A Primer for Prospective University Applicants: How to Optimize Your Selection of University Courses and Adapt to the Demands of University (Part I)

(This post by Mr Koh Kian Leon first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 28 March 2014. It is the first of two parts.)

By Koh Kian Leon

My Background

Believe it or not, I was once like you, the eager aspirant who naively believed that the world was my oyster upon graduation from Junior College. I had just collected my GCE “A” Level Results, and had scored straight As for all my subjects (Triple Science, Maths, GP, PW). “This is it,” I thought to myself, “This is where it all begins for me. I’m going to fulfill my parents’ wishes and apply to NUS Medicine, and become a doctor. They’ll be so proud of me!”

Fast forward a couple of months, and my dreams were in tatters: I had been rejected by both NUS Medicine and Law. I couldn’t believe it. I was confident that I had performed well for both the interviews and tests. How was it possible that I couldn’t get into either NUS Medicine or Law? The only saving grace I had was an offer from SMU Law, the natural third choice at the time given that NUS Law was the more established and reputable law school in Singapore.

Thankfully but unbeknownst to me, I had actually been placed on NUS Law’s reserve list; within a few weeks, I made the best career decision of my life back then: I accepted the offer from NUS Law, and have not looked back since.

What I Learnt from My Experiences

It is only with the benefit of hindsight and experience that I am now able to surmise the reasons for my rejection. The first is competition. Medicine and Law are renowned locally to be highly competitive courses, which only the country’s brightest talents may stand a chance to enter. Moreover, the lack of an alternative undergraduate medical school in Singapore further restricts the number of vacancies for aspiring doctors. Contrast this with the situation in the UK where there are numerous undergraduate medical schools like Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL, just to name a few. With the introduction of a second law school in Singapore, the level of competition to read Law may then have been somewhat alleviated. I believe that I was rejected on my first attempt not because I wasn’t good enough, but because I had listed Law as my second choice in my application form. Students of similar calibre who had ranked NUS Law as their first choice would therefore stand a better chance than I did.

The second reason was my lack of practical work experience in both Medicine and Law. While it may sound incredible to expect an "A" level graduate have great insight into medical or legal practice, the experience a student could glean from an internship in either field is both invaluable and insightful. On a personal level, it enables a student to develop an informed opinion about whether his perception of these disciplines is truly aligned with the reality of professional practice (upon graduation); practically, it imbues students with genuine knowledge of how these professions operate, which they can subsequently showcase at the interview stage to distinguish themselves from the competitive pool of similarly talented students.

Optimal Selection of University Courses for You, and You Alone

It is impossible to discuss career optimization for the general body of students because every individual has different aspirations and talents. Moreover, some are saddled with unreasonable parental expectations, while others might be concerned with their potential A level grades or finances. At the broadest level, there are generally four principal factors which influence a student’s selection of University courses: (1) personal ambition; (2) parental expectation; (3) academic aptitude; and (4) financial ability. These factors are largely interconnected with one another, which makes it more difficult for a student to develop an optimized career plan without the proper guidance.

As a starting platform to help students decide (and at the risk of oversimplification and overgeneralization), I am going to rank what I objectively believe to be the optimal course selection locally for students with good “A” level grades into two columns below, based on their personal interest. This is based on a variety of factors: (1) career prospects; (2) financial rewards; (3) job satisfaction; (4) tuition fees; (5) industry knowledge and (6) personal perspective (I’m from NUS law after all). Please note that this list only explores single degree options and not double degree options. This list is also extremely general in nature and is not to be treated as the “holy grail” for course rankings; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to this.

Dentistry or Medicine?

There are several reasons why I have ranked Dentistry more highly than Medicine. Firstly, for the average person, Dentistry can often offer greater job satisfaction and work-life balance than Medicine in the short-to-medium term post-graduation. This is because Medicine is intrinsically more demanding and exhausting than perhaps any other discipline in the world today, which increases the probability of premature disillusionment and burnout (even mid-way through the course!). Secondly, Dentistry may allow for young dentists to reap greater financial rewards in the short-to-medium term, especially if they transition into private dental practice after serving their mandatory four-year bond. This would make it more ideal for applicants who wish to build their warchest quickly after graduation. Do not pursue Medicine if the objective of employment is simply to make money; disillusionment and a deep sense of job dissatisfaction is likely to follow.

Law, Business or Accountancy?

Law is, in my humble opinion, simply one of the most cost-effective courses in Singapore for three reasons. First, the school fees are relatively affordable because there are no lab and clinical tuition fees associated with most science-related courses (including medicine and dentistry). Second, it is a financially rewarding profession. The recent Graduate Employment Survey 2013 published by MOE demonstrates that the median basic monthly income drawn by fresh NUS law graduates is estimated to be S$4,800, which is superior to its business graduates (S$3,050) and accountancy graduates ($2,700). Third, while the study of law is initially daunting, it is nevertheless surmountable; students merely have to ensure that they pass law school (and the subsequent bar exams) in order to be able to practice law in Singapore. Moreover, post-graduation employment is largely guaranteed since the local intake is capped at less than 450 students per year, as reflected in the Survey results (NUS law graduates enjoyed a Full-time Permanent Employment Rate of 98.2%).

Deciding between business and accountancy is, on the other hand, a matter of preference. Business students have the option of majoring in finance, which equips them with the fundamentals necessary to work in any finance-related role (e.g., banking, consultancy, trading, valuation, equity research, advisory, risk, corporate finance etc). While a business degree is extremely flexible given its breadth, scope and universal generality, it is also perceived as a riskier career option because it is not strictly a “professional” degree unlike accountancy. Between the two, accountancy (with a view to becoming an auditor) definitely provides for the more stable career option, but this comes at a price: first-year auditors are generally paid less, work long hours, and derive limited job satisfaction because of the mundane nature of “vouching” (a technical term which is the essence of auditing in practice). On the other hand, fresh business graduates (especially those with unsatisfactory grades) may initially struggle to find an ideal job, especially if they had not proactively engaged themselves in multiple internships over the course of their undergraduate studies to enhance their technical knowledge and experience (and hence their attractiveness to employers). That being said, business students with excellent grades and good internship experience will often have a greater variety of career options available to them than their accountancy counterparts. This may even be associated with a higher starting salary and give rise to greater job satisfaction!

In the final analysis, I view the study of law as an excellent starting point for personal development because it is both a specialist area (which offers fresh graduates good job security and career prospects) and yet is sufficiently versatile and malleable in nature. This empowers graduates with reasonable post-qualification experience to explore alternative career options outside of legal practice.

End of Part 1. For Part 2, visit HERE.

About The Author

Leon is a NUS law graduate specializing in career planning for prospective university applicants and English/GP tuition for secondary school and JC students, with a focus on the essay writing component and the development of core writing skills. He has had substantial experience of close to three years mentoring students, with all of his students demonstrating dramatic improvements under his proactive tutelage and genuine care.

Feel free to visit his personal website over at http://thecareertutor.weebly.com for his background, teaching pedagogy, as well as his tutoring services and rates.


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