When outstanding is just average

March 15, 2008 at 11:00 pm Leave a comment

March 15, 2008
To get into a top-notch university, Mayank Soni and Mayank Dalakoti needed straight As.
The good news is, they snagged those scores.
The bad news is, so did 57 other RJC students.
By Sandra Davie

AS THE students advance down the queue to receive their result slips, anxiety is etched all over their faces.

Some clutch amulets. One fingers her rosary, mouthing her prayers. Some seek last-minute parental reassurances on the phone.

Once these Raffles Junior College students, the creme de la creme from Singapore’s most pedigreed secondary schools, receive their result slips, their worries break into relief, grins and high-fives.

But a handful dissolve into tears, as if their perfect world has crashed. In between sobbing, most admit that, all things considered, their results are good – sullied perhaps by one B or C. But they fear that the results are not good enough to secure the most coveted scholarships.

Among the triumphant with perfect scores, the rejoicing dies down after they get wind of the fact that there are 58 other RJC students – just like them – who turned in flawless scores.

Those aiming for a seat in the world’s best universities then begin vexing if they had done enough to edge out the others. They wonder if they should have taken up an extra sport or initiated another overseas community expedition.

Welcome to a world where being outstanding is, well, just normal.

Not for nothing is Raffles Junior College known as the most successful high school in the world. It was labelled the ‘Ivy League Machine’ by the Wall Street Journal four years ago.

The leading American newspaper said RJC fed more students to the elite Ivy League schools in the United States than most leading high schools in the US.

Going by the superlative A-level performance of the latest batch of RJC students, the school lives up to its reputation. Of the 1,236 students who received their A-level results on Friday last week, 885 students scored distinctions in at least three H2 subjects, the equivalent of an A-level subject. About half of the cohort – 614 of them – scored a minimum of four As.

A beaming Mrs Lim Lai Cheng, who recently took over as principal of the school, pronounced the results ‘satisfying’. But many of her students aiming for a berth in top American and British universities went home with a worried look on their faces, fretting if their results were good enough for the top universities or faculties they were gunning for.

The schools most have applied for include, of course, ‘HYP’ – shorthand for Harvard, Yale and Princeton – as well as other ‘gotta-get-ins’ such as Cornell, Brown and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For British applications, Cambridge and Oxford top the list.

Locally, most are eyeing a spot in the medical faculty at National University of Singapore (NUS), just about the most competitive course to get into. Last year, of the 1,950 who applied for medicine, only 250 got in.

Hence, many among the 209 who scored seven to nine distinctions say that when it comes to the very best universities worldwide or top faculties here, the challenge of making the cut is getting tougher.

Mayank Dalakoti, 18, who is aiming for the NUS medical faculty, scored nine As. He has done all he can – and more.

He was the school’s cricket captain and took part in the school talent competition and Indian cultural society. During his school holidays, he did two attachments, shadowing doctors at the National University Hospital and the Singapore National Eye Centre.

Still, a place in the NUS medical faculty will be no shoo-in.

‘I hope all that I have done demonstrates that I have what it takes and the interest and passion for medicine. A lot will depend on the interview, of course, which will be the next big hurdle,’ he says.

His friend, Mayank Soni, 18, another nine-A scorer who intends to study economics and engineering in the US, is also cautious when assessing his chances of landing a place in either Harvard, Yale, MIT, Cornell or Stanford, which he has applied to.

He founded a new co-curricular activity (a money-management society), won a silver medal in the international biology Olympiad, played cricket for the school and volunteered with the Singapore Association for the Deaf.

But he is bracing himself for the worst. ‘Although I have perfect grades, so do 58 others in RJC. And among the applicants to Harvard, I will just be the average, outstanding student,’ he laments.

In schools like Harvard and Yale where every other student is a valedictorian, with perfect or close to perfect Grade Point Averages and SAT scores, admissions officers look for other attributes, such as all-roundedness and ‘passion’.

Of course, RJC students are smart enough to know that ‘passion’ is not easily faked or packaged, no matter how many last-minute community and youth projects they can cram in during their holidays.

So most, like Tan Wei Lin, 18, who had six distinctions and is shooting for top-flight American universities, have a concerted strategy.

‘If you are faking it, I am sure admissions officers can see through it. I pick only the CCAs and projects that I have a genuine interest in. If not, it would be difficult to sustain my interest,’ she says.

Wei Lin, who is set on a career in science, did research attachments here and overseas and headed her school’s astronomy club. She took up bowling too but had to give it up because of a weak heart.

Her lack of sporting prowess bothers her. ‘I hope I don’t come across as being a science nerd,’ she confides.

Her friend and college mate, Diane Lee, 18, has already been through one searching interview with a Princeton University alumnus who grilled her to find out if she had ‘a burning inside’ for something.

Diane, who dreams of starting a social business enterprise related to alleviating climate change or poverty, hopes she was convincing enough.

Like many of her RJC mates, she is already planning ahead, considering whether she should twin her first degree with a master’s or MBA. By the time she completes her first degree, she knows the qualifications race would have moved on to graduate school, as it has in the US. So she is priming herself for that.

‘By then, a degree will be the basic. Employers will be asking, ‘So, what else do you have?” she says.

Her next goal is an MBA or a master’s in another field. Whatever it is, it must be from a top grad school like Harvard or Stanford, nothing less.

sandra@sph.com.sg

‘I am not the only one. Everyone in my class is doing it as well. I don’t know what I would do if I don’t get a place to study medicine.’SUSAN, 18, who is working in a free clinic to improve her chances of getting into the National University of Singapore medical faculty

‘If you are faking it, I am sure admissions officers can see through it. I pick only the CCAs and projects that I have a genuine interest in. If not, it would be difficult to sustain my interest.’TAN WEI LIN, 18, who has six distinctions and is shooting for top-flight American universities, on her strategy in choosing her CCAs

‘I worked hard all my life to get into a good secondary school and a good JC. I believe my A-level results show that I am deserving of a place in university. So I don’t understand why I don’t get to have a shot at it right here at home.’MS ANNIE TAN, 21, an A-level holder who scored A, B and E as well as a B for General Paper, but failed to qualify to read business at NUS, NTU and SMU last year due to fierce competition
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Entry filed under: education, elite, RJC, scholarship, Singapore.

If you have too many choices, how do you choose? Stressed-out varsity applicant? Check.

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