Malaysian Q&A for Potential US Liberal Arts College Students

(Notes for USAPPS 2013: Prepared answers for a forum I try to help out with every year.)

Segment 1: Living and Studying in US as a student

1. What do you think made you stand out in your application? Is there any specific factor in determining one's chances to get into college in the US?
My essay was about learning to see cultures anthropologically, as I moved to a small town after living for most of my life before that in the city (KL). I actually think my application was rather shitty.

2. What would you say about living in the US as a student? What kinds of factors that you took into consideration when you applied for college? (Scholars vs. private, how to save?)
I was accepted to only one college with sufficient financial aid - i.e. a practically full scholarship - so that was the obvious choice as I wouldn't have bothered to apply to the states to study unless someone else was paying for it.

3. Describe a lecture or classroom experience (large class or really small group discussion/debate) and how it has helped you in your education?
Small groups of 3-12 students were the norm for classes where detailed discussion of subject matter was required. Of course, for more textbooky subjects like organic chemistry, it was just all in lecture and lab format. I realised after a while that I only benefited from 1-to-1 time with professors, because I often had a fairly unusual depth of questioning, so I'd get bored even in groups of 2-3 other students.

Segment 2: Involvement/Opportunities in the States

4. Give an example of your life outside class experience i.e. the types of clubs that you join, having a host family, becoming a school representative in sports or arts performances, school tradition (especially during freshman year, some sort of rituals when graduating?)
I didn't find the classroom beneficial for much of the stuff I was interested in. a) intellectual history and grand meta-narratives were a culturally unpopular subject in the classroom and b) the analysis of aesthetics was more of a lab subject - but the arts department was generally not approaching it from an analytical/quantitative point of view, and the quant departments were generally just not interested in detailed analyses of low-level sensations. So I spent most my time pursuing studies on my own in the library, reading stuff online, and using access to the inter-library-loan system, a lot.

5. Talk about part-time jobs, volunteering activities, internships that contribute to your education? How about study abroad and exchange programs?
I didn't "study abroad," outside of my four years at Bates. My view in going to Bates was that it was a four-year immersion in the local culture that was a US liberal arts college. I picked up the accent within 1-2 years and worked in many jobs on campus, mostly in information and library services (networking / programming / equipment setup) in order to learn how they talked and thought, about themselves and about things in general.

Segment 3: Career Outlook with US Degrees

6. My parents used to question the credibility of US degrees. They thought that education in the US is overly priced and generally not compatible with the job market in Malaysia especially in law, accounting and medical degrees. For these three mainly sought degrees, can Malaysian students still pursue them in the US? IF so, what are their career prospects in Malaysia then?
The answer to this question is very specific to your target first-job after college, and first-job-that-you-want-to-make-most-of-your-money/living-in-for-the-rest-of-your-life. If you're after money, then staying in the states and aiming for a professional services job paying USD80-90k/year for fresh graduates is probably your best bet (six-figure basics, near seven-figure bonuses in the first year out of college are not unheard of). IB+MC are the traditional favourites for "money" jobs. If you're a good IB-er you should be making USD500k/year by the time you're 30yo.

If you absolutely MUST work in Malaysia following graduation, and you're looking at a field like accounting or law then studying in the US is probably a mistake, unless you want to begin your professional studies after college. However if you're looking to work in any job that requires a non-professional degree, e.g. in general business, sales, operations, banking, consulting, then you probably don't need to worry about your prospects if you're confidant in your ability of to figure out problems and work hard wherever you go.

If you think that "business", "marketing", "HR", "hospitality", "tourism", "IT" are subjects worth majoring in at the university level, I'm afraid that you may not be of the academic calibre to do well without a very specialised degree. I'm saying that because the more capable members of the workforce don't actually need to study those subjects in school, in order to excel in them.

7. In retrospect, now that you're back in malaysia, we're sure that there's a change of perspective. what did you make out of all your experiences in the US? Especially in helping out with your career choices?
When I was 10yo, I figured out that the minimum work I would have to do in order to support my hobbies was to be a waiter and earn RM500/month. To be honest, nothing much has changed. I still consider my hobbies to sit outside the realm of most employment opportunities, so I don't even try to get hired to do what I like doing for fun. On the flip side, a lot of new business owners seem to need help with general analysis and ass-kicking, so it turns out that I've spent most of my time outside of employment at big companies, helping new business owners to set up shop. Right now I'm working with some chaps who want to bring US third-wave coffee shop culture to Malaysia.

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