Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Discovering Malaysia at the Discover US Education Fair

Written by johnleemk on 3:30:15 pm Jul 28, 2007.

About a week ago, I was a facilitator at the Discover US Education Fair in Kuala Lumpur. Although it is an annual event, I had never attended it before, and to my surprise, I found it quite enjoyable pitching American education and education at my university in particular.

What was not enjoyable was dealing with the hordes of people who have this penchant for asking the same sort of questions which have exactly the same answer for most universities. I found this rather revealing of how Malaysians approach tertiary education, not just in the US, but in general.

I think virtually everyone asked this question: What are the minimum requirements? To someone from the American university system, this is something odd — most colleges and universities do not have any such minimum requirements, though they do occasionally recommend certain things, such as a 12-year education.

It seems to me that this question reveals the disappointing obsession of Malaysians with test scores and grades. This is probably the biggest problem for those who apply to American universities — it is not easy to adjust to the mindset of a holistic admissions process which focuses on other measures of a person.

As I told anyone willing to listen to my ramblings on the subject, there is no way to differentiate straight A scorers from one another. It really makes no sense to me for British universities to be looking at students and saying things like "Okay, we'll admit you, as long as you can score two As and a B for your A-Levels." How do you tell two students with the same grades apart?

That's why the American university system made more sense to me — it looks at your extracurricular activities and personal statement(s) to get a sense of you as an individual.

But troublingly, as one parent said to me when I explained this, Malaysian schools don't have room for this. We don't have extracurricular activities in anything other than the elite schools, because we don't have room for our students to be individuals.

This hamstrings them in applying to American universities — when you take this into account, it is no longer surprising that most Malaysian students, even those of little means, end up in any place but the US. US universities may have billions of dollars to offer in financial aid, but getting in is incredibly difficult because Malaysian schools offer students no chance to shine as individuals — effectively dooming an application to most top American colleges and universities.

Perhaps the worst part of being a facilitator at the fair, though, was having to answer variations of the following question, over and over: "Do you offer actuarial science/financial engineering/biotechnology/mass communications?"

Specialising so deeply in a particular field at the undergraduate level is considered verboten in American education, and for a good reason, if you ask me. Undergraduate education should be about developing yourself as a person, preparing you to contribute to society, and this is the crux of the American approach to education, embodied in the liberal arts philosophy. (Fortunately we did not have to field too many questions about why American universities "only offer arts subjects", possibly because we pre-empted them with an explanation of why this philosophy often results in students taking science courses.)

One of my friends speculated that the reason so many people asked about these specialised areas is because the government is offering scholarships in these areas. To me, this is quite unreasonable — the government has no business in telling students what subjects to take up. The best outcome for society generally can only be attained by allowing individual choice.

Malaysians have to be aware of these deficits in our mindsets if they would like to apply to American colleges and universities. If we fail to do this, we risk approaching the American university admissions process from the totally wrong angle, and thus risk our chance at an education unlike any other.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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