By AMANDA NG YANN CHWEN
FOR our generation of young Malaysians, we are possibly united by no bigger headache than the challenge of getting into university.
What to study? Where should I go? What if my family doesn’t have enough money? How do I choose what I want to do for the rest of my life … at the age of 18?
For me, the experience of trying to get into university definitely had its share of unpleasant moments.
But since being accepted by an American university last December, I look back on the four-year-long journey of soul searching, and realise that I have learnt buckets through the process.
Among these lessons, the one that comes to mind quickest is: heart.
Heart, meaning doing everything with all the sincerity, thought and energy you can muster – with all your heart – and reaching out to people who are going through similar challenges.
It was only through this tough process that I managed (or was forced) to learn the most important, life-altering things.
In other words, the headache was worth it!
A series of fortunate events
It all started four years ago, when I’d wandered onto Harvard University’s website.
Quickly, I learnt terms like “need-based financial aid” for international students – “You mean they’ll pay me to attend their school even if I can’t afford it, if they like me enough?!”
Previously, I had never considered pursuing an education anywhere but on local shores, because of financial circumstances.
And suddenly, a whole new world of possibilities had thrown open its doors.
On top of that, I realised how flexible the American education system is.
Many US schools take the “liberal arts” approach – to “liberate” or free the mind, by opening it to various disciplines, and encouraging students to connect different fields of knowledge.
A liberal arts education isn’t about studying for four years to get a piece of paper; it is about lifelong learning, a skill that makes you more competitive, adaptable and appreciative of the world.
Our fast-moving world is becoming more interdisciplinary, with all the different kinds of professions out there.
So, it’s now extremely important to know things beyond our own fields.
And did you know, applicants to US universities don’t need to know what they want to pursue from the start?
You explore everything first and only declare your major at the end of your second year!
No dream too big
The American university application process can be a little daunting (at first), but the good thing is they take a “holistic” approach to admissions. Every applicant is evaluated based on a number of factors, including academic achievements, extra-curricular involvement and personality.
An application usually comprises academic transcripts, standardised test scores, extra-curricular records, recommendation letters, personal essays and background information.
During the application process, many of us are told to find ways to “be different” and “stand out”, to increase our chances of being accepted.
But aren’t you already a unique individual? How could you be anyone else but yourself?
I believe building a great application isn’t about overloading on activities to make your CV more impressive.
Admissions officers can tell if you’re genuinely interested in what you’re doing, or simply resume-building.
Rather, it’s simply about telling a genuine, compelling story about you. In other words, you gotta have heart, and make sure it shows in your application.
You should be doing the things you love and are genuinely interested in. Once you manage to find the right things and invest time and energy in them, your passion and interests will naturally shine through in your application, and you will have a more compelling story to tell.
The beauty of the American admissions process is that these schools are interested in YOU. They want to know who you are, what you’re passionate about, what makes you happy or angry, and who you may just become in the future.
The path I chose is not common among Malaysians. I knew very few people who were willing to take the same risk.
But I was fortunate enough to find support through the overly-excited, exceedingly warm, and often loud young Malaysians of USAPPS.
USAPPS is a non-profit organisation that conducts annual workshops run entirely by Malaysian volunteers currently studying in American colleges.
At the two-day workshop at Taylor’s Lakeside Campus last year, I learnt about the types of American schools, application procedures, financial aid, interview tips from real interviewers, essay-writing and more.
But the real takeaway was this – I became part of the incredibly supportive USAPPS community (which is full of incredibly supportive people), forming connections that would last long after the workshop.
The USAPPS people don’t get any money out of it, but they do so much because they want more Malaysians to experience what they have – a great education in the US, and all the opportunities that come with it.
This year, I will be on the other side of USAPPS, as a facilitator at their workshops on July 19 and Aug 9-10. I am humbled to be able to be there, and to have “Tufts University, Class of 2018” written on my sticker.
For more info, check out USAPPS.org.
This BRATs writer will be heading to Tufts University, Massachusetts in August to pursue Peace Studies, Literature and “something cool” she doesn’t know yet. She hopes to use her education to someday help make her tanah air a little better.