tells her past self about the Great Places she will go, she hopes that you believe that you will, too!

Dear past-self,

I see the time has come for you to apply to college! Time really flies, doesn’t it? I can’t believe it’s already been a year, the days of applying to college are still very fresh in my mind. But before you step in, here are some things I wish I knew before I started this whole process:

1.Take it easy! Yes, applying to colleges can be a stressful and harrowing experience. The American university application process, in particular, may seem rather convoluted at times. Terms like holistic admissions, standardized testing, personal essays, recommendation letters and financial aid will start to occupy every breathing moment. Sometimes, it may even feel like the everything you’ve done in the first 18 years of your life hangs on getting into college. It does NOT! In the grand scheme of things, college is but one of the many different milestones in your life. Hang in there, wherever in the world you’ll end up for the next four years, it will be okay. I promise!!

2. The numbers and stats are not the end-all. At times, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers, the rankings, the acceptance rates, and the prestige. Applying to colleges isn’t a game of Pokemon GO where you try to “catch” them all (after all, you only get to attend ONE college). While the rankings do reveal the quality of an institution and its students to a certain extent, do keep in mind that there exists a myriad of high quality colleges that may not necessarily come with a prestigious name tag that can still give you a world-class educational experience. Furthermore, we all have different learning styles and preferences. Some people prefer large lectures over small seminars, while others thrive in a smaller setting. Throughout this process, don’t forget to evaluate your own learning preferences and think about the type of educational environment you’d like to spend your next four years in. It’s a lot more important than you think it is!

Decisions, decisions, decisions!

3. Don’t forget to say thank you! It’s college decisions day! Congratulations on the acceptance letter! Now before you run off to write that celebratory Facebook post, don’t forget to thank all the people who made this possible in the first place. Oftentimes, it takes a whole village to put a successful college application together. Applying to and attending a university in the US is an incredible privilege, one that you would’ve not been able to afford if not for the support of your parents, teachers, and mentors. So on this especially exciting day, remember to thank all those who have made this dream possible in the first place.

Standing in front of the Rockefeller Center on Christmas Eve with friends from all over the world!
Times Square!

4. OH, the places you’ll go! Your first year in the United States will take you on a pretty wild ride. You’ll be baffled at people greeting each other with a “How are you?”, wonder why the nickel (5 cents) is physically larger than a dime (10 cents), and struggle to convert Celsius into Fahrenheit and kilometers into miles. You’ll find that coding isn’t that scary after all, and that History (contrary to popular belief) can be incredibly interesting. You’ll realize that you didn’t take a single Chemistry class your entire first year, despite declaring that as your prospective major. You will travel across the entire country from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast by public transport with your best friend over winter break, because why not? You’ll visit cities you’ve only read in novels and watched on TV for the past eighteen years of your life, spend New Year’s on a train across the Midwest (not knowing when exactly to celebrate because you’re crossing over time zones) and meet people from all over the world. Oh, the wonders and thrills that lie ahead!

5. Things will get tough. Going to university with very incredibly smart and talented human beings can be very intellectually stimulating, but sometimes, it can make you feel rather incompetent. The sheer amount of talent that surrounds you day and night will make you question if the admission office made a huge mistake of letting you in. You’ll feel like you’re nothing compared to your peers and that you’ll never ever be up to par with everyone else. Nonetheless, as cliché as this sounds, you’ll soon begin to notice that you are not alone, and that there will always be great people who are ready to support you all the way.




6. Don’t take the small things for granted.  Try to take pleasure in the little things, and you’ll start to notice that they often make the biggest difference. The hustle and bustle of college life can often be overwhelming, to the extent of being claustrophobic at times. So try to appreciate the little things, and be amazed at how far it can take you. Try taking a different path to class and notice the cracks in the sidewalk, or sit outside when it’s warm and watch the people go by. Watch the leaves change color in the fall, listen to the birds chirping outside your window as you wake up, take a walk outside on the night of the first snowfall, and take in the smell of the earth after the first spring rain. Take a walk downtown (yes, a world exists beyond the campus gates). Talk to the dining hall ladies, you’ll never know how much you actually have in common (do this, seriously)! While these little things seem rather trivial and insignificant, you’d be surprised to find how magical these tiny moments can be. Try it! Just for a moment, leave your books, step outside, enjoy the sun/snow, and simply appreciate you being here. :)


I’m incredibly excited for you as you begin this new chapter in life. It will be a journey that you will never forget. So congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away! Now that you know what you need to know, I’d like to leave you with this, before you go. :)

Best regards,

Lina of 2017

Dear Past Self – Sonja English (Wesleyan University ’20)

Time, as Sonja has realised in retrospect, is truly a powerful thing; it is capable of teaching you, proving you wrong and making you take note of the things you have not realised before. In an honest letter to herself, Sonja recounts the beginning of her freshman year and reminds herself of life in the U.S.’ sweet, sweet surprises (which are often not in ways she imagined them to be.)


Dear Past Self,

At this point in time, you’re probably sitting in your single-room dorm thinking of who to share the next meal with. You don’t really know anyone very well, and frankly you don’t feel like you want to know them. They seem so different, unrelatable, even obnoxious. It seems like very few of them have something in common with you. Come mid-semester—a few months into college—you will find close friends. Not just friends of convenience, but people that you actually share a sense of humour and perspective with. Unbeknownst to you, you will befriend *white* people that are curious about where you come from and are adventurous to try the food that you cook. (You can cook!) By second semester, the cafeteria room will not be so daunting. Tables around you will have familiar faces, and there will be a group that you’ll actually want to sit with—as opposed to just sitting with them because you feel like you should. In time, you’ll also be comfortable with yourself. Comfortable enough to confidently sit by yourself—if you want to. Right now, I’m comfortable with where I am. My friends come from Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Chicago, Maryland, California, the Philippines, and more. If I want to watch Rupaul’s Drag Race in my room alone on Friday night I can, but just as well, I know that I can join my friends for beer & bad music that night, too.

My god, you will spend an immense amount of time in your room. So keep it neat and welcoming! Soft bed sheets are going to be the best investment you’ve made. Buying textbooks are going to be the worst (hint: download them, or find them in the library).

You’re going to discover that you’re not going to be a physicist, computer scientist, or economist. These academic challenges aren’t going to stop you from getting accepted by five job positions. You needed to know that these aren’t strong suits to discover your strengths. It will always come back to literature, writing, reading. Don’t forget your passions. These passions will propel you into a few jobs that will enable you to travel! The most wonderful surprise is knowing that you’ve saved up enough money to go to Cuba.

Breakfast with friends in Cuba

Things will fall into place: routine, friends, fitness, food. And the best part is, that you can boast of having read twelve Russian novels!

Take care,




Why The US? – Elina Lua Ming (UCLA ’20)

Introducing our second member of the 2017 core committee – meet Elina! A current freshman at UCLA intending to declare a major in Economics or Cognitive Science, Elina has a myriad of other interests that include fitness and fine arts. Read to find out how the U.S. education system can accommodate anybody’s wide range of interests, just like how it has to Elina’s!

Why The US?


Simply put, I wanted to hone my logical precision and improve on consolidating my thoughts.

Thing is, I did not know how to achieve this so I thought that it’d be nice to pursue my tertiary education and be able to gain a wide array of knowledge from various subjects whilst still concentrating on a particular subject of my interest for the completion of my degree.

I love fine arts very much. Knowing that the height of athleticism is acquired through proprioception which helps athletes excel in their sports as well as knowing that contemplating on and understanding the characteristics of materials and properties of available resources helps artists create works that optimize the potentials of their resources and materials guided me throughout my childhood and I grew up thinking that an artist’s aptitude is defined by his or her technical precision and visual acuity. I spent my entire life thinking about spaces such as —- inter alia, spaces between my friends’ hairlines and eyebrows, spaces between my parents’ shoulders, spaces occupied by people, spaces between people, and spaces between spaces. This perspective has helped me improve my technical proficiency significantly as I traversed through my school years. Nonetheless, somehow the knowledge that I have acquired about technical precision and spatial familiarity never seemed to make me content; I felt that I was severely lacking mental precision and my thoughts were not in order. The divergence of my thought process lacks absolute convergence. My intuition told me that perhaps in order to improve on my thought process, I should expand the circumference of my existing knowledge by learning about many different things and take as many different classes as possible. The flexibility in tertiary education in the U.S. seemed like a perfect fit for me, so I applied to the US, and voila! I’m already completing my freshman year at UCLA.

I definitely did not regret my decision of coming to UCLA. UCLA’s a very, very big school and there is no doubt anyone here would feel like he or she is just a number amongst the other 31,000 bright undergraduates. However, if anything, the crowdedness of this place has given me a lot of room for self-reflection, reading, and recalibration of my thought compass. The breadth and depth of classes that I have been taking here throughout my freshman year have helped me think better as a person. As ironic as it sounds, the divergence of the knowledge that I’ve acquired here seems to be leading me to some sort of convergence of thoughts. They might seem irrelevant and unparalleled with my artistic goals, but I definitely feel like a better thinker now. Nowhere else but the U.S. would I be able to find the opportunity to take a multivariable calculus class, learn the basics of C++, study the origins of Abrahamic religions, justify the moral behind infidelity in an English writing class, discuss my thoughts on Michael Sandel’s trolley car problem, listen to Behnam Sadeghi analyze the logic of religion scientifically, all in one academic year.

California has been a wonderful place for me, not just academically, but also athletically. I’ve always been athletic since I was very little, and California has plenty of athletic activities to offer. I absolutely love hiking and camping in the national parks here. Having been overseas only a few times before coming to LA, I feel superbly blessed to be able to see and do a myriad of things here and I genuinely hope that everyone else will be able to experience the blessings that I have experienced.

This is Arizona, not California!!

If you have any questions on UCLA, arts, camping, hiking, and other random things, feel free to hit me up! If you’re into hitting the gym (be it lifting and/or cardio) and anything athletic, we’d be good friends too!

Come say hello to me at USAPPS!!! :)

Why The US? – Rachel Leong (University of Pennsylvania ’20)

USAPPS is back and so is our series of insights, musings, and stories from our super excited team of facilitators! What other better way to kick it off with a blog post from none other than our very own core committee member?

Meet Rachel, a current freshman at University of Pennsylvania who is pursuing a major in Actuarial Science and possibly, Finance. Here, she shares -with just the right amount of cantor- why she chose to study in the States and why you should, too!


Why the US?

Not that many people are familiar with my story, so here it is: My whole life, I wanted to study in the U.K. After receiving my SPM results, I toured A-Level colleges in Malaysia and started going through the syllabi (yes, I’m a nerd). It was my lifelong dream to study in England, and I was so close to making it a reality. However, my glee was short-lived because my scholarship provider decided to send me to the U.S. instead.

At that point, I was devastated. Why would I want to study in the U.S.?

After a few weeks of being bummed, I started conducting research about college life in America. I told myself that I would make the most out of the experience. Now, after almost 2 semesters at the University of Pennsylvania, I can confidently say that being sent to the U.S. was a blessing in disguise, and here is why.

1. I can take whatever classes I want to take, and graduate whenever I can

Imagine taking a class on Jay Z and Kanye West or a class that analyzes the Hunger Games. Well, in America, you can!

The flexibility of the education system here is one of the main reasons most students choose to pursue their degrees in the U.S. Here, we aren’t constrained by the major that we declare in our first year, unlike in the U.K. For instance, I’m enrolled in a lot of language classes even though I am a business major. One of my friends is in a Sitar class, and another is in a Yoga class (all for credit!). There is really no limit to what you can do in college classes here.

As for graduating, the recommended period one studies here is 4 years, but depending on when you complete the required number of credits, you can graduate earlier (or later). I know quite a few people who are graduating after 3 years, and some who are graduating after 5 years.

2. The grading system keeps me on my toes

I am someone who loves to study at the last minute. Back in secondary school, I would only open my Sejarah textbook the night before the exam and try to remember as much as I could. Here, with constant quizzes and assignments, I don’t have to cram right before the final exams because I would have studied consistently throughout the semester.


3. The holistic experience

The U.S. system emphasizes holism, so extra-curricular activities are as important as classes. There are out-of-class activities in the U.K. and Australia, too, but there is more emphasis on them here – just look at the university applications, which consider each applicant holistically. There is something for everyone here, whether you want to pitch stocks or want to advocate for LGBTQ rights.

Last semester, I took a class, Management 100 which provided me with so much hands-on experience. In this course, Freshmen are randomly assigned into groups of 10, and have to work with a non-profit organization in Philadelphia to take on a project. My team organized a week-long art show. Some of my friends had to provide management consultation to their clients, while some taught elementary school students.

4. Greek Life (WOHOO!)

Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, it’s not uncommon to see groups of college students walking to the different frat houses on campus. I personally do not enjoy frat parties that much, but I have attended a few just for the experience. They’re fun, especially if you go with a bunch of friends.

Before I came to the U.S., I told myself that I would never be involved in a fraternity or sorority, but guess who’s in a business fraternity now? Me. Professional fraternities aren’t technically considered “greek life” but that’s as ratchet as I’m ever going to be.

All-in-all, being here has been amazing so far, and I’m looking forward to the next few years. Let’s see if I come back with an ang-moh boyfriend.

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