Thursday, May 01, 2008

Apply to the US, says John

A letter to Malaysiakini by a friend of mine, John Lee Ming Keong, who's currently a freshman at Dartmouth, encouraging students to apply to study in the US. I'll reproduce it below. You can read more of his insights at his very well written blog.

Sponsored higher education - think America
John Lee | Apr 30, 08 4:08pm

I note with disappointment the recent controversy here regarding the disbursement of government scholarships and placement in university courses. I believe the policy solutions to these problems are clear enough - any discrimination in university admissions or scholarships ought to be on the basis of income and access to educational opportunities, not race.

The bumiputra may be severely disadvantaged - Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak claimed in 1997 that only 5% of public university students would be Malays if the quota system were to be completely repealed - but this only strengthens the case for discriminating on the basis of actual disadvantages, rather than race, when clearly many bumiputera are not wanting for any opportunities economically or educationally.

However, barring a sudden turnaround in government policy or a wholesale change in the composition of the federal government, it is crucial that individual students be aware of other opportunities available to them should the public purse be unable or unwilling to assist them in their education. Private scholarships are a common form of assistance which many rely on to study, either at local private colleges or in foreign universities.

In spite of this, not many know about private scholarships offered by universities in the United States. Eight American universities, including half of the Ivy League (Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth) will fund the education of any applicant who is admitted, inclusive of tuition, living expenses, etc. Although they require a separate financial aid application, they will not consider ability to pay when making admissions decisions, meaning applicants will be evaluated purely on scholastic merit. All admitted students who choose to attend receive financial aid, mostly scholarships, in proportion to their ability to pay the fees.

Furthermore, many other American universities also offer financial aid to students. However, because they generally do not have the large endowments of other institutions, financial need is a factor in admission, meaning poorer applicants must make up for their inability to pay in academic accomplishments. In spite of this, once the student is admitted, many of these institutions commit to funding their education as much as possible.

I write about this because I have noticed that most students do not even consider the US when deciding where to attend university. Although there are disadvantages with the US system - most universities only offer four-year programmess, and American law degrees are not recognised locally - there is no reason to automatically exclude it from contention. If anything, American universities offer much more affordable educations because of their extensive financial aid programmes for the needy.

There are two main barriers to a good education. The first is intellectual and academic - if you cannot make the cut, you will never get into Harvard or Cambridge. The second is financial - how on earth can you pay for Harvard or Cambridge? Many Malaysians are not wanting for brains, but desperately need financial assistance for their higher education. As someone currently benefiting from financial aid at an American university, I believe this is an opportunity which too many bright Malaysians are passing up. Even if you do not think you can get into Harvard, there is no point in not trying - most universities will even waive the application fees if you can demonstrate financial need - and there are so many other lesser-known but equally great institutions eager to help qualified and talented students obtain a higher education.

I strongly urge all parents, students and educational counselors to re-examine the US university system and the opportunities it offers for bright but economically disadvantaged students. Malaysia has no deficit of intellect, but it is squandering its most promising minds through unequal disbursement of scholarships and placement in university courses. Until we rectify this policy problem, individual Malaysians must find our own way, and one route which is often overlooked is that which lies across the Pacific in the US.

For the past three years, concerned students and alumni have helped organise an annual education fair meant to highlight the educational opportunities available in the US. This year, the fair - USA For Students - is being sponsored by the American Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and will be held this June.

Even if you are unable to attend the fair, the Internet offers many more ways to gather information. Recom, an online forum set up by students, is devoted entirely to educational problems many Malaysians face, from scholarship interviews to applying for placement in local or foreign programmes. Individual university websites also provide a wealth of information on how to apply for financial assistance.

It is not enough for us to rely on the government to spoonfeed us, either in money or education - we must be proactive and learn to help ourselves, if the government is unable to. Malaysia needs all the talent it can get, and we owe it not just to ourselves as individuals, but to ourselves as a nation, to get the best education we can, and to make the most out of ourselves so we can serve our country.


Shawn Tan said...

Good post.

I'd like to add that the main problem is lack of information. I'd gather that the main source of information for students are their school seniors, friends and relatives. As a result, we get students who constantly go for the same few popular scholarships while missing out on lesser known opportunities. There are many organisations from around the world that only offer maybe less than half a dozen scholarships each year and do not advertise widely. It might be a good idea to compile a list of scholarships available and distributing them, maybe through the school counsellors.

Chen Chow said...

Thanks Shawn for your insights.

One of the sites that John highlighted is . It has a scholarship category with 200+ discussion threads on scholarship .

For those of you interested to go to the US Education Fair highlighted by John, it is at . We are looking for as many US Alumni and current students to sign up as facilitators too, for you to share with fellow Malaysians on opportunities/experience at your alma mater.

Juarez Salih Lowe said...

I agree with John Lee's letter. A US education does help train our mind in a different way to the traditional British training so many Malaysians have received.

Many Malaysians would benefit from a US educational experience, either at post graduate or undergraduate level.

For those seeking a post graduate degree, you can even apply for the top universities via MACEE (should you get the grant) which would save the application fee. In fact, once you achieve a certain score on your GMAT, you will be invited to apply for some US institutions (i.e. application waiver).

As a Fulbright Scholar, I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to work and also apply for various financial grant packages from my university. I was also fortunate to have been introduced to some Malaysian alumni who told me which jobs and grants to apply for.

My US experience has helped open my mind and give me useful tools that I try in turn to impart in my classes.

Anonymous said...

1st we need to create an organization that provide information on available scholarship in USA.
2nd Create a network with the Malaysian professor and Malaysian graduate that working in USA.

Last week, my friend told me there were an assistantship available for Master degree in Mathematics. If there is such a website, I could have post this information online. Hence, it's important for us to create an organization for Malaysian students to utilize.

Anonymous said...

Ah but the reality is, once you do have a US education, chances are you won't want to return to Malaysia. It's the land of the free and home of the brave. What more do you want?

Fikri said...

For those who's looking for a more left-field approach to education (actually, right-field, considering where it's positioned on the conventional global map), opportunities are also available in Korea and Japan. They give out a fair amount of scholarships for undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as short-term fellowships and cultural exchange programmes. One such programme is the Art Major Asian scholarship.

Of course, the language is an issue to be dealt with. The Korean programmes tend to provide for some sort of Korean language education, but it's usually no longer than six months. From my experience, this is enough to make good conversation, but you'll need a bit more for the classes. I suspect Japan has similar provisions as well.

And as for mind-opening experiences, I think it's not necessarily a U.S. education or a U.K education that makes you better. I believe that any time you're in a position different to before, either as the outsider or as the foreigner, you'll gain valuable experiences and insights not just to teach others about, but also about yourself.

For that, I advocate Korea. Bloody difficult...but I'm sure it'll come in very handy later on :)

Mathias said...

I do agree with Fikri. There are quite a number of scholarship offered by the Korean university but not many Malaysian are going for it or don't even know about it.

Again, countries like Sweden, Denmark and Norway are also good places for tertiary education. You don't need to learn Scandinavian language as English is widely used.

Anonymous said...

if u're gonna study in da US & A, dun 4get 2 vote 4 hillary clinton!!!

Anonymous said...


There is really no great secret. Most of the info is on the web, though it is of course helpful to have an insider give you some pointers. I gave a talk to some schools in Manjung some time ago and here are my notes from it:

Now that there is the internet things are much easier than they used to be...make use of it! I remember writing away for information when I was applying to colleges in the US and how painfully slow that was...the postman probably thought I ate and slept next to the letterbox...

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, re your comment on assistantships for Maths degrees, one more thing that most people don't seem to know is that is it usually free to do your PhD in the US, especially in the sciences and engineering and especially at top universities. The downside (there is always one, isn't there?) is that it will take you 5-10 years depending on any number of things. For masters and professional degrees, there is comparatively very little funding available.

Ying Khai 穎凱 said...

It is true that not many Malaysians know of the free postgraduate opportunities abroad, especially here in North America. As a result, most of these positions are taken by students from India, China,etc. Also, another main reason that makes many Malaysian students graduated from local U back off from even attempting to apply for US schools is the requirement of GRE/GMAT score. Taking these tests and scoring a decent score is the main obstruction for them.

Anonymous said...

C'mon...this is yet another letter of encouragement from a Malaysian enjoying his life in a US uni without thinking realistically. The problem isn't about getting in. It's about whether you can afford to get in. I'll give you an example:

1) SAT fees - USD68/RM217.60
2) TOEFL - USD150/RM480
3) Application fees - around USD60/RM217.60.

So assuming if you get application fee waivers for all eight ivy league universities (plus MIT maybe), the total cost still comes up to about RM700 - no small amount for students from middle class families who make up the bulk of JPA, BNM, etc scholarship hopefuls. And don't forget the postage fees, etc.

The way I see it is this - you can aim for the top American universities if you want, since they offer the ultimate prize of full rides if you're admitted, but the cost of just trying to gain admission is high enough. And besides, if you can afford to try, then you probably can afford to pay for your entire education at US universities that don't offer full financial aid to foreign students anyway.

John and others like him are just giving people false hope by not stating the 'hidden costs' of trying to gain admission. Most Malaysians I believe will not be willing to take the risk of spending RM700 (maybe more if the uni doesn't allow fee waivers for internationals) merely for a shot at getting a full ride. And it's an extremely long shot too. Don't believe me? I think Harvard's acceptance rate went down to 8% this year!

Anonymous said...

Oh, and before I forget, the TOEFL results are only valid for two years while to be competitive with other applicants, you have to take the SAT II as well, doubling your SAT fees...

Anonymous said...

I think the financial barrier set by US universities i.e. TOEFL+SAT,etc is good point raised. Perhaps some NGO,organisation should take the initiative to set up some small scholarship (a few K) to fund those interested to apply for US universities (covering their SAT/TOEFL/application fees,etc). Provided the students have scored reasonably well in SPM.

BTW why target at Ivy leagues only? Many good liberal art colleges in US have large endowment to fund good students overseas, just to diversify their student body.

The main problem is the lack of information channel for parents and students to know more further study routes.

John Lee said...

I mentioned the Ivies only to draw readers in; if you read the letter again, you'll notice after I point out half the Ivy League is need-blind for undergrad admissions, I don't really mention them again. I tried to be as general as possible, because the point really was to get people to explore opportunities besides those available here and in Oceania/the UK.

There are a lot of caveats and hidden costs, no disputing that - but my purpose was never to encourage people to blindly apply. My intention was to encourage people to consider (you'll notice I used that word quite a few times) alternative educational paths. There are far too many bright students who don't even realise the kind of opportunities available in the US - it's hardly for everyone, but certainly not enough people really consider it.

That's the main reason I did not say "So go ahead and apply for admission in the fall of 2009 at all the need-blind institutions!" Instead I said "Meet with representatives from various American universities, check out online resources, and think about it."

The costs are prohibitive, no question. But admissions offices will often waive the TOEFL if you can show excellent results for the critical reading component of the SAT and/or have a strong English background. The SAT is the only real problem, and if anyone seriously has trouble affording it, I'd recommend talking it over with someone from MACEE (for lack of a better resource). I could have mentioned all this in the letter, but that would only sidetrack us from my main point: considering the US as an option.

As an aside, although the criticism that most Malaysian students at American universities can afford to pay the full fees is a well-placed one, it is hardly applicable to all. I know for sure that I could never have afforded an overseas education without very very substantial financial aid like that which I am getting. From my standpoint, RM700 is money well-invested - others will of course disagree. That's why I didn't advise anyone to blindly apply, but merely to think about it. Not enough people even realise that this opportunity exists.

Anonymous said...

Hi John =) stumbled upon this from google, so this is what you do when you are free, haha!

I read thru the comments and article, and while I am in no position to give opinions on the postgrad application to US, I do know a fair bit of undergraduate application, having done so myself last year (painstakingly).

Cost-wise, reiterating John's point- most unis don't even require a TOEFL now, if you hit the minimum bar they set for the Critical Reading component in the SAT. Further, most unis have already waived their application fee, and I can say that it's only a matter of time that the others follow suit, etc.

I myself never sat for the toefl, nor paid for any application fee for the 10+ applications i sent out (a brief note from the counselor stating financial difficulties will will in most cases provide waiver).

As for the rm200+ for the SAT, scrimp/work/borrow/short-of-stealing; if you want something hard enough, don't let rm200 stand in your way.

Also, while i do agree that there's quite limited MAINSTREAM info on the US education and application, the internet is JUST LOADED with useful stuff, and boy did i have fun trawling innumerable sites night in night out like an addict searching for a fix, when I was in the heat of researching and applying.

I just don't see why an incredibly useful piece of info shared graciously should be met with some of these biting responses. Applicants who HAVE explored the US are not, contrary to what the tone of some comments here, all priviledged and cash-laden.

In fact, it's the complete opposite that prompted me to look towards applying to the states.

PS, off topic- there are, yes, other than the US, heaps of unis in Japan, Korea, France, Europe, other parts of the world, that give out very, very generous (albeit limited) scholarship. My best friend too, for the lack of funds/local choices, had a global worldwide application portfolio (while I only targeted the US), and in the end got offered a full scholarship for a 5-year undergrad AND masters program in France.

See? It's 'bout time we Malaysians grab a bigger share of that pie out there- there's definitely enough to go around!

Anonymous said...

Scandinavian countries do not charge for tuition free. Education is free, and the quality is fairly good. You can survive with english too.

Anonymous said...

Bullcrap anonymous. Anytime I want I can practically pick Rm500 off the street in this country.

America is where people will find it difficult to find and secure a job. This is because the competition is very high. This is probably why there's no "skid row" in this country. The bums living in the park in some American states would have a pretty good life in this country, considering that a lot of them are actually pretty highly educated. At this time, the economy in the US is so bad I can hire an educated, erudite American for something like $1.50 a day, just try that with any Malaysian of the same class and stature.

That being said though, I can make money in this country exactly because of my American education. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, is he not ?

If you're the best in any (capitalist) country, you can always find a job. "I can't afford it" is not an excuse in this country, where you can find a job anywhere you look, and where inflation, even at 7%, is the highest in 27 years.