Mention the Ivy League in any part of the world and almost anybody will know what you are talking about: those hallowed institutions in the Northeast of the US that ostensibly produce the next generation of global talent. (Oxbridge and the rest of the Russell Group in the UK, of course, are just as well-known across the postcolonial English-speaking world.)
But unless you’re willing and able to shell out anywhere between 200 and 300 thousand dollars in total for four years of study at these institutions, there is quite simply no point applying. There is one exception: the trinity of Harvard, Yale and Princeton (HYP), also known as the Big Three Ivies. Universities so renowned and richly endowed that they are able to offer need-blind admissions to international students. All of which means that as long as you get in, you are guaranteed a scholarship.
The catch, of course, is that these universities are so selective that approximately 1% of international students get in every year. For context, approximately 4 – 6% of American applicants succeed.
If HYP has been on your tongue since you began learning your ABCs, you should know that you are going to have to work really hard to get in. However, if you’re a person of Asian descent, you might find it even harder: Asian-Americans may sometimes be stereotyped as a model minority in admissions processes and some people believe that it’s more challenging to get into prestigious American universities if you’re Asian. To be admitted as an Asian person to HYP, you’ve got to have more than good grades – which literally every Asian seems to have, so the stereotype goes.
Did you play the piano or violin, score full marks in the SATs and the IBs or Cambridge A-levels, while clinching the top spot at the International Mathematics or Physics Olympiad? Congratulations – you are officially an Asian stereotype and, according to some admissions officers, possibly a “textureless Math grind”. (For the record, I did play the piano. In fact I was so passionate about it that I dropped A-level Math for Music!) Do you kowtow at a perfectly perpendicular 90-degree angle to your elders and betters while secretly harbouring a desire to break out of your conformist Asian cultural background which you mentally sublimated and expressed in the form of quadratic equations? Well, you might just be another archetypal Asian destined to be a secretary at a tea shop instead of a power broker financier cum tech entrepreneur.
As grossly generalised as the stereotype may seem, as an Asian person and a Singaporean, I do think there is a gem of a truth at the heart of the matter. Asian economies in modern times have not been hotbeds of innovation, instead happily cruising along by riding technological innovations largely developed and produced in the West. Asian people have also tended to play second-fiddle at global companies and find themselves shut out of positions of power once they reach a certain level of seniority. More obviously, Asian societies undergo social change only once the West has blazed the way forward; Asian culture lags a decade behind Western pop culture. (I would like to point out, as an A-level music student and pianist, that K-pop is basically regurgitated 90s pop, and we should all heave a collective sigh that Asian people are so not woke that the sitcom Friends is still a thing in Singapore.)
If you want to get into HYP, you will need to break that mould completely. And even if you don’t and want to go elsewhere – for instance, Singaporean universities possess enormous prestige and repute globally – I believe there’s an enormous life lesson to be learnt from the way these schools select their undergraduates. After all, their selection process reflects their investment in and commitment to producing the best global talent possible, so why wouldn’t you want to be the type of student they would select, even if you don’t want to go there?
Here are four life lessons I learnt from the HYP selection process.
① Don’t do what everyone else is doing.
My grades for the A-levels and SATs were practically flawless, but they didn’t get me into the school of my choice. They were, at best, a foot in the door. What really helped me was my love for Literature and the fact that I was into poetry and drama – not as the orchestra, but as the cast and the director. The admissions officers were right. In retrospect, directing a play for Raffles Players, the drama club, in junior college was the one thing that kickstarted my interest in honing my business, management and marketing skills for a lifetime.
② Don’t be conformist to the point of insipidity – but do pick your battles carefully.
Growing up, I despised conformity and would often question the supposedly normal, socially enforced way of doing things. Why do we have to wear shoes that are 70% white if white shoes are impractically prone to dirt and literally all corporate people wear black shoes (blue boat shoes on the weekends)? Why do we let teenage-brained school prefects wield immense power over their peers while analysing Piggy’s death in Lord of the Flies? And why do we have to formally learn how to write an informal letter of all things?
These questions seemed endlessly irritating as a teenager, but to become cynical about the entire world for these reasons would have been equally self-defeating in retrospect. Instead, hone your principles and perspective on life inwardly and reify them in the world through your actions, projects and initiatives. Create good art. Start a company. Write a book. And above all, don’t challenge any adults yet – in Asia, you’re just a teenager and nobody will take you seriously.
When it’s finally time to write those admissions essays, you will have plenty of life experience to write about.
③ Triumphing despite adversity really does actually make you stronger.
Contrary to popular belief, these schools aren’t looking for students who sailed through life collecting awards and prizes without encountering problems: they like applicants who succeeded despite significant obstacles in their way. In fact, this is completely intuitive. Did you get into trouble with an authority figure teacher at some point and have to work through your issues? That’s great – you have demonstrated the ability to courageously deal with others and navigate one-sided power relationships. Did you have to cope with discrimination as a minority growing up? Wonderful – it’s not easy to get back up when people constantly beat you down; moreover, you probably know how to question social assumptions and blind spots that someone with majority privilege would be oblivious to. As a future leader, you might just be kinder, more sensitive and able to avoid those malodorous foot-in-mouth situations.
④ Have a sense of humour. Seriously.
Having a sense of humour is something chronically undervalued in traditional developing Asian societies – it can be perceived as a sign of weakness, foolishness or just low socioeconomic status. However, the reverse is true for developed societies where being able to lubricate social interactions, reach out to diverse individuals from a myriad of social, cultural and economic backgrounds, and avoid being perceived as elitist or heavy-handed are quintessentially first-world soft skills. Being able to see the lighter side of things and not take yourself too seriously can be a huge asset – not just as you write your admissions essay, but also when you have to deal with and manage people.
Don’t laugh, but many of the most brilliant and successful Ivy Leaguers I have met had a wicked sense of humour. Creativity is equal parts innovation and surprise. Teach yourself to be unexpected.