How do I prepare for overseas university as a Singaporean?

How do I prepare for overseas university as a Singaporean?
Photo by Brett Jordan / Unsplash

A reader asks:

I'm interested in studying at top schools for Economics in the US and in the UK, as I've read that there are definitely fewer opportunities in Singapore as compared to overseas with regards to the kind of exposure one gets. I'm planning on applying to a few Ivies, like Columbia, Princeton and Yale, as well as UCB and Stanford. And as for the UK, probably Oxbridge and LSE. I was wondering if you could give more advice about the schools I've listed and maybe like what they're looking for if you do know about it? As well as how you managed to get financial aid for US universities since the fee is so high. Thank you so much! – R

Hey R, thanks for writing in. Back when I was deciding where to go for university, I applied to both the US and the UK, though to slightly different schools from what you chose.

General tips

Use what you have in school.

If you have a college counsellor, talk to them! Tell them about your plans and they may be able to review your personal statement. They will also have more updated advice; I last applied to college about 5-6 years ago and things may have changed since.

Check your deadlines.

I think there are deadlines coming up soon, so it would be worthwhile for you to sit down and note down any important dates. These include:

  1. SAT dates (for the US)
  2. Application deadlines for different schools
  3. Deadlines for financial aid

Exposure to opportunities - UK or US (or SG)?

I'd say it's hard to tell - some opportunities are created by you. What kind of exposure do you want? There are definitely more things to do in bigger countries, but you would need to put in effort to make the most of them, too. You'd also get to observe firsthand how economic policies have affected those countries respectively and compare it back to Singapore and our economic policies. However, the UK and US would generally be less studies-focused than Singapore university is.

United Kingdom

Education system

In the UK the education is similar to Singapore, where you have to choose your major before you apply. This is the same whichever place you go to. However you can graduate in three years with a Bachelor's, or four years with a Master's (for some courses). This is faster than the 4 years you will be doing in the UK and in Singapore.

Application process

  1. You submit 1 application for 5 schools at one price, which makes things easier.
  2. Depending on the school, you may need to take more exams or do more interviews.
  3. Back when I was applying, you can only choose either Oxford or Cambridge to apply to. You can't apply for both. I chose Oxford because the courses looked more appealing to me.

Personal statement

I applied for Engineering, so it may be a bit different. I didn't apply for LSE at all.

I'd suggest still writing a different personal statement for each school you apply to, even though it's a common application. I forget the specifics, but I wrote about why I chose the school, what sparked my interest, and what actions I've taken to show my interest (reading books and entering relevant competitions).

For both the US and UK, it helps to be specific - you can also name professors in each school that you'd like to do research with (if you want to do research), or specific classes you would be interested in that no other school offers.

What does Oxbridge and LSE look for?

There is a separate exam I had to sit for. There is likely going to be an interview - mine tested me on technical knowledge related to a physics formula, and asked about how solar panels work (I mentioned I was interested in renewable energy).

LSE is likely to be more relaxed.

Difference between LSE and Oxbridge

Of Oxford, Cambridge and LSE, I've only visited Oxford in person. LSE is in London, which means more job opportunities but also a higher cost of living (presumably). LSE also looks more modern and there are more things to do nearby. However, Oxford and Cambridge have more traditions and a larger campus.

United States

Education system

There's more wiggle room for you to change your major should you change your mind, and more room for exploration/changing up your courses. Typically, Bachelors take about 4 years, though you could choose to take more courses and do it way faster. I also know someone who did a Bachelor's alongside a PhD at the same time.

Application process

  1. Take note of deadlines for applications, they can be different for each school.
  2. Check if the school uses SAT/ACT scores and start preparing for those if you nede them. I did the SAT, and used Khan Academy plus extra test workbooks to prepare for the exam questions (and also full exams).
  3. For University of California Berkeley in particular, you can apply to multiple campuses too (aside from Berkeley).
  4. There may be an interview with alumni in Singapore (for some schools). Typical questions would be why study at X university specifically, why the major and so on.

What do Ivy League schools look out for?

It depends on your high school, and country. Winning international Olympiads seem to help the most for Singaporeans. If you don't, however, it comes down to the personal statement and SAT scores. If you tend to be under-represented in the student body, you also stand a higher chance.

The personal statement

I'd say the personal statement is more important for the US than for the UK.

Ideally in the statement, you'd be able to brand and separate yourself. They want to see applied passion - winning olympiads tend to be an easy way to show that you are interested in a subject and have put effort towards achieving goals around that. What are some ways you've demonstrated your passion and achieved goals? For example, you may submit essays to Economics essay competitions, and maybe you've won some prizes.

Cal Newport also has a post on what kind of "vibe" to look for. While the below post talks about post-graduate scholarships, I think it applies to standout undergrad applications as well.

The Secret Your Neighborhood Rhodes Scholar Doesn’t Want You To Know - Study Hacks - Cal Newport
The Rhodes Scholar Factor Here’s a non-controversial statement: Rhodes Scholars are pretty damn impressive. Take, for example, Benjamin. I drew his name at random from the 2008 winners of the scholarship. According to the official press release: a senior at Yale majoring in philosophy…

Difference between Columbia, Princeton, Yale vs UCB, Stanford

Of these schools, I've visited Princeton, UCB and Stanford. I'd say the largest part would be the weather and the city they're based in. California generally has warmer weather. UCB is more modern than Stanford, and Princeton is more similar to Stanford than UCB. Though in general for jobs in finance and economics, the East Coast is better known for that (California for Silicon Valley and so on).

Scholarships & Financial Aid

Need-blind admission

Some schools do not look at whether you need financial aid during your application, but others do. It may affect your chances of succeeding.

Bond-free scholarships

You can take a look at the list here in another post I wrote. I encourage you to also look for other scholarships that are more updated, or Economics-specific scholarships. Once you are there at the university, you may find you have more options as well. Some private companies offer scholarships that may be hard to know now but would be easier once you talk to someone at the university.


I outlined the methods a friend used to defray her costs of university.

Government scholarships

I used brightsparks to browse through relevant scholarships and think about whether I want to work with a specific agency for 6 years after I graduate. If you intend on coming back to Singapore after college, this could be another option to consider. Alternatively, you could choose to break your bond and pay back the relevant fees (or get a company to buy out the fee for you).

A quick word about interviewing for government scholarships:

  • Be specific about why you want to apply at each agency
  • Look up current affairs and Singapore policy
  • Try to empathise with the government's point of view, and show that you understand it and are prepared to support it.

How to plan acceptances?

Depending on deadlines, some schools may get back to you earlier than others. You could just accept the offer first and then withdraw before the term starts, I don't recommend it, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

How should you pick a school?

If you can, try to visit the school in person and imagine yourself there for the next 3-4 years or more. Apart from the campus itself, it would also be good to research the city around the school and imagine life there, too.

  • What's the weather like?
  • What are your options for leisure?
  • How do the students on campus look?
  • What are your financial aid options?
  • What's the general cost of living?
  • What are your student housing options?

Bonus: Getting the most out of overseas university

  1. If you can, try rooming with non-Singaporeans and staying with non-Singaporean housemates. Join local groups and make friends outside of school, too.
  2. Plan your studies so that you have time to do other things.
  3. If you plan on migrating and staying on after university, start looking at internships and jobs right from first year, and network as much as you can. Reach out to seniors - especially Singaporean seniors - for info on visas and job search.
  4. Cal Newport has great advice, though tailored to a US audience.

Bonus: what about staying locally?

It is not a bad idea to apply for scholarships and local schools anyway in case you change your mind about going overseas, and Singapore applications are a lot easier compared to the US's, and quicker to get back to you. And, by the time you are applying for local universities, you would already have drafts that you can take from US universities.

In the end, I had a full-ride scholarship to a local school, so I ended up just staying in Singapore for university. It felt like I was breaking my own heart. But it was the prudent choice, mainly because I thought the money can be put to better use.

Further reading: making the most out of uni

I previously wrote a post about maximising your university experience here.