7,000 candidates... and SMU will interview them all

University looking for X-factor, in belief that grades are not everything

WITH more than 7,000 candidates vying for places this year, interviewing every single one is a major undertaking.

But despite the burgeoning number of applicants, Singapore Management University (SMU) has kept this long-standing practice in place.

The school's president, Professor Arnoud De Meyer, says it still insists on interviewing every candidate because it believes that academic results alone provide an incomplete picture.

"Exam grades are a valid assessment measure, but they cannot be the sole measure of a student's ability, or the single predictor of success," he said.

The university was the first in Singapore to require all candidates to go through an interview.

It started the practice 13 years ago, when 2,000 students applied to become part of its pioneer batch.

Today, the interviews are still a requirement - even though the number of candidates shortlisted for the six undergraduate degree courses has more than trebled to 7,000.

They are conducted either individually or in groups, with professors on the lookout for intellectual curiosity, leadership qualities and that "spark or X-factor".

In the group interviews, they search for candidates with the ability to listen to other views and put forward their own in a cogent manner.

The process started last month and will continue until the end of May.

"At the end of the day, we want students who will fully participate and benefit from the education they will receive over the four years," said Prof De Meyer.

Professor Pang Yang Hoong, vice-provost in charge of undergraduate education, said the university has rejected some straight-A students over the years because they performed poorly in the interviews.

Others have been accepted despite borderline grades, after leaving a good impression with the way they presented their views.

Several of these students have gone on to achieve high grade-point averages while building impressive resumes of co-curricular activities, and even representing Singapore at sport.

They include former national judoka Cheryl Goh, who entered the school with average polytechnic grades but emerged among the top of her class in business management in 2006.

She had initially applied to all three of Singapore's universities and did not even make the shortlists.

After The Straits Times reported on her plight, SMU invited her for an interview.

The 32-year-old, who is now business planning manager at Neptune Orient Lines in Shanghai, said: "They were really taking a bold step in granting me an interview. They were telling the entire education system that grades are not everything."

SMU's approach differs from that of the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, which select the vast majority of students based on their academic grades.

Mr Alan Goh, who served as its admissions director from 2004 to 2011, said the interview process had proven useful over the years.

He added: "Employers tell us there is still the SMU difference - that our students are a distinct breed, outspoken, confident and willing to tackle the unfamiliar. The interview is the first step in building that confident, articulate young person."

Mr Gordon Yeo is another SMU alumnus who clinched a place through the interview.

He went on to graduate with double degrees and a near-perfect grade-point average.

The 25-year-old, who now works as an analyst with an investment firm, scored a B and two Cs in his A-levels.

If not for the interview, he would not have gained a place at the university.

He said: "I am glad for the wider admission process that SMU uses. If not, I would have missed out on that special SMU brand of education."

sandra@sph.com.sg