When I started researching Public Policy and International Development programmes in the UK, it never crossed my mind that I would apply for LSE. When I eventually filled out the applications in October, I thought “no harm trying” and submitted one to LSE apart from 5 other universities. Even then I did not imagine I would get in. I did not graduate from an Ivy League school or with a First Class degree, I did not volunteer or work in a poor or conflict area, I was not the president of a debate club, nor did I spearhead a community initiative.
Perhaps some of you are wondering why I did not apply for US universities. Master programmes in the US are typically 2 years in duration and given that I am making a career switch, I reckoned a 12-month programme was more suited to me.
By mid-November I got admitted to all of them except for LSE. At that point I was pondering between Warwick and UCL. One Saturday morning in January I woke up to the email tone of my phone. It was about 6am. I grabbed my phone, read the email, acknowledged that LSE admitted me, then went back to sleep. At 8am I woke up, realized what I read and started murmuring OMG to myself.
That could have been the most beautiful dream I ever had. But it was not a dream. Soon after emails started streaming in regarding document submission, offer acceptance, scholarship and accommodation. The offer package was mailed to me a couple of weeks later.
In retrospect I suppose these are the factors that led to my admission:
1. I applied early.
Admission to UK universities usually starts early October. I submitted my application to LSE in end October and got the result early January the next year. I guess they review the applications in batches so early applications may stand a better chance given the fewer number of competitors.
2. I wrote a candid personal statement.
I would imagine most candidates have a First or Second Class degree and impressive records of volunteer and/or extra-curricular activities, so personal statement is what makes you stand out. I don’t think mine was an outstanding one but what probably made me stick was that I wrote candidly. I did not have a challenging childhood or any “wow” factor and I did not try to “dramatize” stuffs. I was honest that I was brought up in a well-to-do loving family and was fortunate to pursue my undergraduate studies in Singapore. But I witnessed poverty in the neighbourhood and I talked about how it affected me since childhood and shaped my world views.
I also talked about my course work, essays and extra-curricular activities that demonstrated my interest in economic growth, human development, poverty and inequality. I described the skills I acquired from work and my professional achievements that I believed were highly transferable across sectors. I talked about my influencer, the challenges I would face working in development policy research and consulting in Vietnam and how I was going to tackle them (which largely mirrored the way my influencer has done). I concluded with what drew me into the university and the programme. I customized my statement for each school and included some key details of the programmes to show that I did my homework.
3. References count, too.
I started to reconnect with my dissertation advisor and a professor for whom I worked as a research assistant months before I submitted my applications. At that point I had graduated 3 years ago and I was anxious as to whether they still remembered me. Luckily they did. I asked them for advice with respect to choosing programmes and application.
I suppose working with (a) professor(s) in your undergraduate is highly useful – the connection tends to be deeper and s/he has more to write about your qualifications and qualities. Meeting your advisor frequently is crucial as well. I had fortnightly meetings with my advisor throughout my final year. Even when I did not make any significant progress in the first term, I discussed with him what I had read, my understanding of the literature, possible research methodology and how I might proceed. I reckon sharing my thought process with my advisor provided him with more inputs to write me a letter of recommendation.
4. Most importantly, aim high!
Many successful women have pointed out that women tend to think they are not qualified enough and/or they are not cut out for a particular job. In other words, as women we more often than not discount our ability, and that usually results in us failing to realize our full potential. Ultimately, we learn by doing, and by refusing ourselves an opportunity to do something we may never know how to do it. So I’d say we women should always aim higher and believe in our ability to pull things off.