By Lim Hui Yuan
Disclaimer: I’m speaking as a student who did IB during the November session. The timeline and rigour may be a little different from those who are doing the May session.
The university application is one of the first few applications that we have to overcome in our life, preceding the more daunting job applications. There are ways around it. Get yourself familiar with the application process and, at the same time, prepare yourself with your predicted grades (do well for your mocks!). Show the admission officers what you’ve got in your personal statements and potential interviews.
I admit, I’m no genius at conquering the quest of the university application. I remember how my mind tangled into knots, deciding which university to apply and where to eventually enroll. Trust me; I’ve been in your spot. These are by no means the best tips but, at least, these are a few challenges I went through. I hope to share them with you, just like how I wished someone would’ve told me when I was in the same shoes.
1) Deadlines. Deadlines. Don’t miss your deadlines!
Missing deadlines means that you are passing up opportunities. This could be bountiful scholarships that could ease your financial burden or precious admission offers to your favourite university. Depending on your exam session, you may be only a few weeks shy of your deadlines. For example, I did my IB examinations during the November session. After that, I intended to continue pursuing my studies in the subsequent year without taking a gap year (it’s totally fine if you take a gap year; just be sure you’re aware of your plans and goals for the future!).
“Missing deadlines means that you are passing up opportunities.”
By the time I was done with the exams, the University of Otago’s October deadline for February intake has long passed. The Australian universities like the University of Melbourne have two intakes each year: February and July. However, some courses, such as biomedical science, are only available for February intake. Missing the deadline meant that I would have to wait for another year if I insisted on going to that university.
2) Write a timeline. Plan ahead.
With deadlines in mind, write a rough timeline of what you need to accomplish at each different timepoint. Going backwards in time will give you a good sense of how much room you have to work on each part of the application. You might want to start writing your personal statement draft a month before the deadline.
You don’t want to be swamped with all the university applications at once. It is difficult to show how passionate you are if you have to write thousands of words on what you aspire to be and what you want to learn about on a time crunch. Here’s a useful guide and timeline to writing a personal statement from the UK’s UCAS system.
3) Deciding upon which universities to apply.
This is another maze in itself. There are so many universities in every corner of the world. Which one would I want to apply to? After all, the application fees are not cheap!
My advice would be to use a spreadsheet and list down the potential universities that you are interested in. Take into accounts of the factors that might matter to you, such as the tuition fee, availability of scholarship or financial aids, location and culture. Another factor that many look at is the reputation of the university, often based on ranking and employability. However, there are many ranking systems out there, so be wary of their methodology and pay attention to what matters to you the most.
Just be strategic about the universities that you apply: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Also, be sure to apply for a nice mix of reach schools, and those you’re sure that you’ll get into as a safety plan.
4) Deciding which major or degree.
Some people may be passionate and enthusiastic about a certain degree and know what they want from a young age. If you’re like me, someone who has a broad range of interests and didn’t know what to major in, then try to look for degrees that offer some flexibility.
“Your degree doesn’t necessarily dictate which field you work in”
More often than not, universities do allow for a transfer of major or later declaration of major. There are more universities following the footsteps of the American “liberal arts” philosophy, where general education of multiple common subjects precedes your major. The same applies to many universities in the United Kingdom too. For my faculty, we are given the opportunity to explore before deciding which field to major in. I entered university intending to major in biological sciences only to change direction to molecular biology and biotechnology.
Here, I’ll also let you in on a little secret. At the end of the day, your degree doesn’t necessarily dictate which field you work in. For example, majoring in biology doesn’t mean that I’ll be a biologist or a biology teacher in the future. Career pathways are more flexible nowadays. Employers are more concerned about your skillset: analytical, critical, soft skills rather than the plain concepts you’ve learned from your textbooks. Thus, it doesn’t matter whether I’m only studying cells now. I could still venture into the financial industry (given that I am willing to learn more about the field) if I have the right skillsets.
5) Talk to someone about your decision.
You could have this conversation with your parents, siblings, seniors and counsellors. They are the ones who have been through the process and know better.
Although there may be cases where your parents are against your decision, (make sure that you do talk to them!). Sometimes when you speak to someone about your thoughts, you might realise that all along you have a choice in mind, you just weren’t sure about it.
Ask your seniors or counsellors for some interview and application tips. My senior was kind enough to send me his personal statement as a reference so that I know what to include and what not to include. They’ve been through the application processes hundreds of times—every year.
6) When the offer (or rejection) comes.
In the case of receiving rejection letters, the first refusal will occur as a pang into your heart, but you’ll soon forget about it when other opportunities come up. Don’t give up and don’t lose hope!
“It’s what you do at the university that matters most”
On the other hand, when you receive many offer letters, it can be challenging to decide which university to enroll into. For this, my teacher once told me that when you think you’ve made the right decision or at least the best decision then, your heart will feel light and you’ll feel relieved the moment you’ve made the decision. I thought that was quite useful.
Besides that, don’t worry too much about which university you end up going to. In fact, it’s what you do at the university that matters most, more so than the college that you go to.
And one last and most important thing is never to regret whatever decision you’ve made. Move on and look forward. For either choice you choose, there will be times when you lament, “Ah… if only I went to XXX”. When that time comes, I hope you can pat yourself on the back and tell yourself, “You did well. And that’s the best decision that you could make at that point in time.”
I hope that these tips can put your mind at ease and help you conquer the quest of university application smoothly. Just shoot your shot; there’s no harm trying. It’s the university that gains by accepting you. 😉
Lim Hui Yuan is a graduate of Hwa Chong International School, Singapore. She is currently pursuing her degree in science, specifically a major in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, at the University of Hong Kong. She likes to experiment with new things and loves dancing and cooking. Also, you can find her binge-watching dramas most of the time.
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