If you haven’t done well at the A-Levels, it’s not the end.
I remember the day I received my A Level results. The hall was tense, with students ahead of me approaching the teacher with trepidation. Others started crying, the moment they saw their results.
I didn’t know what I could expect. I was confident. After all, I felt I had sailed through most of the questions.
My teacher handed me my results.
Looking down, I saw the row of grades.
Funnily enough, it spelt BAD. I was embarrassed. My dreams of becoming a doctor were cruelly crushed.
Wanting to get out of the hall as soon as possible to hide my shame, I walked away. My teacher called back,
She passed me a bag of scholarship materials.
I almost wanted to laugh.
I had done so badly, and she was still passing me a bag of scholarship materials?
I spent the next 3 months mopping around in my tears. I didn’t know what to do.
The bubble of my dreams had popped, and now there wasn’t anything else I could do.
Try, try and try
Then somewhere, on an obscure forum posting, I saw a student who shared about his journey through the Discretionary Admissions Scheme, which looked at the extra-curricular activities of the individual. And I thought – maybe that could be me.
For the next 2 years in the army, I did everything I could to take on leadership positions where I volunteered. I organised large-scale events, volunteered weekly, and did my best to do everything I could to demonstrate that I was special.
Maybe my grades weren’t spectacular, but I would prove that I had skills outside of mugging!
It was difficult.
Organising these events meant that whilst my friends in the army were having their nights out, I would be quickly commuting to a nearby friend’s home to use his computer, and settle the administrative details.
When I was on leave, I would go to the library to read up on leadership. When I was outfield, covered in mud and camouflage cream, I would be thumbing through books on self-development.
All these for a coveted spot in medicine.
When October 2015 came, I made the fateful call to Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine to ask if they would accept my application, with my added extracurricular activities.
There was no discussion. My grades simply didn’t make the cut.
I was lost. All the hard work over 2 years felt wasted.
I fell into a deep grief. Not knowing what to do, I started stuffing myself with food everyday, trying desperately to distract myself from the fact that I didn’t know what to do with my life.
In a month, I grew by 8kg. I even thought of ending my life. After all, what was the point of living, when I couldn’t study what I wanted? Was there still any point in continuing further?
One day, as I sat on the steps on the 14th floor of my HDB block, wondering if I should end my life, a primary school friend appeared.
John, you need to do something to get yourself out of this rut.
Do something, anything.
Not knowing where to start, I applied for every scholarship and course. There was no rhythm to my madness. I applied for fields as varied as accountancy, engineering, social work.
I got invited for scholarship interviews with universities such as SUTD, employers such as the SCDF, and statutory boards such as NCSS.
Eventually, I was awarded an overseas scholarship to study social work. It looks like a happy ending, but the process holds many lessons, especially for those who may be struggling at knowing what to do next after your dreams, hopes, or plans have been dashed by a poor showing at the national exams.
Be your own hero, by having an action bias
Looking back, when I first received my results, I could have accepted that I would never get a scholarship, and settle for something less.
That’s what many of my friends did. Many of them spent the 2 years of army simply playing their days away, treating it as a two-year holiday. I don’t say this to disparage them. But I think it’s important to note that you can make the most of any time, if you want to.
But I chose to do something about my results. I used the two years to build up leadership and organising skills, learning how to plan and execute well.
I came to a point where I had been rejected so much that I didn’t care about whether I would be rejected again. I placed in application after application to scholarship bodies, not bothering too much about the outcome. As Chen Jun, who previously got into companies like Amazon, once explained,
What really frustrates me is mentees who tell me they will never get into Big Tech. I ask them if they’ve applied. Their answer? No.
If you don’t apply, you will never get in.
If you never apply, you will never get in. Simply throw your hat into the ring. You will never know.
We can always throw a pity party, complaining about the things that we don’t get. Or we can choose to do something about it.
It’s your choice.
Ask yourself what the wider desire is
When I look back at my desire to study medicine, it wasn’t necessarily the desire to treat people with medications. But it was the intellectual challenge of solving difficult problems.
I found that with social work. When you find yourself unable to study something you initially want, ask yourself what may be underlying your desire to study that particular subject.
Is it because you like helping someone?
There’s always something beneath the surface, and there are always options to do what you want, just in a different way.
Don’t get fixated on only a single path, and a single route. There are more ways, if we are open to seeing them.
Have a life outside of school
When I was 17, and still in junior college, chasing the academic A-s in my life led me to question,
Is this all there is to life?
That was when I started volunteering on Sundays. I began to find joy in doing something outside of the traditional papers that I faced everyday. It was fun doing art, walking with beneficiaries, and simply laughing at something silly.
Having a life outside of school can often be seen as a distraction, but it can also act to help you realise that your identity is not tied up to your grades alone.
As cliche as it sounds, there is more to life than studies.
Sweet dreams are made of this
Messing up my Alevels, and not getting the results I wanted, and into the course that I initially desired, may have been the best thing that ever happened to me.
You may be upset and disappointed that your grades have not turned out the way you wanted them to.
But take a breath.
The world is wider and bigger, with many other options than what you first thought. What’s needed is an openness to try and fail, rather than to fail to even try.