The Game: Applying for Graduate School

This post is about my progress in applying for a finance graduate study in North America as an international student, some of you may relate and hopefully found things that is helpful in your journey.

It has been a while since I posted “How to get GMAT 660 in 3 Months by Yourself“in the second semester of last year. For the note, I also retook TOEFL iBT exam and got score of 111/120, a significant improvement from 98/120 I got on January 2016. I did my GMAT at October 31st and it took two weeks for my score to be sent to the school I registered it to. I knew it because Syracuse University (in New York) sent an email two weeks after the test, telling me that they got my score and invite me to begin my admission process. I register my score to one top school in Canada and four second tier school in US. In reality, I only applied to three school, the one in Canada and two other in US, Syracuse is not one of them (I found it too expensive and the living cost is high as well). I filled the required data, upload my undergraduate degree academic report, ask for recommendation letter to two of my lecturer, and paid the admission fee before November 15th, the first deadline for one of the school I applied to.

Days passed by, then months, and eventually year. During the 2016 Christmas holiday, I spent my time with my father traveling to Cambodia, while my mother visited my sister in Omaha, Nebraska. We rode a bamboo train in Battambang, join the crowd at New Year’s Eve in Pub Street, and saw the first sunset of 2017 in Angkor Wat. It was a personally refreshing trip for me, after taking (and passing) CFA Level 1 exam earlier in June and FRM Level 1 exam in November, not to mention doing my Master of Management degree in Binus Business School.

For two and a half months, or 78 days to be exact, there was nothing. I checked on my application every week or so, only to find that the status was always “submitted” instead of “decision made”. Then, on Wednesday, February 1st, I’m anxious to found two email from two of the school I applied to. One is an admission interview invitation, coming from the top school in Canada. The other one is an acceptance letter, along with scholarship offer, coming from the school in US. I was really, really excited that morning and share the excitement with my mother in the kitchen. Later on, I learned that the scholarship will save me half of the tuition fee, in exchange for my time and effort in the graduate assistantship program. I am already happy and excited for getting accepted, so a scholarship adds up tremendously to my excitement. It was an accomplishment for me personally, something I have never achieved before in my life. For the note, I am just an average student in my undergraduate study (medicine), with no significant academic accomplishment.

Anyway, for the Canadian school invitation, I did the interview the next day with one of the university professor via Skype. He told me to give an introduction and asked me how I select stocks for my equity portfolio. The rest of the conversation was more casual and laid back, then I was given a chance to ask few things about the program itself. I think I did good on the interview, but let’s see at the result announcement next week. I only have 10 days to accept/decline the admission and scholarship for the school in US, so I have to make a quick decision if I got admitted in the Canadian school. Up to this time, I whole-heartedly want to study at the Canadian top school, even if that means sacrificing the scholarship from the US school. The program and practical approach would complement my heavy theoretical study I have been doing. On the other side, taking the scholarship would ease the financial burden significantly. But what about the present value of higher future earnings? Going to the top school might enhance my salary base significantly once entering the workforce, hence it might be having higher Net Present Value (NPV).

Now, my mind focus on the chance of getting accepted given that I got admission interview. Articles in the internet varies in their conclusion, some said that once you got an interview offer, you have at least 50% chance of getting admitted. Even others said that the chance could be as high as 75%, which gives me a high hope for admission. Now that I’m almost at the end of the “searching and applying to graduate study” phase, there are several points that I would do if I could do it all over again (although I don’t want to):

  • Prepare earlier, the earlier the better. I prepare from zero 5 months before the first admission deadline, beginning with looking for school (1 month), studying GMAT (3 months), and uploading transcript (1 month). Note that I didn’t work at the time, so for those of you having daily job, it will absolutely takes at least twice my number. Ideally if I spare more time and do it in 8 months before the admission deadline, I might get higher GMAT score than 660 (perhaps 700-ish?) and have more time to upload the transcript (sending the official transcript from outside US to US takes about 1-2 weeks).
  • Be selective with your school choice. During the first month of preparation, I listed all the school with Master in Finance program in US, Canada, and Western Europe. Then I eliminated the school based on the study period (I want a 1 year only program), tuition cost (US$ 40.000 is the maximum amount my family could afford), and lastly the rating (I want it to be in the top 100). It left me with less than 10 school, and I choose three among them to avoid making too much essay and asking too many letters of recommendation, which could be frustrating sometimes. My choice falls into one top Canadian school, then 24th best and 73rd best for MS in finance program in US.
  • Know your GMAT score target. After selecting the school you want to apply for, look at their student profile (age, % of international student, GMAT, GPA, work experience). There is perhaps nothing you could do to improve your undergraduate GPA, but there are lots you could do to improve your GMAT score. If the school average GMAT score is 670, then it is safe to assume that score of  above 650 is not a disadvantage for you. However, if the school average GMAT is 720, then you may want to get at least 700 for your peace of mind.
  • Write your essay by tailoring it for each school. This is why it is counter-productive to apply to as many school as possible, focus and unique selling proposition are the name of the game. Read and adhere to the essay requirement, make sure it is easy to read (play with the space and margin).
  • Ask early for letters of recommendation. Almost all school ask for two recommendation letters, although few ask for three. I asked mine to my thesis supervisor and a close lecturer, who both gladly agree. They have to sent their recommendation directly to the university’s email, so make sure you have bought the admission form and register their email as your recommendation giver.
  • Be VRIN (Valuable, rare, inimitable, non-subtitutable). No bragging, but here’s my profile, your profile will most likely be very different, but that is what makes you unique as well.
    • Valuable: I passed CFA level 1 exam 4 months before applying,  I like to think it is a prove that I’m serious in learning finance. Those that participate in CFA program knows how rigorous and challenging the material is, and that is a valuable asset for me.
    • Rare: How many medical student pursue career in finance? It is a major shift in my study, getting out of my comfort zone was not easy at the time, but when my passion is calling, I know it may not give me a second chance if I didn’t take it at the time. I’m glad I did.
    • Inimitable: I have been involved in equity trading since I was in undergraduate study, by the time I’m applying for the admission, I have been managing equity portfolio for over 4 years. I’m 22 years old by the way.
    • Non-subtitutable: I always believe that nothing is as important as hard work and determination. I know what I want and I know what it takes to get it, the next question is, am I going to do what it take to get it?
  • Ask yourself “Why” from the start, then you’ll manage any “How”. Be honest on why you want to pursue further study, that way, every time you are tired and missing on your study target, you’ll be motivated to catch up.
  • Drop the weight that chained you down. Having as little burden as possible is a big plus for me, whether it is a mandatory work hour, spouse, home chores, etc. Remember that it won’t be permanent, perhaps only for 4-12 months.

And lastly, remember that “Hope” is a powerful ally. Imagine the possibility you could unlock afterward, things you could only think of previously. Think of your journey not as the phase of applying for graduate study, but as a progress toward making your dream comes true. Because it is.

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“Sunset Over Jakarta”


Dear ________,

I remember taking this photograph back in 2010. Back then, I and my family were moving from a two-story suburban house to a one hundred square meters apartment in the city. We were excited to move in permanently (which we did in the next year) that every Friday after  school we would drove to the city and transfer portion of our belongings from the old house to “the apartment”, thats how we call it.

Most of the time, our car would be full of furnitures and stuff (I had seven boxes of toys and hundreds of book) that we wouldn’t be able to sit comfortably during the trip. However, since our apartment is located nearby a shopping mall we frequently visited since childhood, we were always excited to go to the apartment and have dinner at the mall. During the course of the weekend, my mother would clean the apartment and sort our belongings to the dedicated place, while I would study for school exam or play on my laptop when not helping her.

This photograph was taken on one of the Friday’s ritual we did that year, I was just beginning to learn photography at the time and I remember cursing myself for not having a tripod. We rarely watched sunset from a high-rise before, so it was an amazing view to us, and it still is today. Now I have been living on the same apartment for over six years, sunrise and sunset comes everyday, yet I haven’t got a photograph of it better than this one. Every now and then, when the sky was a mix of orange and blue, my mother would tell me to look into the sky and say, “the sky looks like in Cape Town”, a reference I would tell you for another time. I hope you find my early-year photograph enjoyable and inspiring, for I’ll sent you another one soon enough.

Your friend,



This photo is available for sale (in digital format and prints), for inquiry contact

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Cambodia Day 9: Angkor Archeological Complex

Today we woke up very late at 9 am after 8 days waking up early, we missed the first sunrise of 2017. We rushed for breakfast then showered before taking a tug-tug to Angkor Archeological Complex. We were free today, so we could do anything we’d like in Siam Reap. We visited temples we haven’t visited yesterday, among them East Mebond Temple, Ta Som, Preah Khan, and also the royal bathing lake called Srah Srang. We walked around each temple and finished touring around those complex around 14.00.

dscf1636Banteay Kdei Temple inside Angkor Archeological Complex, Siam Reap

dscf1676Srah Srang inside Angkor Archeological Complex, Siam Reap

dscf1683Srah Srang inside Angkor Archeological Complex, Siam Reap

dscf1701East Mebond Temple inside Angkor Archeological Complex, Siam Reap

dscf1719Monks in Ta Som Temple inside Angkor Archeological Complex, Siam Reap

dscf1722Monks in Ta Som Temple inside Angkor Archeological Complex, Siam Reap

dscf1731Gate of Preah Khan Temple inside Angkor Archeological Complex, Siam Reap

dscf1739Preah Khan Temple inside Angkor Archeological Complex, Siam Reap

dscf1750Preah Khan Temple inside Angkor Archeological Complex, Siam Reap

dscf1783Preah Khan Temple inside Angkor Archeological Complex, Siam Reap

dscf1802Preah Khan Temple inside Angkor Archeological Complex, Siam Reap

Then we had our lunch at Crystal Jade Kitchen in the Duty Free Shop near the city. The DFS sold many luxury branded goods such as Burberry, Salvatore, Omega, Cartier, etc. The layout of the store is also great and feel luxurious. Since the weather was blue and not cloudy like the last several days, we planned to watch the sunset at Angkor Wat today.

dscf1807An Empty Fields at Elephant Terrace inside Angkor Archeological Complex, Siam Reap

After lunch and touring the DFS, we have a massage nearby before heading back to Angkor Wat. We had the best sunset in Siam Reap with Angkor Wat as the background. At around 5.30 the police will ask the tourists to exit the site, we waited until the last minute to take the clear view of Angkor Wat without people in it.

dscf1818Angkor Wat Populated by Tourists at Evening, Siam Reap

dscf1953Angkor Wat, Siam Reap

dscf1975Angkor Wat at Sunset, Siam Reap

dscf2017Angkor Wat at Closing Time, Siam Reap

dscf2040Two Monk Outside Angkor Wat, Siam Reap

Then we headed back to Pub Street and paid our tug-tug driver $21 for the whole day service. I had dinner at the Steakhouse and ate lok-lak, a local beef cuisine. Meanwhile, my father ate BBQ of chicken, fish, and crocodile meat. At night we had another massage at the Temple, which in our view is the best massage place in town.

dscf2043Lok-lak, a local beef cuisine at The Steakhouse, Siam Reap

The next day, early in the morning we went to the airport and headed back to Jakarta via Kuala Lumpur. I guess the trip is over for now, but journey still continues.

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Cambodia Day 8: Outer Siam Reap Tour

Today we did a tour on the outer part of Angkor Archeological Complex, we woke up at 4.30 am and departed at 7 am. We went about 30 Km away from Angkor complex and see several temples, among them Preh Ko, Ba Kong, Lo Lei, Banteay Srey, and Pre Rup. Touring around those temples took quite a while that we finished around 11 am (4 hours).

dscf1335Preh Ko Temple, part of the Rolous Group at the Outer Part of Siam Reap

dscf1352Ba Kong Temple, part of the Rolous Group at the Outer Part of Siam Reap

dscf1374Ba Kong Temple, part of the Rolous Group at the Outer Part of Siam Reap

dscf1391Banteay Srey Temple at the Outer Part of Siam Reap

dscf1392Banteay Srey Temple at the Outer Part of Siam Reap

dscf1405Banteay Srey Temple at the Outer Part of Siam Reap

dscf1410Pre Rup Temple at the Outer Part of Siam Reap
From the afternoon sky, we concluded that the sunset today wasn’t going to be good, and since today was new year’s eve the traffic around the city is going to be crowded when we got back. So we decided to finish all the tour in the afternoon and skipped the sunset for today. After visiting the temples in Rolous Group, Banteay Srey, and Pre Rup, we ride an air ballon near Angkor Wat complex to see Angkor Wat itself from higher point of view. For $20 /10 minutes it was worth the ride and the scenery from the top was great. Moreover, there wasn’t long que and the turnover was quick.

dscf1482Angkor Wat from the Balloon Ride, Wish I had a Telephoto Lens!

dscf1500Angkor Wat from the Balloon Ride

We had lunch at Genevieve’s Restaurant in the city center, a restaurant named after the Australian owner’s wife who passed away. The food was excellent, I had a pork chop, which is plenty and reasonably cheap ($6.5). Then we went to trek village and walked for about 15 minutes to see vast green rice fields.

siam-reap22Rice Fields at the Trek Village

The past tour destination was Artisan D’Angkor, a workshop and shops of local products (statue, silk products, ceramics, silver products, etc.). The place was neat and luxurious for local standards, and the price for most of the products are reasonable as well. Since we have nothing else to visit today (according to our itinerary), we went back to hotel and sleep until 5 pm.

dscf1577Locals Working at Artisan D’Angkor

For dinner we ate at Sokhak River, I had spicy seafood spaghetti. We also had seafood mix as appetizer and ice cream for desert. Food was great, however more expensive compared to Malis Retaurant and the atmosphere was better at Malis.

dscf1584Spicy Seafood Spaghetti at Sokhak Restaurant, Siam Reap

dscf1586Khmer Tom Yum Soup at Sokhak Restaurant, Siam Reap

dscf1589Pub Street at New Year Eve 2017, Siam Reap

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Cambodia Day 7: Siam Reap Tour

We woke up at 4 am today to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The trip from city center to Angkor Wat took about 20 minutes and another 10 minutes walk from the car park to inside the complex. We departed from Ta Prohm Hotel at 5 am, but actually we should have gone earlier at 4 am. When we arrive near the small lake outside Angkor Wat, it has already full of tourists and we can’t have a good spot for decent photographs. Certainly getting early and book a seat there is a better option.

dscf0829Waiting for Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Siam Reap
After the sunrise we went inside the Angkor Wat and go directly to the third level of Angkor Wat to see the surrounding from higher point of view. You should go there directly after the sunrise to avoid long queue (sometimes it took an hour to get there). We queue for 15 minutes before hiking to the third level. The panorama from there is quite good, but nothing spectacular. We toured around the temple further afterwards then got back to our car.

dscf0940Second Level of Angkor Wat, Siam Reap

dscf0967View from the Third Level of Angkor Wat, Siam Reap

siam-reap10Stairway to the Second Level of Angkor Wat, Siam Reap

siam-reap11Pillars at the Third Level of Angkor Wat, Siam Reap

dscf0984Apsara Carving at Angkor Wat, Siam Reap

dscf0988Angkor Wat, Siam Reap

dscf0994Inside the Angkor Wat Complex, Siam Reap

dscf0996Hallway at Angkor Wat, Siam Reap

dscf1002Angkor Wat Taken from the Moat, Siam Reap

The second stop was Angkor Thom, an ancient city nearby Angkor Wat. The complex was 12 Km2, but the temple inside was not very large, there isn’t a lot to photograph there, as tourists have crowded the area. We continue our trip to Ta Prohm, the famous temple in Tomb Raider movie by Anglina Jolie. It was also crowded in there, but it is amazing to see how nature and ancient architecture interwined together. Definitely should go in Cambodia.

dscf1059Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, Siam Reap

dscf1065Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, Siam Reap

dscf1078Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom, Siam Reap

dscf1090Elephant Terrace and Terrace of the Leper King, Angkor Complex

dscf1105Ta Prohm, Siam Reap

dscf1126The Jungle-Interwined Temple of Ta Prohm, Siam Reap

dscf1158The Jungle-Interwined Temple of Ta Prohm, Siam Reap

We headed back to town around 11 am and have slightly early lunch in the PubStreet. Our tour had ended, but we planned to go to Phnom Bakheng for sunset later on. We took a shower (we haven’t this morning) and slept for two hours until 14.00.

dscf1190Pub Street at the City Centre, Siam Reap

At 14.00 sharp we woke up and change our clothes, we departed to Phnom Bakheng by tug-tug, for only $ 15 back and forth including 3 hours waiting time. We also tour around the Angkor archeological complex for 45 minutes before going to Phnom Bakheng. We arrived at the foot of Phnom Bakheng at 3.30 pm and paid $5 to ride a motorcycle up the hill instead of walking. You could also took an elephant ride for $20, but the queue is quite long.

dscf1205Stairway to Phnom Bakheng, Siam Reap

dscf1211View from Phnom Bakheng, Siam Reap

dscf1214Tourists Waiting for Sunset at Phnom Bakheng, Siam Reap

dscf1290Phnom Bakheng, Siam Reap

The view from Phnom Bakheng was okay, but we can’t see Angkor Wat from the top and many trees were coverig our view. We descent the hill for 20 minutes then went back to the city.

dscf1310A kid (local vendor) Eating Spider at Pub Street, Siam Reap

dscf1314Fried Spider, Scorpion, Other Insects and Worm Sold at the Pub Street

dscf1316Fried Spiders

dscf1317Fried Scorpion

dscf1325Lively Environment of Pub Street at Night, Siam Reap

We ate at the Old House, a very recommended and affordable western and local restaurant in the PubStreet, I had a pork steak for $7 while my father had a tom yum for $5.

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