Which university? Which course of study?

Aim for a course that best suits you, rather than enrol in the most lucrative one

The university admissions season is in full swing, and this is an exciting time for students in Singapore.

The tertiary education landscape here has expanded significantly, and there are now many varied and interesting pathways for students to choose from, from traditional professional degree courses in medicine or engineering, to music and the liberal arts and science.

Many parents I met at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Open Day last month remarked that they are envious of the plethora of choices their children have, and wish to be young once more.

Some of you may have secured multiple offers from different universities in Singapore and overseas, and you will have to make an acceptance decision soon. But how should one decide?

Every year, the Ministry of Education publishes the employment rates and median starting salaries of fresh graduates of the different degree programmes offered by local universities.

I certainly hope students do not make decisions based solely on data obtained through the Graduate Employment Survey (GES). GES data provides an indication of starting salaries. Starting salaries are but a guide; they neither set the course nor determine one's career trajectory or destiny.

In this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous or "Vuca" world, one cannot predict the future or where the lucrative jobs will be. You would therefore want your university education to equip you with broad-based life skills, and develop you with the flexibility and resilience needed to pick up new knowledge, adapt to new circumstances, and exploit job opportunities across a variety of sectors throughout your lifetime of careers.

Another consideration is whether and how the university course adds value to your educational journey.

Choosing a university that excels in your area of interest may also open up more specialised opportunities, such as advanced facilities, academic opportunities such as overseas study or research trips, as well as internships and employment opportunities with prestigious organisations in the industry. Beyond academic reputation, your choice of university will also affect your life intellectually, socially and professionally.

Some students (and parents) may look to university rankings as a measure of the strength of a university department. And there are definitely synergies between research and education.

If the university department excels in research, and counts world-leading researchers in the field, it is likely that cutting-edge research will filter through to your learning experience. You will have the opportunity to be taught by highly regarded academics, and there will be plenty of opportunities to conduct research under the who's-who in the field.

This is particularly valuable if you have a very strong interest in research or academia.

Choosing a university that excels in your area of interest may also open up more specialised opportunities, such as advanced facilities, academic opportunities such as overseas study or research trips, as well as internships and employment opportunities with prestigious organisations in the industry.

Beyond academic reputation, your choice of university will also affect your life intellectually, socially and professionally.

You should evaluate the entire student experience, and whether it will suit you. Find out if the social setting on campus is what you would want to be part of.

NUS has, for example, the Yale-NUS College and the University Town Residential College programmes, which offer an integrated living and learning experience, amid a collegial and intellectually vibrant setting. Another distinctive programme is the NUS Overseas Colleges programme, where students get to live, work and study in an entrepreneurial hub such as Silicon Valley, New York City or Stockholm, taking entrepreneurship classes at a partner university while working in promising entrepreneurial start-ups.

All universities have carefully developed their own suite of programmes and it is worth your time and effort to find out what is on offer. Talk to the professors, and to current students.

Universities hold Open Days and various outreach sessions where you can visit the campus and get first-hand information.

The best-ranked university or the programme that offers you two degrees in the shortest duration may sound attractive, but they may not necessarily be what you are looking for. 

Some of you may want an intensely academic experience, and to pick up as many degrees in the shortest possible time. Yet others may prefer to develop a broader range of capabilities, to try out new things, or to pursue more varied experiences.

You should aim to identify a university and a course that best suits you, and not simply enrol in the most competitive or lucrative course. After all, you will be spending your next three to four years in this programme.

For those of you whose grades may not meet the degree programme's published entry requirements, do not give up.

All local universities have discretionary admissions schemes. Last year, NUS interviewed a record 1,600 students under the scheme, and admitted 670 students.

This scheme allows universities to assess applicants more holistically, and to consider their passions and attributes such as leadership, resilience or entrepreneurial skills or talent in non-academic areas.

The good news is that from the next academic year onwards, NUS, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University can take in more students under the Discretionary Admissions Scheme, from 10 per cent of the annual intake currently, to up to 15 per cent. This will enable more students to enter universities on the basis of their strengths and talents, beyond academic performance.

There is no perfect university.

What is key is to make a considered decision with the resources and information that are available to you. Your degree should help start you on the journey to where you want to go. The know- ledge, experiences and opportu- nities in your university life should also prepare you for life beyond your degree. As a student in Singapore, you will have up to the beginning of June to decide on your offers from most of the local universities. Whatever you eventually decide on, make the most of your university experience because, for many, it will be the best time of your life.

• Prof Tan is deputy president (academic affairs) and provost at the National University of Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline 'Which university? Which course of study?'. Print Edition | Subscribe