Beyond A levels

Billion-dollar Question to identify and realise your aspiration

Students, tourists and visitors at Harvard University in the United States. The American educational approach is radically different. Many universities and liberal arts colleges there place a great deal of emphasis on breadth of learning.
Students, tourists and visitors at Harvard University in the United States. The American educational approach is radically different. Many universities and liberal arts colleges there place a great deal of emphasis on breadth of learning.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Finding out what fulfils you can help you determine what to study and where

What would you do if you had a billion dollars?

This is something I often ask my students.

"I would buy a football club and run it scientifically," said one.

"I'd still become a doctor and dedicate my life to helping those who don't have the privileges we enjoy," said another, whose service trips had greatly impacted her.

"I'd start a business and turn my one billion into10 billion," affirmed a third.

The point of this exercise is not to fantasise about wealth, but to consider what truly fulfils you.

Every student gives a different answer to the Billion-dollar Question, which is only one step in identifying and realising their aspirations. For them, the larger question right now is what to study and where.

Prospective university students these days have more options than ever. While this can often seem overwhelming, it also means that there is a right programme for everyone. From the teenager finishing his O levels who wants to go straight to university, to the poly student looking for an upgrade, to the straight-A full-time national serviceman, every student can find a fit in the vast tapestry of opportunities.

While Singapore's young university system has become a leader in Asia, many students are broadening their scope to universities in Australia and the West to find their niche.

Marginal considerations like educational philosophy, extracurricular opportunities and international exposure play a big role now.

Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom have similar education systems, and together they offer a wealth of educational opportunities in diverse settings. While the UK has the most options, its application process is also trickier.

The United States, meanwhile, offers more variety than any country, and its educational approach is radically different.

Many universities and liberal arts colleges there generally place a great deal of emphasis on breadth of learning. Literature students take science classes, while physics students learn about Asian history.

This broad approach to learning, say university officials, nurtures the kind of flexible and well-rounded mind capable of innovation and creative thinking.

It is important to put together a robust list of schools that offer exactly what the student is looking for. This can be diversity, an open culture, a specific dual-degree programme, a holistic liberal arts education - anything the student wants in his or her education.

All the while, it is also crucial to keep entry standards in mind. While there are enough programmes to satisfy everyone, certain universities will not take certain qualifications, and the most selective ones will require top grades.

Once the list is ready, there is a somewhat daunting application process. This involves recommendation letters, an alphabet soup of standardised tests, confusing interviews and, especially in the case of the US, many, many essays.

This makes planning essential.

When I tell students and parents about the hurdles ahead, they sometimes think: "It can't be all that hard, can it?"

This is when I mention that 30 or so essays sometimes are needed just for the written portion of the US application process. "They might as well ask my daughter to write a novel!" said one parent.

For international applicants, the most important thing to keep in mind is that students must present a full picture of themselves beyond their grades and test scores.

To impress mysterious admissions officers, students face a lot of pressure to go through internships and take part in volunteering initiatives, on top of academic success.

All too easily, students and parents can become confused about what to prioritise. While it is good to keep busy, applicants should remember that grades still come first, and that showing excellence and dedication outside of school is more important than having a long list of unconnected activities.

Using educational consultants has become increasingly common. We work together closely to help students bolster their profiles and the essay-writing element.

But for students who prefer to take on the process on their own, there are copious resources online. We have also developed an online platform, available for free, in order to reach many more students than we otherwise could.

While rising tuition costs and opaque requirements might seem like big obstacles, I have never seen a student who could not successfully surmount them.

Everyone can find his or her niche in the open and diverse educational landscape that America, Australia and the UK have to offer.

It takes knowledge, patience and dedication - but not a billion dollars.

•The writer is co-founder of Cialfo, a Singapore-based college admissions start-up. The company provides mentoring, profile-building services and a free online platform with resources on admissions to students who want to apply to US and UK colleges.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2016, with the headline 'Billion-dollar Question to identify and realise your aspiration'. Print Edition | Subscribe