The Winners’ Curse of Top School Admissions

By Terence Ang

Children are like Bonsai — They Require Careful Pruning and Suitable Environments to Grow and Thrive.

For many parents and students, the pot of gold at the end of the tuition rainbow is entry into a prestigious school. Whether it is the PSLE, O Levels or A Levels (or even SATs/ACTs), the reason why parents pour their hard earned money into private tuition is for the stellar grades that promises entry into top schools and a better life (Why the Tuition “Arms Race” is not Going Away). The funny thing is that just like in an auction, where the winning bidder sometimes gets buyers remorse from overpaying (“Winners’ Curse”), parents sometimes regret after seeing their kids struggling to stay afloat in their “dream” school. How did that much coveted top school spot turn into a nightmare?

1. Scraping into a Top School Could Mean Your Child is Woefully Out of Depth

For Some Students, Sleep Becomes a Luxury

Top Schools are much coveted for a reason — they are “pressure-cookers”, designed to churn out top academic performers through a brutal workload, competitive culture and great teachers who push the students to exceed their own perceived academic capabilities. Parents buy into this because they believe that “planting” their children into such an environment would inevitably make them top students. However what they do not realize is that without the proper mindset and handling, it could be an extremely demoralizing experience. Top school exam papers are really hard, and the curriculum moves really quickly. While normal schools would spend time helping their students build a good foundation, top schools assume the knowledge and push ahead with the more challenging stuff to stretch the kids. Failing becomes rather normal, and if not taken in the right spirit, a bright child would very quickly feel mediocre and the drop in morale could hurt the eventual results in major exams. What compounds this issue is when a child barely scrapes into the school and does not have the requisite fundamentals in place to survive in a high-paced environment. That is not to say that these kids would not succeed, but that more effort and preparation has to go into making the experience an enriching and meaningful one.

2. Children are like Bonsai, and not all of them will Thrive in a Greenhouse

Bonsai requires great care to become the beautiful pieces of art that they are. Greenhouses on the other hand trap sunlight to boost the growth of plants. Putting the two together, however, would ensure that the Bonsai almost certainly wilts. Insisting that a child attend a particular school for the sake of prestige can be like placing a Bonsai in a greenhouse. It is a failure to take into account the cultural fit between the child and the school. Instead of thinking about schools in terms of absolute ranking, it would be more practical and prudent to think of them in terms of brackets. Materially, whether you go to Raffles Junior College (RJC) or Victoria Junior College (VJC) would not make a massive difference. Fixating on statistics like “x% of RJC students get 4As” ignores the self-selection phenomenon that explains why so many kids do well there — the kids that end up there already have a propensity to do well, whether they were in RJC or VJC. The fact is whether your child does well in a particular school depends on many other contributory factors like the culture of the student body, the teaching style and the structure of the curriculum. Ultimately choosing a best fit beats maximizing the minute rank differences within a particular bracket of schools.

3. Attending a Top School Comes with Extra Baggage

Staying Back for School Related Activities Till Late is Extremely Common

The best schools often seek to develop their students holistically. This means that the heavy workload does not stop at academics. Students are often expected to be fully committed to a co-curricular activity (CCA) that could train three to five times a week when in season, take on leadership positions with great responsibility for planning and executing on school and community-based events and even take on extra non-core modules like Philosophy, Coding or Project Work that requires at least a pass for promotion. It is not uncommon for students in these schools to survive on very little sleep and complete their homework late into the night, even burning weekends and holidays in school for project meetings, CCAs and community involvement programs. Top schools are designed to push students to their limits and train them to be movers and shakers in society, to learn to take on responsibility at a young age and teach them to make a difference. Understanding this goes a long way to helping your child navigate this challenging landscape. Fighting to attend a top school merely for a great academic experience could be a costly mistake.


A great education is process of molding your child to his or her maximum potential, not just academically but strengthening their character, developing their soft skills and providing a platform for them to find their forte. But a great education does not only happen in a top school, it happens when the student finds an environment where they can thrive in. The notion of a top school is extremely narrowly defined, and largely rests on the historical academic prowess of the school. Good schools come up all the time and could represent great opportunities for different types of students to grow and develop in less of a “cookie-cutter” style environment. Fixating on the rank of a school is letting many other important characteristics fall by the wayside. Ultimately, a complete education requires good schooling and great support at home, in the academic and emotional development aspects.

This post was first published over at Medium on 23 July 2017. It is reproduced with permission.


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