This article is written in partnership with: mckl mini logo

Every student who dreams big aspires to get into the best university – if not in the country, then one of the best in the world.

Who doesn't want to be in Harvard University studying law, just like the outgoing President of the United States Barack Obama? How about the renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking, who began his tertiary education at Oxford University?

The truth is, this dream is not exclusive to you. There are thousands of applications every year to the best universities. This makes application to some of these universities more cut-throat than getting your dream job.

Stanford University accepted just over 5% of the 42,167 applications it received for the class of 2018, while Yale's acceptance rate was a mere 6.3%.

The competition becomes even stiffer when it comes to scholarship application and also application for selected courses (such as a degree in medicine), as these applications almost always require a face-to-face interview.

Due to the fierce competition, it will take more than just drop-dead gorgeous grades to stand out from the crowd.

What do universities look for in an application?

university application

Competing for a spot against thousands of other applicants can be daunting. So, what can one do to increase his / her chances of getting selected?

Good grades do not guarantee admission, and neither do extensive extracurricular activities. At least, not anymore. Understanding what a university admission officer look for is one way of standing out for the right reason.

What are the skills that make you a well-rounded individual, and not just one who sits in his/her room cramming for exams?

In addition to academic qualifications and grades, here are the top 10 attributes that will make you and your admission stand out:

Top 10 Qualities That Will Make You Stand Out

1Propensity to complete degree
2Evidence of passion for chosen subject
3Good written English
4Evidence of positive attitude towards study
5Evidence of ability to think / work independently
6Confidence with basic maths
7Ability to persevere and complete tasks
8Good presentation skills
9Ability to work well in groups
10Intercultural awareness
Source: University Admissions Officers Report 2016


On top of grades, more and more universities are prioritising soft skills and the right personalities in their selection. According to Harvard's website, some of the qualities they look for are growth and potential, interest and activities, character and personalities and lastly, contribution to the community.

This makes university application not something that one should only consider when it's time to apply. Students should choose activities, courses and the environment in advance that would allow them to cultivate such qualities.

One way of doing it is through service learning.

Stand out through service learning

service learning

Similar to how extracurricular activities could nudge your application up the list back in the days, volunteering or service learning could boost your application today.

Though they are not the be-all and end-all of the application review process, but compared to an applicant that does not have any experience volunteering, yours would only help you differentiate yourself.

The reason is simple: It gives you the opportunity to hone the relevant skills and qualities. Many of these skills and qualities cover the attributes that admission officers seek. From the evidence of passion for chosen subjects, to even intercultural awareness.

Service learning is all about giving your service to an area where you feel the most strongly about – and this inadvertently help you cultivate many of the attributes listed above.

Students who would like to learn in an environment that is conducive to volunteering and service learning should choose a school or a college that lets her find her passion through service learning.

The Methodist College Kuala Lumpur (MCKL), one of the few institutions in Malaysia that prioritises service learning goes as far as requiring a minimum of 20 hours voluntary work with an agency of the student’s choice within the first semester of their course.

mckl service learning

The Service Learning subject in MCKL involves keeping an individual journal, a group essay and lastly a group presentation on the students' assigned stream, giving it a holistic experience on service learning.

This culture helps students to realise the importance of going beyond academic excellence. For example, leadership is best shown through your experience. Service learning allows you the opportunity to showcase your experience and potential in your ability to lead and hold a position of responsibility. This is important as 90% of admission officers look for evidence of ability to think / work independently.

In 2015, MCKL introduced the importance of nation building and how youths have the responsibility to shape the nation positively. One of the key activities conducted was at the Youth Nation Building Summit 2015, where a debate between Yang Berhormat Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Serdang, and Yang Berhormat Saifuddin Abdullah, former deputy Higher Education minister.

mckl ynb summit

This real-life experience would inadvertently open the students' eyes to various issues surrounding the country and how they can play a part in making a change.

Leave your details to find out more about MCKL today!

The passion for making a change is not easily conveyed in a written essay or a resume. Service learning encourages and spurs students to be proactive in making a difference in things they are passionate about – whether it is to eradicate poverty or to increase literacy. It also gives the universities an idea on your interest, because interest leads to passion and passion leads to action.

Positive attitude towards learning is more than just reading a book or cramming for an exam. Nine out of 10 admissions officers rate positive attitude towards studies as an important attribute. By taking actions that will make a difference in someone else's life will definitely show your willingness to take learning outside of your classroom.

Thriving and graduating from the best university is not an easy feat. It will take determination and grit, which cannot be taught in a classroom. It can only be instilled and nurtured through life circumstances and experiences. With regular participation in service learning and seeing it through, one has shown his/her ability to persevere on causes that matter.

Be one of a kind

stand out

Getting into the best universities in the world takes more than just straight A's results. Universities are looking for outstanding individuals who are passionate about something meaningful.

When an admission officer asks a student applying for placement for a medical degree:

A simple question of "Why do you want to be a doctor?" that is usually posed to students applying for placement for a medical degree, would typically solicit the most common answer, "Because I want to help people."

With the passion to help others instilled seamlessly during your time at MCKL, you will be able to differentiate your answer from the rest by supporting it with practical experiences.

These interviews are not unique to just Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) applicants, but also to those who are aiming to score a scholarship, especially those that offer 100% tuition fee sponsorship. 

Real-world learning is hard to come by, and MCKL is serious in providing that in their students through some of the non-profit organisations they work with. Students of MCKL do their service hours at Malaysian Association for the Blind, Wisma Harapan, Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Selangor and Dignity and Services.

Other than these organisations, you are also given the option to choose the agency you wish to work with as long as the agency is working with the disadvantaged or marginalised community.

With volunteering experience under your belt, you will be giving yourself an added boost beyond just academics to land a place in your dream institution of higher learning.

In the wisdom of popular footballer, Pelé, "Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do."

So, don't just be one of the applicants… be one of a kind.