University of Pennsylvania (UPenn)
💼 Bachelor: Health & Societies
⏳ Aug 2016 — May 2020
✅ Student Visa (F1)
University of Pennsylvania (UPenn)
💰 100% Financial Need Met
🤓 22,000 Students
🌏 24% International
Why I decided to go abroad
In Malaysia, it's pretty common to want to study abroad, especially since the government offers a lot of scholarships. So, since I was a kid, I always knew I wanted to study abroad. My parents were lucky enough to get government scholarships to study in the UK, which was a big deal because they came from modest backgrounds. Their scholarships really changed their lives, and seeing them succeed made me realize that I could do it too. So, from a young age, I knew I wanted to study abroad just like my parents did.
High Schools I attended
When it comes to high school, I actually went to two different schools. In Malaysia, the high school covers the ages of 13 to 17. So, from the ages of 13 to 15, I attended a public day school that was run by the government - your typical school where you come back home after classes. However, when I turned 16, I was invited to attend a government boarding school that was specifically for select students. So, for my last two years of high school, I lived on campus and attended classes there.
How I decided where to study
I was fortunate enough to receive a government scholarship (more on it below) which enabled me to go through three university preparation programs for both the UK and the US. After completing the programs, I applied to universities in both countries and was accepted into a few of them.
But then, I had to make a decision - did I want to pursue an undergraduate degree in the UK or the US? The two systems are vastly different, with very little flexibility in the UK. Once you're accepted for a specific degree, you're pretty much locked in and can't switch to another field. On the other hand, the US education system allows for exploration and flexibility. You only declare your major in your second year, and even then, you can change up your courses to fit your interests.
The main difference between the two systems is that the UK system emphasizes depth in a specific subject, while the US system is built for breadth. Ultimately, I chose to study in the US because I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to pursue yet, and I wanted the freedom to explore different fields of study.
Academics, extracurriculars, and stats
There were a few key things that were important during my high school years. First, there were academics, which was definitely a top priority. Regarding my GPA, we didn't really have a GPA system in Malaysia, so I'm not sure how it would compare to other countries. However, I would say that my academic performance was pretty good, but not exceptional. Maybe around the top 80% of the class, if I had to estimate. Same with SATs - I don't remember the exact score (and we used the old 2400 scale), but it was around the top 80%.
Second, I was really into sports - basketball, and netball, to be specific. I also did some cross-country running, but it was less priority.
Third, I had a lot of leadership opportunities, specifically through the Student Council, which I was a part of all throughout my high school years. And in my last year, I participated in an English debate and represented my school.
But, even with all of these activities, I never made it to the international level of the Olympiads. I only participated in school-level and interschool-level competitions, and maybe a few at the state level. I think it's important to mention this, so that people know that you don't have to be an international Olympiad representative to take advantage of these opportunities.
What helped me get in
If I had to take guess, since I really can't say for certain, I would say that even though I was unsure about what degree I wanted to pursue, I was pretty clear on what my overarching passion was. At the time, my goal was to help increase the ambition and confidence of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and I really enjoyed that kind of work. Even when I was studying at the University of Pennsylvania, I knew that this was the path I wanted to take. Having a clear vision of what I wanted to do helped me stay focused on my studies and kept me going.
The interview was also crucial in my acceptance. During the interview process, I made sure to be real and honest about myself. I didn't try to be someone I'm not - I just wanted to be the best version of myself. I know it's a bit cliché, but it's really true.
Scholarship by the government of Malaysia
While it is possible to apply for financial aid from Upenn, I received a scholarship from the government of Malaysia. I'm not allowed to disclose the exact amount of money I received, but I can say that the scholarship was fully funded and it was called the Khazanah Global Scholarship. I applied for it after taking SPM, which is the final exam you take after high school.
The application process was quite long and involved several stages. When I applied about six years ago, the process started with an application form, followed by a writing assessment and an online game that tested both IQ and EQ. The fourth stage was a group interview where all the finalists were brought together for a joint interview. And the final two stages were one-on-one interviews. It was definitely a lengthy process, but I'm grateful for the opportunity it gave me.
Once you finish your studies, you are required to return home and work in Malaysia for a few years, which is a bonding period.
Experience at Upenn
UPenn is often associated with its business school, Wharton, which has a great reputation. But the university has a lot more to offer than just that. In my opinion, there are three main factors that make UPenn a great place to study. The first is academics - the quality of classes and professors is simply top-notch. One of the unique features of UPenn is that they have several different schools, including the School of Engineering, Nursing, Design and Business, and Arts and Sciences. As a student, you have the opportunity to take classes in all of these different schools, which is amazing.
The second factor is co-curriculars. There are so many different societies and clubs to choose from, so you're bound to find something that you're interested in. The diversity of clubs is really impressive and it's a great way to get involved on campus.
Lastly, the support services at UPenn are outstanding. The career advisors are amazing, and their fellowship services are phenomenal. They even have a dedicated person to handle applications for Rhodes, Gates, Chevening, and other fellowships. In my experience, the support services really helped me achieve my goals, and I believe that they're a big part of why I was able to receive the Rhodes scholarship (another post coming soon!)
How to survive US college as an international student
There are a couple of things that come to mind when thinking about advice for students studying in a foreign country. First and foremost, be patient with yourself. Adjusting to a new country and culture is not easy and it takes time. It's important to understand that things will get better over time and not to put too much pressure on yourself to excel right away.
The second piece of advice is to find your community. For me, finding the Muslim Students’ Association was a game changer. Having that group of people who shared my background and beliefs became my rock and made me feel more at home. It's important to put yourself out there and try to find people who share your interests or background. This could be through classes, clubs, or any other social events. It can be tempting to retreat into yourself when feeling nervous, but pushing yourself to socialize and find your community can make all the difference. So, be patient with yourself and put yourself out there to find your community.