Sunday, 25 September 2016

PI: Reflection & Life—If, if, if…

Here is an opinion piece on the US admission by an anonymous writer, who likes to remind everyone to pray for the best and prepare for the worst. 

Reflection & Life—If, if, if…

TL;DR: Start early, as early as you are one; pray hard for inspiration and luck, as hard as it will make you win the lottery.  

If I could start my U.S. universities’ application all over again, I would choose to prepare since I was seven years old.
Yes, seven.

At that age, unfortunately, I never thought going to the U.S. was possible given the expensive tuition fees, which cost approximately 1 mil MYR. But when I started to think about applying to the U.S., everything was too late.

Holistic admission

During Form 5, a friend of mine, who was a U.S. graduate gave a few of my friends some insights into the U.S. application. How intimidating! My first impression was the tough application and admission game. One needs exceptional grades, exceptional extracurricular activities, exceptional SAT scores, exceptional teacher’s recommendation letters. I thought had none of the aforementioned criterion. Soon, I gave up.

If I ever start to prepare for the SAT and involve in research or any international extracurricular activity.

Two years before application cycle

I told another friend who is studying in U.S. about my intention in applying to U.S. top universities. He said it is too late now. Everything was almost in place already. The only thing that could change my fate was the essay. I thought about it, why not just settle for U.K.? I had never been a terrific writer too. Again, I gave up.

If I ever read more during my childhood and practise more on writing.

The silver lining

The clarion call was “Oh see! JPA scholarship allows you to pursue your dream. (Not the case anymore.)”

Of all the research I have done, I realised there is only one point that would highly increase one’s chance to gain admission—his or her passion. And this attribute could shine through by crafting a killer essay. Essays were said to weigh the heaviest in assessing a candidate’s success in gaining admission. Admission officers (AOs) may agree, but some may not, claiming that they look a candidate’s overall statistics. Essays matter. But I guess you still need to have exceptional results before AOs bother to see your essays. The easiest way out is to be an Olympic athlete. Recruited athletes generally have average statistics and mediocre essays. Unfair as it may seem but they have a special ability (or superpower to the university) to offer, do you?

If at the age of seven, I started training competitively for any sport, be it badminton, running, tennis etc.

A year before application cycle

I then became serious about applying to the U.S.. This was the time when I started to prepare for the application.

Grades aside, it was time to be the next Charles Dickens.

I bought books related to university application essay writing and sample essays from people who were accepted to Harvard. If you do so, get ready to be disappointed. The essays did not offer me much insight. They were mediocre. But let me assure you those people could probably have astronomical achievements. Apart from having perfect CGPA and SAT scores, he ran marathons in Olympic; he built a billion-dollar company; he played in Carnegie Hall; he built a nuclear reactor; he built houses for Africans; he won the champion for Google Science fair; he is fluent in German, Russian, French, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese and English. What is scarier than all the he’s I mentioned were the same guy—the guy who saved the world, Superman.

Don’t be shocked. He was groomed this way since he was three, or was it two years old?

Ponder over the head-start he had over you, how can you compete with him?

Survivorship bias

Be warned: do not fool yourself into believing stories telling you how lucky someone who managed to gain admission into MIT despite having average grades. Think rationally. Let’s assume MIT’s admission rate is 5%. Among the 1,700 students who were admitted, 10% are international students, which is 170 students. If MIT receives approximately 10,000 international applications.

What is the admission rate?

How can you stand out among the 10,000 applicants?
“My story is unique”, “I might be lucky”, “I heard that Lin Zhi Ping got in with an SAT of 2100, my score is 2390, I should stand a chance”.

The Harry Potter series has always been a best seller. J.K. Rowling is a marvellous author! But in truth, for every J.K. Rowling, there are 100 writers who never had their books on the best seller list. And for every of the 100 writers, there are 1,000 writers who never had their books published. And for every of the 1,000 writers, there are 10,000 writers who are dreading to complete their masterpiece. And for every of the 10,000 writers, there are 100,000 writers who are thinking of writing a book.

You only hear of J.K. Rowling. It’s entirely not your fault: the society made us perceive it this way, whereby you only heard of success stories, but never heard of people who tried so hard yet failed. These people do exist. They do.

Of course, you should not be penalized for thinking so. In fact, for every student who scored 2100, there may be 10 students who scored 2400 who were rejected, and the list goes on and on…
Everything boils down to luck. We never know what the AOs are looking for, but I am inclined to think that they are trying to build a diverse class of people. Keep this in mind.

And he cuts short at here abruptly, probably more to come. 

((Secretly I think he wishes everyone the best in their applications!

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

PI: How to Cambridge

Today we have a post by Lim Yi Heng, an incoming Cambie freshie.
A timely article for the Cambridge application season.

Tips on getting into Cambridge

by Lim Yi Heng

I have always wanted to study at a good university when I was little and the notion was strengthened when I came across the photos of Cambridge University, arguably one of the best universities in the world. The medieval buildings, singular traditions and the supervision system unique to only a few universities in the U.K. are the factors that make me so fixated on the prospect of studying at Cambridge. Along the journey of my application, I had received help and advice from seniors studying there for which I am very grateful, and I hope with this essay, I may be able to help the future applicants a little. I applied to read Engineering at Christ’s College, and the conditions that I was offered were A* in Further Maths, A*/A in Chemistry and Physics in either order, and grade 1 in STEP 1. I will expound on 3 key points here, namely the entrance test, the interview, and STEP. 

1) The entrance test for whoever applies to Engineering AND chooses to be interviewed in Malaysia consists of 2 parts, first of which is a 1.5 hour Thinking Skill Assessment (TSA) and second of which is a 0.5 hour essay. The TSA is essentially similar to what you may have learnt in A-Levels Thinking Skill, but perhaps the questions are designed in a more convoluted way. You may find the past papers here (only Section 1). (Disclaimer: I do not know what’s the difference between Cambridge and Oxford TSA section one, but I personally think they're the same and I did them as practice). You may also find the A-Levels past papers useful. While for the essay, it is related to your field of study, and you will be given 5 different topics (all related to your field of study, which is, in this case, Engineering) from which you have to choose 1. I did not prepare much for the essay back then, but now I feel that reading The Economist may be of great help. 

2) The interview is normally 20-minute long, in which you will be asked academic questions. For me, the interviewer started by asking me some stuff I wrote in personal statement and COPA (some of which were academic while the others were not), perhaps to calm me down a little. I believe many of you will be intimidated by the thought of making some silly mistakes in the interview and fear that that will ruin your chances of getting in. However, based on my personal experience, I think the interviewer has already expected you to make some mistakes due to the solemn atmosphere and the nervousness of the interviewees. In my case, if I remember correctly, out of 7 or 8 questions that I was asked, I was initially wrong in 3 of them. However, as cliche as it may sound, try working out your solution so that the interviewer knows what you are doing (like what I did), raise any questions that you would like to seek clarification, and from there the interviewer will guide you. The first problem that the interviewer gave me was to draw a very simple graph based on the equation he gave (which was actually kind of an introductory graph in A-Levels Further Maths) but I flopped the question. However, I did tell the interviewer what problem did I face and he gave me a hint, and from there I solved the question.The last question that the interviewer asked me was something we learnt in SPM. I don’t know which went wrong (natural physics principle or Malaysian education) but apparently what we learnt in SPM was wrong. Strangely, I somehow kept telling the same answer to the interviewer repeatedly however many times he hinted me and guided me to reach the answer and halfway through the struggle, he said something like (I’m not too sure though!) “I tried to teach you but you seemed to hold on to the principle you knew and not let me teach”, to which I responded by asking him to repeat the entire hints again and fortunately from there I found the right answer to the problem. After that, when he continued asking me questions related to the principle, again I gave the initial wrong answer! However, I guess the interviewer understood that interviewees might be nervous so some mistakes could be excused. 

3) STEP is the acronym for Sixth Term Examination Paper, and it consists of 3 papers, namely STEP 1, STEP 2, and STEP 3. For engineers who apply to Christ’s College (and for some who apply to Peterhouse), you will need to sit for STEP 1. The required grade is normally 1 (which is the second highest grade), and the past papers can be found online. Do not be set aback when you first practise on the papers, they are really difficult. Assign at least half an hour for a question and try to figure out the solution without referring to the answers. However, do trust your instinct, if you feel you can by no means solve a particular question (for it is related to a particular field of maths which you are not good at), then you may very well skip that and look at the solution. Each of the 3 STEP papers is a 13-question and 3-hour paper, which includes 8 pure maths questions, 3 mechanics questions, and 2 statistics questions. 20 marks are allocated to each question with the absolute maximum score caps at 120. With that said, the examiners will mark all the questions that you attempt, but only the marks of the 6 questions in which you score higher will be counted.

When there is a will, there really is a way. Have confidence in yourself and you will do fine. You do not have to be top in your class or even school to be able to stand a chance to get an offer. To be frank, I wasn't even the top student in my class alone back in A-Levels as the competition was so intense, but eventually I am fortunate to have received an offer (a total of 3 students including me from my class received an offer, and few others were pooled). As such, I hope whoever wants to apply to Cambridge do not stress yourself too much to emerge top, as long as you put in the effort in your study and are determined to study there, after all, they don't just accept only one student, right?

And that's the Golden tip being given by this incoming Cambridge fresh grad, work hard and never underestimate yourself!

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

PI: From A-level to UM

I can't help it. Whenever I think of lawyers, I only think of this guy:

Phoenix Wright - objecting since 2001

However, real-life law is much different from the logic defying world of "Ace Attorney". Let Jean Lee bring you through her UM Law interview experience, which is grounded in the real world and is unique as she uses her A-Level qualification to apply for the course. This is information is useful for those who are holding A-Levels and/or AUSMAT certificates, as Jean has proven that it is possible to get into UM with those qualifications. So read up, who knows if you'll be the next Ace Attorney :)

From A-level to UM: Law Interview Experience

by Jean Lee

Yes, I’m offered to read Law in University of Malaya, one of the top public universities in Malaysia. This post will be a recount of my application and interview experience; I sincerely hope it will be helpful for those who desire to get into UM.

I know it sounds bizarre; instead of Matriculation or STPM, I did my A-level in Sunway College under MOE’s bursary programme. Applying to public universities was my last resort as I had my eyes on Top 20 universities in the world. Unfortunately, in case you haven’t heard, the JPA scholarship was suspended out of the blue, and my dream to step into LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science) shattered. Poof! Studying locally is my only option now, and it’s crucial to make the best choice.

As a prospective law student, I preferred enrolling into CLP-exempted schools. Why? CLP, aka Certificate in Legal Practice, must be taken if one wishes to practise law in Malaysia. It’s definitely more affordable than UK bar schools, but it’s difficult to pass as well. I’ve heard stories of law students not being able to be called to the Malaysian bar after failing the paper thrice. Ba-dum-tss. I’m only familiar with two CLP-exempted institutions, namely UM and MMU(Multimedia University). The other institutions comprise a few public universities I’ve never really heard of. Of course, it’s advisable to do more research on your own. If you think you’re able to handle CLP, you’re more than welcomed to opt for other private universities.

I wasn’t really sure (more like, I have no idea) how UPU works so don’t drop me any enquiries. I took the risk and only applied for UM (around April). I did get an offer from MMU after paying RM1500 but ended up not going there. RM500 forfeited, that’s like more than half of my salary. Disclaimer : IF YOU HAVE A WEAK HEART AND CAN’T TAKE THE RISK, DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS. Back to the application process. It’s free-of-charge, hassle-free and you can submit your application straight to UM’s website. MUET is an entry requirement for Law, so make sure you have Band 4. To be honest, I applied with IELTS, but was given a chance to attend the interview. I didn’t escape MUET entirely; it became an exit requirement (gotta sit for the test before graduating) so I took it in July. Let’s not stray from the topic. Applicants are required to select at least 2 choices; I chose Law as my first and randomly picked Business Admin as my second. Yes, just 2. Disclaimer: DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS IF YOU DO NOT HAVE THE COURAGE. I REPEAT, DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS DANGEROUS ACT.

UM notified me the interview session in between end of May and early June. It’s advisable to check your application portal( from time to time so that you wouldn’t miss it. I was amused when UM denied me of an interview for my second choice; well it didn’t matter anyway. The interview was in late June, and if you intend to do Law in UM, please make preparations beforehand. Ensure that you’re aware of the current issues and try to articulate your own views. Critical thinking and rationality come in handy here. A few more tips before I discuss the questions asked during the interview. I’m not going into the cliche “be yourself” advice. I never found it helpful, and let’s not erase the possibility that the douchey side of yourself could be destructive. If you’re an extremely nervous person, don’t be yourself. Pretend you’re calm; superb acting skills are a bonus. The interviewers do not know you personally so make use of the drama club training. Hide it well. Rumour has it that imagining your audience naked helps, so no harm trying that too. Most importantly, show them that you’re confident and aware of what you’re talking about. It’s okay if you think that they disagree with you; being firm on your stand is a quality they’re looking for. Oh, as for the dress code, wear something appropriate and professional. Refrain from wearing jeans and sneakers; you’re a future lawyer, not a dancer.

The interview started off with the basic questions you can google. Describe yourself, why this course, why this institution, etc. Pretend you’re a product. Market yourself. I remembered how my voice cracked once I opened my mouth. That’s embarrassing. My interviewers were a man and a woman-the former spoke Malay whereas the latter spoke English. Interviewers have the choice to converse in either of the two languages so I advise you to brush up both. It wasn’t compulsory to reply in the same language but for impression’s sake, do it. Throughout the interview, I was asked:

  1. To discuss a recent (legal) issue in the nation
  2. The importance of history
  3. The advantages of sports
  4. The reasons why I took science subjects in A-level
  5. If memory serves me right, these were the only questions.

They were very mind-torturous. Especially the first question. Initially, I was asked about an issue in my own state (NS), but the interviewer altered it when I said there’s nothing to talk about. I chose the deaths of detainees as my topic of discussion. The struggle was real. I answered awkwardly in Malay, but hey, at least I made good points. Content>Elaboration. Just don’t beat around the bush. Brace yourself to be bombarded with 5W1H questions; this is why it’s important to be cautious with everything you mention during the interview. Be honest with yourself and don’t let the interviewers’ questions startle you. If you require time to ponder on a certain question, they will be more than pleased to allow you to do so. Well-thought answers triumph over empty talks.

That’s all folks. I received the result on 8th of August, and was really surprised they want me. If I’m not mistaken, UM announced last year that they welcome A-level and AUSMAT students. Good things are worth the try😉 .

PS: If there’s anyone who’s curious about how I answered, do drop me a comment. I’ll get back to you personally.

Do you like the way Jean blogs, or do you want to find out more about her? Visit her blog here.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Translation

The Translation

Fact of the day: College Admission Officers can't read Malay. 

Not trying to be Captain Obvious here, but most of us would have forgotten that in Malaysia, where people usually speaks in 3 tongues and that hybrid language is acceptable. In the case of overseas college application, we need to ensure our documents are all in English for the English-speaking universities we are applying to. (This does not only apply to the US)

So you will need to translate your documents, following these few steps:

1. Translate it word for word. This is a no-brainer, but some will forget to do so, thinking that it is better to have a beautifully worded and poetic document instead. Really, there is no need for us to translate documents into Haiku which the officers the officers will only see the content in it. Time is better spent catching pokemon.

2. Mirror it from your original document. If the officers can't read the original document, then how does he/she comes to understand which paragraph are you translating? Hence, we need to not only translate it word for word for ease of understanding, but also mirror the format in the original document so that the admission officer can understand our logic in translation.

3. Use the official translation. Sometimes, although our Malaysian Lembaga Peperiksaan (examination syndicate) can be a bit cringeworthy in their translation i.e. an A+ in SPM is a super distinction? Come on! It looks like they have tried so hard in making the grade sound superior. The examination syndicate is another example, we can't just rename it the examination board as we please. Official is official and it is best to follow what it says, however wrong it sounds to you.

4. When you are unsure of a word, use the least controversial. There had been times in translating our application document that me and my friends couldn't agree on a word, and we would resolve the issue by using the word that wouldn't be misunderstood. For example, in the moral values assessment in your report card, what would you translate for kekemasan (neatness)? Neatness, hygiene and cleanliness were 3 words we debated to use. While almost in the same spirit, hygiene and cleanliness could mean different things such as personal hygiene. Hence, it is always safer to use a word without a double entendre.

The Verification

After translation, the next step would be the verification of the documents, where a couple of things would have to be noted as well:
Not just anyone can "chop and sign"

1. Never stamp your document with a Malay stamp. Speaking from experience, I've been through this before. It is hilarious when sudden realization hits you that the document you have painstakingly translated into English is disahkan benar (verified) in Malay by your principal. If your school doesn't provide an English stamp, don't worry, just write verified true copy and ask your principal to stamp and sign below.

2. Ask the right authority. In Malaysia, Bolehland, anyone with a higher authority can verify that a document is true, such as your village head, your local municipal head, teachers, etc. etc. However, more formally, only the head of the institution should sign the document for you and it should be appropriate as well, meaning that secondary school principal should only verify secondary school documents and A-Levels director verify only A-Levels documents.

That's my brief tips on how to translate documents. Oh ya, and never, ever leave it in the hands of Google Translate.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

PI : How to prep for IChO

Finally something that breaks from the monotony of  writing about universitiy applications, IChO. After trying it out when my friend jio'ed me to, I find it to be a wonderful experience although I just managed to enter the 3rd phase qualifiers. With many encouraging seniors with their TLC (Tender Loving Care) who always bring us out to dinner (Yes Ze Kai and Ching Koon) as well as the chance to go overseas. it was definitely fun to try it out. So here are the tips from one of my good friend, Lin Zi Khang, two times IChO bronze medallist.

IChO- Tips and advice

By Lin Zi Khang

Warning: this post is not for the average man
Only for those who love chemistry and has a heart of steel


International Chemistry Olympiad (hereafter known as IChO) is an annual chemistry competition held for talented high school students around the globe. The Olympiad comprises two parts, theoretical and practical. The theoretical exam is given a weight of 60% while the practical exam makes up the remaining 40%. Each country is allowed to send a delegation of 4 students, accompanied by mentors.

Tips for Preparation

Stage 1: Knowledge Accumulation

In this article, I will make the following assumption: Most of the readers are Malaysian students not exceeding the age of 20 by 1st July of the competition year and are currently studying in any high school or pre-university institution in Malaysia.

First thing the readers should bear in mind is that the whole IChO training and team selection process is run by the Department of Chemistry of University Malaya (UM). However, I must break some bad news to the readers: the training provided by UM every year is very limited (4 days in total for IChO 2016) so be prepared to do A LOT of self-study. By a lot, I really mean A LOT. To get what I mean, try google some past year questions of IChO theoretical paper. If you find yourself struggling to even understand the questions, this is an indication that you have a lot of reading ahead of you to do.

So good, now you sit yourself down at a study table with a few sheets of neatly stacked A4 papers and sharpened pencils, ready to hit the books, but where do you even start? For beginners, the variety of  books available for selection is very huge, you are free to choose any chemistry textbook which provides you a reasonable grounding in Chemistry knowledge, but here’s a few of my favourite:

General Chemistry: 

    He would tell you a good chemistry joke,
    but the good ones are Argon
  • Any good traditional STPM (pre-modular system) should suffice. I personally used “Ace Ahead: STPM Chemistry” but I am sure there are better alternatives. By the end of your study, you should have a good grasp of topics in Thermochemistry, Electrochemistry, Basic Structure and Reactions, Kinetics and Equilibrium.

Physical Chemistry: 

  • I recommend “Schaum 3000 problems in Chemistry”. In this book you will cover all the major aspects of physical chemistry, including aspects of the much dreaded advanced equilibrium - topics from charge and mass balance. While studying, you should make sure you understand every question. Prepare to be creative especially when it comes to questions concerning multiple equilibria. Instead of sorting through the mess of solving six simultaneous equations, is there any simplifying assumptions you can make? (You must however, be able to justify any assumptions if you make them!) On the other hand, on kinetics question, which step is rate-determining? What can you assume about the intermediate concentration, is it in steady state? Remember, while you might think that physical chemistry involves a lot of mundane calculations, the reality is always very different. If you find yourself mindlessly solving an extremely complicated system of equations, then chances are, you are doing it wrongly. There are better and more elegant approaches.

  • For the more technical aspects of thermodynamics and quantum chemistry, the Physical   Chemistry book by Atkins is pretty good. Bear in mind though, don’t get bogged down by too much theoretical knowledge, oftentimes they are not tested in IChO, especially these few last years when the questions are increasingly geared towards aspects of creative problem solving.

Organic Chemistry: 

  • A very good intro-level book would be Organic Chemistry as A Second Language 1& 2. These books should give you a solid grounding in basic organic mechanisms. After that, you can proceed to the holy grail of all undergraduate level organic chemistry book- the famous book by Clayden et. Al. The initial learning curve is likely to be steep if you have done little organic chemistry before, but try to persevere. The intellectual payoff you reap later will be huge, believe me.

  • It might seem to you that some people are just naturally more talented in Organic Chemistry than the others. While I acknowledge this reality (some people, like one of my friend, are just better in spatial visualization- figuring out molecules conformations effortlessly in their brain), there’s only one way you can get better: by reading and practising more!

Inorganic Chemistry:

  • Unfortunately, since I am quite poor in this area, I am not sure whether I am the right person to offer any advice. Personally, I find the book “Inorganic Chemistry” written by Glen E Rodgers quite helpful. Some people have attested to the effectiveness of the book by Wilkinson et. Al., but I have not the chance to verify it.

Stage 2: Problem Solving

  • Now that you are reasonable well-versed in several areas of chemistry, it is time to hone your problem solving skills. Remember, the problems in IChO are nowhere as direct as those you find in a typical textbook, so don’t be discouraged if you fail to solve a problem! For starters, you may find the preparatory problems from 1997 and 1998 a rather good introduction to the easy questions you can expect in IChO. There are a few points to bear in mind though:

  • Bear in mind that in IChO, you will be solving 8 or 9 questions in 5 hours so there’s time pressure. You might think that 5 hours is a lot of time but don’t be deceived!

  • Don’t be discouraged if you cannot solve a question. Try not to look at the solution until you are pretty sure that the solution is beyond you. After looking at the solution, try to figure out the central idea of the question. Which part of the question have you overlooked? Have you misunderstood anything? Remember, you can only improve if you take the initiative to learn from your mistakes.

  • Work neatly, especially when a question involves calculations. You don’t want to get lost in a mess of calculations later on. It also makes things easier for your graders.

  • It is often a good idea to set aside some time every week in your schedule for problem-solving. Try to determine the optimum time for yourself. Too much problem solving in a short time isn’t good as you risk overloading your brain. It is important to allow your brain enough time to appreciate the trick behind solving a problem and let it “connect the dots”.

  • As for sources of problems, you can find the download links for all past year questions at For a change in pace, you might also like to try the National Exam from US and Australia.

Tips for qualifying rounds

  • Every year, UM host a few rounds of selection to determine the final 4 students who will represent Malaysia in IChO. The first round typically comprises 30 MCQ questions. The syllabus for round 1 is very slightly above the core for STPM or A Levels syllabus. Nevertheless, get prepared for any eventuality. Answer fast as there’s time constraint (1 hour 30 minutes) and make sure you shade every bubble even if you do not know the answer!

  • For the second round, you will typically write a subjective paper which is of 4-5 hours length. The questions are drew from all aspects of Chemistry an undergraduate student is expected to know. It would be very bad if you are facing a knowledge deficit at this point, so  make sure your knowledge is up to par!

  • For the third round selection, students will typically be invited to a 1 weeks residential stay in UM. Practical and theoretical training will be held and there will be a selection test at the end of the camp. IMPORTANT: Make sure you know the material covered at the camp very well. Unfortunately, while some topics covered by the lecturers are unlikely to be asked in IChO, you must still know them if you want to qualify for IChO. There’s no way around this.

  • For the final round selection, all the advice from second and third round selection holds. You will likely be sitting a 5 hour paper at the end of the selection. Hopefully by now you have already formulated your own exam-taking and study strategies.

Tips for IChO

General Tips

  • Socialize! Don’t be a recluse, especially after the competition ends.  It is not every day you get to meet talented Chemistry students from all corners of the globe. Play cards, go on excursions, steal other teams’ mascots, make sure our team mascot doesn’t get stolen... Ultimately, after the IChO ends, it is the memories you forge with other participants at IChO which will define your overall experience.

  • Rest well. Especially, you shouldn’t overexert yourself on the two days before the two exams. If the Olympiad is held at a country with major time difference, resting would help alleviate the jet lag.

  • Stay safe. Keep your passports and valuables safe. Try not to drink from tap water. More importantly, have fun!

Tips for Practical Exam

  • It seems to be the Malaysian’s team specialty that we suck at practical exam every year due to lack in training. However, practical exam is often an easy source of mark and so you should try to do your best!

  • IMPORTANT: Get the data first, do the deductions and calculations later. Data often account for more than 70% of the overall marks on offer, so make sure you don’t miss out on them.

  • Be careful while doing titration, especially near the endpoint. Anyone can do well in titration as long as he or she is careful enough. You should decide how many parallel measurements you want to make: typically, many people choose to do 1 rough trial and 1 accurate titration. Remember to account for time! While accuracy is important, if you spend too much time, you might find yourself in a time pinch for the rest of the exam.

    Holey Moley!
    There is so much to learn about chemistry
  • Organic synthesis: Follow every instruction given. Read every line twice to make sure you are carrying out the correct operation. Oftentimes, reagents cannot be replenished without penalty and you will lose precious time if you execute a step wrongly. Don’t let it happen!

  • Plan in advance so you can work efficiently. If the next step requires a water bath, then you should have started heating the water 5 minutes ago. Also, sometimes, you have to run 2 experiments concurrently, eg; carry out titrations while your organic mixture is refluxing. Make sure your timekeeping is excellent!

  • Sometimes, despite your best efforts, things can go horrendously wrong during practical. If this is the case, it is important to focus on the theoretical exam which will be held two days later instead of dwelling on the past. Believe in your own capabilities that it is still possible to make a comeback. (If you need a living example, I scored around 11/40 for practicals in 2015 but still did decent enough in theory to end up with a bronze medal)

Tips for Theoretical Exam

  • IMPORTANT: Study the preparatory problems provided by the orgnaizers. Make sure you understand every question. Also, research on the topics of advanced difficulties mentioned.

  • Don’t be careless. I cannot emphasize this enough. Unless you are absolutely sure that your script is careless mistakes-proof, allocate at least 15 minutes before the end of the exam to check the whole script and correct any careless mistakes you have made. This is especially important for organic structures, as even a minor error sometimes results in 0 points!

  • Know your strengths and favourites. If organic questions are your forte, then it makes sense to focus on them first. However, make sure you don’t miss out on the easier parts of other questions.

  • Do the bits of questions you can do first. Chances are you will not be able to finish any question fully, especially towards the end. That’s fine, make sure you grab the easy marks available.

  • Check every MCQ box. Even if you do not know how to answer, there’s no harm taking a guess.

This marks the end of my article. Hopefully any would-be-members of Malaysian future IChO team find this article useful. I wish you well in your preparations and all the best in winning Malaysia’s first ever gold medal.

Interested? Come and join! Ze Kai, IChO Honorable Mention had always joked that the Malaysian IChO team suffers from a female drought... 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

PI: Money Matters

Today we are lucky to have another insightful post from Anzo about US college applications financial aid.

Money matters

by Anzo Teh

“Asking for a university degree? Let’s see if you’re qualified, awesome enough to pass through the admission sieve, and have enough money to study in our institution.”
This is the tacit message of universities, but fortunately there are a number of universities which remove the last statement: they make sure that there’s no financial problem for you to enroll in their place if they decide to admit you.
Reason? They have generous need-based financial aid. And that’s unique to US institutions.


Most applicants should have heard of phrases like “need blind”, “need aware”, etc, but there’s always confusion between these and “meeting full demonstrated need”. Here’s the difference:

Need blind: 

This particular university doesn’t consider your financial needs when it comes to admission process, so by all means, just apply its financial aid as it never hurts your admission chance. It’s even possible to apply for financial aid after being admitted (the aid award letter may arrive late, though, so that’s not recommended).

Need aware

This university does consider your financial strength during admissions. Unlike those need blind schools, it probably will not allow you to ask for financial aid throughout the four years of study if you don’t state your intention to apply for financial aid during application. Stanford University and Dartmouth University, for example, are need aware for international students (so please think carefully!)
Only apply when you are certain not to attend without aid (like me to Stanford).

Meeting demonstrated need: 

After determining your ability to pay (resources), this university will cover the balance of the money you need to study there (via grant, work or loan). Interestingly, there are 7 universities in the states that hail for being both need blind and meeting full demonstrated need:
Princeton University, with the slogan “Affordable Princeton.”
MIT, which assures that “it's your mettle, not your money, that gets you into MIT.”
Harvard College
Yale College
Amhest College 
MInerva schools at KGI
Soka University of America
(source: Wikipedia)

Private vs public universities

Usually, only private universities provide aid for international students. The University of California, for example, provides financial aid only for California students beginning from 2017 (it used to be for US students). However, there are exceptions: the New York University does not grant aid, while some other public universities do provide aid for international students.

How much aid will I get?

For every university you apply to, there’s financial aid calculator. But there’s a trap! Some universities (e.g. Princeton and MIT) will caution you that this is accurate only for US and Canadian students.

Components of financial aid package

Generally there are three:
1. Grant: this is the money that doesn’t need to be repaid.
2. Work: students are expected to work on campus to help partially on their funding.
3. Loan: Princeton has no-loan policy since 2001, but MIT includes Technology Loan as part of package.

Application process

There’s nothing in the world that comes automatically: same goes for financial aid application.
For most universities, the application can be done through the College Board CSS profile. Examples are MIT and Stanford.
There are, of course, exceptions such as Princeton University, which states CSS profile as optional. Instead, it uses the Princeton Financial Application webpage (which is mandatory).

What to expect during application

Need based financial aid means that the financial aid offices (FAOs) give aid based on your need, but they don’t stop at family income. Instead, they will evaluate on broader spectrum: your family assets, side incomes (like interests), number of family members, expenses (especially medication of elderly and education of other siblings) and extenuating circumstances.
Attached below are snippets of the questions that have been asked in my Profile application. Believe me, it’s so inquisitive that there are total of 9 pages when I saved it in PDF for record.
Princeton financial aid application was less tedious, but wasn’t easy either. Since that was my first financial aid application (I applied to Princeton through early action), the questions dumbfounded me as I had no idea on the financial status of my family. I in turn requested my father to fill in all the details for Princeton.
Extra: for both Princeton and CSS there are spaces for extra explanations, so utilize that to explain things that may be ambiguous in your application (for me it was the explanation of an acronym of school name since there wasn’t enough characters to spell out). Also include those extenuating circumstances if it’s not mentioned previously (like the weakening of local currency against he greenback).
Rule of thumb: always have your parents besides you when you fill your application.

What’s next?

Phew! Application submitted along with the application fee for CSS profile ($9 for base fare, plus $16 for every college applied). But the story doesn’t stop here: you need to submit proofs to the admission officers, such as tax forms translated into English version for the previous year.
The avenues to submit are specific for each university and these are for the universities that I applied:
1. Princeton: directly email, fax or mail to the officer, with application number and student number stated. I chose to email.
2. MIT: chances are, the tax form of immediate previous year (year N-1) hasn’t been filed (the deadline for Malaysia is 1 July), so email the tax form of year N-2 directly to FA officers as well (instead of submitting it to IDOC). Please note that, however, that the tax form of year N-1 is required to finalize the award. For further information please visit the Student Financial Service webpage.
3. Stanford: either fax the tax forms and International Student Certification of Finances to the financial office, or upload them at secure upload webpage.


Financial aid package
Aid package of about 57% of total cost (grant and work).
Aid package of about two thirds the total cost (grant, work and loan).
Denied admission.
* After my first appeal; before that the aid package was 45%.
To be honest, the aid has been a bit disappointing (especially in the case of Princeton, which typically gives almost full grants for students with income below $65000 per annum). This best explains the initial struggle in deciding among Princeton, MIT, Waterloo, and the final decision on Waterloo which awarded me full merit scholarship.



I intend to apply early action/early decision. Should I apply financial aid early as well?

It depends. For Stanford and Princeton, yes, since the former is need aware while the latter issues award letter along with the decision. For MIT, no; students admitted through early action apply to CSS together with regular applicants.

Must I submit application on time?

Not a must, but strongly recommended. This is to ensure that the aid award letter arrives on time should you be accepted (it could be possible that the letter cannot be ready by 1 May if you submit your application late, since FAOs receive thousands of applications).

I’m unhappy with my aid package. What should I do?

Write an email to appeal! Of course, you need your evidences like better aid packages offered by other institutions, discrepancies with financial aid calculator, new extenuating circumstances (e.g. the PSD scholarship slash).

The tax form for previous year isn’t ready. How should I fill in the income then?

Request your parents to give their best estimates, especially in the case of business revenue.

How about those miscellaneous expenses like food, automobile, etc?

Again, estimate to your best ability.

Is it advisable to fabricate some data to gain more aid?

Absolutely no! FAOs reserve the right to ask for your parents’ bank statement. You can, however, use the worst possible scenario for future financial situations (like answering “no” to “do you expect to gain any scholarship?” if you’re not guaranteed a scholarship at that point).

What happens when I’m awarded both college financial aid and outside scholarships?

You must declare it to the FAOs of the universities, and the outside scholarships (should you accept) become your part of your aid package. FAOs will first exempt you from work and loan, then reduce grant such that the aid package and your resources remain the same.

How often do I need to reapply during my studies?

Annually. The aid conferred may vary from freshman year, depending on the changes in your financial situations.

I did not apply for financial aid during my freshman year. Can I apply during later years?

Yes, since your financial situation may change.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Disclaimer for use of essays

I have posted my essays in my blog around 3 weeks ago, which you can view on the desktop side. However, with great powers come great responsibilities and with my personal essays come important disclaimers: Read it with a pinch of salt.

All of the advice I have given throughout this blog are my personal opinions and to my best knowledge. And all my essays are written in my own voice. Read it, get a feel of it, but do not copy it. After reading my essay, read more so that you are not trapped The essay is your strongest weapon and you shouldn't squander your chance by using other's voice.

I spent a lot of time thinking hard about the essays, and if you try hard enough, you can achieve it too! :) Good luck!

P/s: If you feel like a discussion on the essays or some explanations on my writing, feel free to comment below.