From Olympiads to MIT


Gleeful grins: (From left) Wong and Ong jubilant upon receiving news of their admission.

YEARS of diligence and dedication have paid off for Penang-born Ong Zhi Zheng and Wong Jer Ren.

This September, they will commence their undergraduate studies at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States.

Attesting to the importance of being well-rounded, the former INTI International College Penang Cambridge A Level students attributed their successful admission to their active participation in co-curricular activities.

Both Ong and Wong serve the Association of Malaysian Alumni of the International Science Olympiads (Amiso), with Ong as its president and Wong as its director of academics.

Ong won the gold medal at the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics and the silver medal at the International Physics Olympiad, both in 2023.

Wong won the gold medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) in 2022 and 2023.

Ong believes that joining and winning international competitions is vital for international students who wish to study at MIT.

“As international students, securing a spot requires double the effort compared to local students. We’d have to excel in every aspect possible, not just academically.

“The ability to highlight how these achievements make you a better candidate in your college application essay is equally important,” the 19-year-old told StarEdu.

Agreeing, Wong said joining the Olympiads gives one more exposure and experience outside of the academic world.

“That’s exactly what MIT looks for in its candidates. You can be a top achiever in your class but that doesn’t mean you can secure a spot at MIT,” the 20-year-old said.

While winning medals in the Olympiads is fulfilling, Ong said giving back to the community brings greater fulfilment.

“By being part of Amiso, we get to spread the word about the International Science Olympiads and create a network of Malaysian alumni worldwide,” he said.

Wong shared that his team manages content creation for Amiso’s social media platforms. “Our main target is high schoolers as their knowledge of the Olympiads is limited. There are a variety of Olympiads involving areas like formal sciences, natural sciences and social sciences. It’s our job to ensure they are informed about these competitions,” he said.

Ong recalled that when the MIT early admissions results were released, he and Wong were in the midst of a weekend-long national science experiment camp with Amiso.

“We were roommates. We accessed the portal early, and to our surprise, confetti adorned the screen, signalling our acceptance to MIT,” he said.

Wong expressed excitement about both him and Ong being admitted to MIT, especially “considering that MIT has only accepted one Malaysian undergraduate in the past four years”.

As an avid space enthusiast, Ong has set his sights on a double major in physics and computer science, while Wong intends to double major in mathematics and computer science. They also have plans for their future careers.

Ong aims to be involved in the research side of his aspired field, which is astronomy.

“I don’t particularly want to research outer space but more on developing products that contribute to the field.

“Physics has been my heart and soul ever since I was a kid. I want to apply the theoretical part to creating new things that can positively impact the field I’m planning to pursue a career in,” he said.

Wong said he is leaning towards building a career in artificial intelligence.

“One thing I know for sure is that I will not be a pure research mathematician in the future,” he said.

Their motivation to apply to MIT was deeply influenced by the institution’s reputation for fostering innovation and excellence, the duo said.

“MIT is the alma mater to many great minds, and the special thing about MIT is how it not only excels in academia and research but also bridges the gap to innovation by encouraging a more hands-on approach,” Ong said.

Wong was inspired to attend MIT by the stories of its alumni and their contributions to society.

“In the past, all I knew about MIT was that Suhaimi Ramly, the former head coach of the Malaysian IMO training who has actively promoted the Olympiad within the Malaysian community, is an MIT alumnus. Suhaimi is an inspiring figure and was the first reason I wanted to attend MIT,” he shared.

He added that MIT’s diverse course options and interdisciplinary collaborations will enable him to explore various realms and tackle ongoing global challenges.

To students aspiring to secure a spot in a prestigious university like MIT, Wong cautioned against making it their primary goal.

“Having the passion to learn beyond just scoring good grades and applying your knowledge practically is what keeps you going. It should come from within you and not externally,” he said.

Citing MIT’s motto “Mind and Hand”, he said it is only through the combination of thought and practical action that one will be able to solve current and future problems.

“Follow your passions so no matter what the outcome is, you don’t regret the process,” he added.

Ong emphasised the importance of joining internships and research projects in one’s field of interest, in addition to maintaining a good academic track record.

“This is important as it allows you to dive deep into your passions and discover more about your interests. It gives you a glimpse of your future career possibilities and sharpens your soft skills. This helps provide you with an edge over other candidates,” he said.

Nieha, 21, a student in Melaka, is a participant of the BRATs Young Journalist Programme run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team. For updates on the BRATs programme, go to facebook.com/niebrats.

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