IvyMatch Consulting: A hearty chat with Dorothy and her girls

(This exclusive interview first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 18 June 2014.)

Dorothy Tam has achieved an extremely rare feat as a parent-both her daughters Vivienne and Janelle are enrolled in Princeton University, with Janelle even being named a future Canadian leader under 25 by McLean's ( Both girls who were born in Singapore and studied in the Raffles Girls' Primary School's Gifted Education Program moved to Canada in 2007). An experienced family literacy facilitator herself, Dorothy has gone one better this time by setting up IvyMatch Consulting with her two princesses, an outfit which strives to provide advisory services on making applications to premier tertiary institutions in the world. And evidently they are more than qualified to do so. We caught up with them ahead of an upcoming June 28 workshop they will be conducting for parents to learn more about the secrets behind their winning mindsets, aspirations and goals in life.

QN: It is a great pleasure to have you ladies with us today. How about a round of proper introductions and telling our readers what each of you are currently busy with apart from preparing for the workshop later this month?

ANS: Hi! Thanks so much for having us. So I'm Dorothy, the mum, who is accompanying my husband on his sabbatical in Singapore. My two daughters are Vivienne and Janelle. In between their hours at their respective research internships - Vivienne at NTU and Janelle at the Institute of Medical Biology at A*STAR - they have been spending every other remaining minute to meet up with old family and friends they grew up with but haven't seen in years!

QN: Your family migrated to Canada when both Vivienne and Janelle were still very young. Why the decision to relocate?

ANS: I lived in Canada from age 11 to 23 so it was always my desire to go back. When my husband got offered a job in Canada at the University of Waterloo, the whole family decided to relocate there 7 years ago.

QN: To Vivienne and Janelle, did you girls experience any significant culture shock when you began schooling in Ontario, Canada? What would you say are the greatest differences between the education system over there and here in Singapore?

ANS: Yes, for sure! First of all, you bow to teachers in Singapore while you hi-five them in Canada - that was one big adjustment! But in all seriousness, the Canadian system is a lot more relaxed. We were very shocked by how many grade levels we were able to skip - particularly in maths and science. Canada also emphasizes following your passion, being creative and taking initiative more than Singapore does. We were encouraged to express ourselves, whether that meant wearing our own clothes to school or starting our own club. This was harder in Singapore, although Singapore was great in helping us build a strong foundation of discipline and knowledge and we are very thankful for that.

QN: To Dorothy, what was your approach towards bringing up the girls? Are you more of a Tiger Mom or a Dolphin Mom?

ANS: Definitely, a dolphin mom. Dolphins are great at communicating and I would like to think that that was one aspect I tried to cultivate in my relationship with the girls though I did strongly encourage that they strive for excellence. I emphasized character training over academics and adopted a strict but loving approach while trying to set a good example and developing a strong bond with the girls. Consistency in what you say and do is so important because hypocrisy and inconsistency sends confusing messages and will diminish your authority in the early years and influence in the later years.

QN: To Vivienne and Janelle, do both of you agree with Mummy's reply? Feel free to praise and rebut.

ANS: Vivienne - Yes that was definitely one thing that Mom was exceptional at. Whenever we would come back from school, we would always have a chat over fruit while she asked us about our days in detail. We were very comfortable telling our Mom about the happenings in our days and that cultivated a lot of trust. Thus, when she did tell us to do things, we knew that was for our best.

Janelle - She was definitely a Dolphin Mom, able to strike a good balance between maintaining authority and discipline, while giving us the freedom to do what we wanted (within safe boundaries). If I ever brought back a bad grade, Mom would always ask me: "Did you do your best?" If I could honestly answer yes, then she would tell me that was good enough for her. She challenged me to find the excellence that I was capable of, regardless of what my peers were attaining. If she ever did make a mistake in her discipline of us, she would be sure to apologize.

QN: How does Daddy feature in the grand scheme of things? Is he more of the passive, good guy in the family or does he get into the thick of the action when everyone was busy growing up?

ANS: Vivienne - Dad was definitely the calmer one of the two; though he was not as intense as Mom, he showed his care in many other ways - from allowing us to work in his lab to discussing science over the dinner table to get us interested. So, I would picture him as the solid rock of the family, although you could get him quite fired up once he started talking about research!

Janelle - While Mom primarily resided over the nitty-gritty details of our lives (making sure we did our homework, practiced our instruments, and cleaned our rooms, for example), my Dad made sure to play an active role in our spiritual and emotional growth. He used appropriate moments to impart a biblical truth, brought us on enriching vacations, instilled in us a love for science and was the final say in disciplinary issues.

QN: If mother-daughter roles were reversed, what would each of you have done differently, and why?

ANS: Vivienne - If I were Mom, I think the only thing I would change would be to let me go to RGS instead of MGS when I was offered a place at RGS after PSLE. I think Mom was a bit too concerned that the pressure would get to me and thought that MGS would offer a better environment; however I missed the challenge of being in a place like RGS a lot.

Janelle - If I were Mom, I would have implemented stricter controls on the internet when I was younger, because I was very easily and often distracted by that, which inhibited my productivity. She did a great job of controlling our TV watching (which I think was essential), but eliminating the distraction of the web would have been even more effective.

Dorothy - If I were Vivienne, I would have gone to talk to the teacher about my desire to try out for the badminton team even though I missed the first day of tryouts. Later, Vivienne realized that tryouts were the whole week and not just one day. Because Vivienne was too scared to talk to the teacher, she missed out being on the team though she was one of the better ones in her class. If I were Janelle, I would have worked harder on being tidy in my early years because it's easier to build a good habit from young.

QN: Let's talk about IvyMatch Consulting-how did the idea of incoporating such a consultancy come about? Any memorable obstacles encountered whilst setting things up?

ANS: My husband felt that I had learnt a lot going through the application process to the U.S universities with both my daughters and that many parents would benefit from the sharing. Since we are going to be in Singapore over the summer, we thought this would be a perfect time to share this knowledge since there are probably many parents who want their child to go to a U.S. university but don't know how to help their child. This workshop will prepare parents to help their child simply from the perspective from a mom who has gone through the system and can give personal advice.

Of course, none of us had any experience setting up a company like this so we had a rocky start trying to figure out how to publicize our workshop. We are still learning and we sometimes have doubts as we climb this steep learning curve but it's been an interesting journey - and we hope that parents will be blessed by it! Also, we plan to donate all profits from this business to charity. This is the biggest motivation for us to embark on this business.

Janelle - As well, we feel that there are many misconceptions floating around about applying to competitive US universities which ends up putting a lot of stress on students and parents alike. Thus, we want to introduce how we had made it into an Ivy League university - without it becoming an all-consuming pursuit.

QN: Visitors browsing your website will be made clearly aware that you ladies mainly offer advice concerning applying to study in top notch colleges in the US and Canada; could you share with us something extra that is not already published on the world wide web?

ANS: Vivienne - I would say that the best advice that the Internet will not give you is - be real. Don't pretend to be who you're not because the admission officers are experienced and they know what is put on and what is not. Don't be afraid of being honest - good applications are candid and genuine. Besides, you want the college to be a good match for you, so if you pretend to be someone you're not - and you do get in with that persona, it might not work out to be the best for you. So don't worry too much about how you come off - just be real and you'll get in where you need to get in.

Janelle - I agree with that! Admissions officers are not looking for students that fit in a preconceived mold. Of course, they want to see excellence, but they want to see it in any area that you are passionate about. They look at you as a person first and not a score, which is how the US system is so different from the UK or Australian system, which seem to be much more grades-focused. Not all of my classmates now are world champions at something, but they are some of the most interesting, diverse people I have ever met.

Dorothy - What we will share at the workshop is a compilation of countless hours of research I had put in to help the girls prepare for their application plus sharing of personal experience as well as the experiences of other Ivy League classmates. I find I get so much more by going to a workshop or class than just reading information on my own.

QN: A sizeable number of Singaporean students are rather obsessed with the SATs because they think that achieving exceptional scores in those tests will almost allow them to enter top Ivy League universities much more easily. How do you feel about this?

ANS: SATs are definitely not a be-all and end-all. They are only part of the equation. Of course, there are many other parts to the application - but if you want to know more about this in detail, you'll have to come to our workshop on June 28th :)

QN: More about this upcoming June 28 workshop. Apart from inspiring greater confidence in parents with regards to getting their children take aim at the likes of Harvard, Princeton and Yale, what other important messages do you hope to convey?

ANS: Dorothy - I hope to convey that parents play a critical role in helping their children to realize their potential and fulfill their dream. I would like parents to be encouraged and inspired in their parenting journey to build a good relationship with their children and to give attention to character training because academic success can't be achieved without that foundation.

Vivienne - I think for me, I would like to tell kids that success really isn't about whether you carry the name brand of HYP (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) or not. You think you'll be completely happy ONLY IF you get into one of these schools, but then you get there and you still see people with depression because they can't cope. So, it's not as if getting in is going to solve everything. Rather, you have to figure out what kind of person you want to be and what success means to you - and go after it. It might mean going to HYP, but don't let what other people define as success affect your opinion of whether or not you think you are successful. Don't let everything hinge on that one acceptance letter.

Janelle - I would like students to see the bigger picture: that university applications not as an end in of themselves, but an essential process of reflecting on who they've become and learning to present that to the world. I want to cut through the myths - the obsession with grades, the idea that there is a "cookie-cutter" Ivy League student that one must conform to - to present a real picture of what's it's like to apply and what students should actually focus on. This is a stressful process, but the more you educate yourself about it, the less you have to worry!

QN: Getting "personal" once again, where do each of you ladies see yourself 10 years down the road?

ANS: Dorothy - I see myself as being a full supporter of my husband and my children in their respective careers. I hope I will be a grandma.

Vivienne - Wow, that definitely puts a bit of pressure on me to have a child in 10 years! Haha..but in 10 years, I will hopefully be well on my way to get a PhD in Biomedical Engineering somewhere in the States. Maybe I'll move back to Asia - this trip to Singapore has definitely made that option a lot more tantalizing. The roti prata is just too great.

Janelle - Thankfully, as the youngest child, there isn't as much pressure on me to bear grandkids! In all seriousness though, there are so many possibilities right now that I just don't know. I hope to have obtained a graduate degree of some kind - perhaps a PhD, MD or both? - and on the path of an exciting career that allows me to be creative. Perhaps I will in fact be married and have a family, but that's hardly something I can predict :)

QN: Before wrapping up this interview, a couple of last words for our readers?

ANS: Dorothy - The information given at the workshop will be very helpful for any parent who want their child to go to university, whether they're in the middle of primary school (it's always good to start early!) or hoping to apply to university next year (it's never too late).

Vivienne - To students: Find something you're passionate about and pursue it! Don't just passively do things because you've been doing it all this while. Also, your parents mean well - and they're right...all those piano lessons will be worth it, so practice your piano.

To parents: I seriously think the workshop will be amazing and very beneficial if you want to learn more about this topic. As well, make sure that the things your children are pursuing are their dreams and not yours imposed on them. They'll likely be much more motivated to do them if they are personally invested in them.

Janelle - While this workshop is focused on admission to top US universities, I think it is really about how to achieve excellence in general. The philosophy taught is not that you should strive after many things with the singular aim of getting into university, but that you should pursue excellence in your passions, and focus on personal development such that you naturally become the kind of student any university would love to have.

Thank you ladies for your patience/generosity in providing insights to your magical world of learning and sharing. We wish you all the best in your future endeavors, and may your upcoming workshop be a resounding success!