How To Choose A University, And What It's (Really) Like.

by Jerrold Soh | Jan 24, 2014 | 6163 views

You’re at the hospital with a rare illness. The doctor looks…confused. He opens his mouth to speak, only, instead of explaining your situation and prescribing pills, he starts introducing every possible drug on this planet: paracetamol, domperidone, piritone, and ten thousand other words you never knew existed. Some from the US, some European, still others from exotic countries like Korea, even Thailand. Beyond that, an entire apothecary of traditional Chinese medicine. Some drugs from established, transnational firms like GSK, Pfizer. Others from smaller companies known for their special 'boutique drugs'.

You have to decide which one's for you. Because you, apparently, know yourself best.

What will it be?

At 18 years old the typical student is faced with a similar if not more daunting decision. Unfortunately, where choosing universities is concerned, good ol’ trial and error just isn’t going to cut it. Because we know how absolutely overwhelming, costly, troublesome, annoying, and tiring uni apps can be, we’ve went ahead made the decision for you.

Well, almost.

Presenting owlcove’s guide to the uni-verse (uni...verse! haha!). Complete with real-life stories of university choices, experiences, and regrets aspirations. Read them, laugh at them, think about them, but at the end of the day, remember the decision is yours to make and yours alone.

As with all decisions though, the first thing to understand is…

What exactly are you deciding?

A university represents different things for different people. If you want to take medicine, this choice could possibly decide the entire rest of your life. Someone inclined towards business may see a degree as a helpful yet optional stepping stone towards bigger dreams. For the aspiring accountant, a degree is mandatory. What you want will affect how you should decide. Other concerns like cost, emotional attachments, personal preferences, societal pressures, and even sheer impulse will inevitably factor in too.

Beyond these personal and internal influences, external factors, how the university’s like, its faculty and teaching methods will clearly be important. This tangled matrix of differing and sometimes diverging influences doesn’t make it any easier to make such a tough decision.

Luckily, all of this can be distilled, really, into one central aim - to match what you want and need with what the course is really like. More specifically, it’s about balancing the internal and external influences in a way which best suits your long-run practical, emotional, and educational interests.

More into theoretical and thus boring exploration of decision-making later. First, the interesting part…

What’s it like?

I asked friends in a variety of universities, countries and courses two main questions:

(1) Why did you choose what you chose? and

(2) How’s it like?

Their responses, which I have kept almost verbatim and supplemented with my own thoughts (in italics) at some points, were as follows:

BTW: The following personal opinions may not be entirely reflective of the experience you will have and are not meant to speak for the respective schools either. These aren’t their actual names.

Adam: Y2, male, Economics in London. No prizes for guessing which School:

Choose the course you want before choosing the university. Certain courses like medicine, law, and dentistry have a limited list of recognized colleges you can apply to. For these courses studying overseas may affect your progression, but not necessarily, and it really depends.

The main factors I considered to decide which school to go to were:

UK versus US: There’s a lot to be said about the difference between the UK and US culture and experience, but I simply decided to go to the UK because I thought it suited me more. My parents were also inclined towards UK.

Course quality: Specialty courses are also important because the same university can be really good in one subject but average in another. Simply because the university brand name sounds awesome doesn’t meant every faculty is equally good.

City-life versus non-city life: The opposite of city in this case isn’t ‘rural’ because you won’t find most universities in villages or farms. A ‘city’ university is one that’s right in the middle of a big city like London, meaning you’ll be living next to financial and business districts. I preferred a city university because they generally offer more vibrancy, practical immersions and career exposure. A less city university is slightly more detached from the cruelty of the real world – the university usually constitutes the entire town. These universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, typical excel in academia and research.

Costs: Living in the city can be really expensive though. Even if you have a scholarship, you may find yourself liquidity constrained in the short run (spoken like a true economist). Given how degrees are more and more like investments, it’s worth asking whether the costs are justified.

And one last thing – I think applying early is really important. Actions do speak louder than words and few other things can prove your conviction to study that course in that university than sending in your application before everyone else. That doesn’t mean you rush through it though, only that you start working on it early.

Jack: Y1, male, Law and Economics at NUS:

Nothing really matters. What school you’re in isn’t anywhere as important as what you do there. But that assumes your school is of a decent standard, and may not be true for everyone – it wouldn’t work if you’re very reliant on school syllabi and structure. I knew I wasn’t.

I’m a really bad person to ask, to be honest, because I didn’t really choose a university. I just went to one. Don’t follow my example. To me, since just about every course and university was equally exciting and equally useful, I figured I should just go to the most convenient one – the one I have a direct bus to from my house.

Okay I exaggerate, but I really couldn’t justify going halfway across the globe for a degree either. Plus I knew I wouldn’t want to spend precious time of my youth restarting my life in a foreign country – I’d rather focus on doing more meaningful things (not that making foreign friends, washing your own clothes and cooking for yourself aren’t meaningful though – let’s just say I wanted to spend time on other things). And you’ll never ever get back 5 years of time not spent with family.

There was also an internship I did sometime after A levels which showed me life as a lawyer could be interesting. I was really really lucky to get accepted the first time I applied to the school, and offered a scholarship too, so there really wasn’t any decision to make after that.

Up till now I’m still not sure if I want to practice Law, but at least I know I wouldn’t hate it. I think quite some people in Law school are like me.

I’d still advise you to go find out your options. At the very least I went for 2 university and scholarship talks. They were great because I was almost immediately turned off by every UK/US university there. I swear it’s me not them. So don’t think that information only helps you decide what’s right. Finding out what’s wrong is really useful too. I also applied to one extra university. That’s saying a lot, since I absolutely HATE applications.

Truth be told, I found the SATS too troublesome to prepare for, which automatically ruled out all US unis. Convenient eh?

Life as a law student is fun – the way marathons are fun. You keep running and running, it tires you out, sometimes every inch of your body wants to stop, but you somehow (have to) press on. Not everyone gets the top prizes at the end, but that really isn’t the point, and when it’s all memory you feel an indescribable sense of happiness – before you think about your next run.

You’re pretty much working all the time, so much it starts to get hilarious. Like when you’re reading a page-long sentence from a case judgment from the 19th century and have no idea what it’s talking about. Or when you’re running through a list of 400 cases trying to recall what each one stands for.

There’re really only two things you do in law school: 1. Read 2. Write. Those who do well will also 3. Think. It suits me because 1 and 2 are my hobbies.

A typical week involves going for your standard lectures, tutorials and seminars. The main thing to note is that you have to prepare (read ahead) for them. It sounds hard, but when you realise reading on your own is really how you learn everything in uni, suddenly it seems a breeze because lecture or otherwise you’ll be doing it anyway. In fact if you’re well-disciplined and read diligently you don’t even have to go for (censored for public good).

Tutors generally don’t assign any ‘homework’, except every now and then you get an assignment which basically is either an essay (you know what this is) or a hypothetical (they’ll tell you a story, and you have to argue whether there’s a legal issue there, and how it will likely be resolved by the court).

And because it’s a professional course, there’s a lot of focus on practical writing. The stuff you do IS actually what you might do in your future job – research, office memos, mooting (or pretending you’re going to court). I don’t know about you, but after years of learning integration and differentiation and molecular structure for who knows why, this was a very welcome change. Of course there are always the more conceptual and less practically applicable mods, but it’s almost always a requirement of every academic course to have such content anyway.

Steve: Y1, Business at NUS under the USP

I chose business by elimination (and so did most people around me). I figured I needed to do something that involves working with or working on people - something people oriented, so I decided on business instead of things like engineering or econs.

I think though for most people it’s because of the opportunities, or because you need a somewhat finance degree to go into banking related fields.

I stayed in Singapore for studies because I’m not really convinced that overseas is superior. Feels the same to me. (Succinctly expressed, I asked no further questions.)

As for how is business school like, I think people are very driven. They work hard to get their grades and build up their portfolios. People are generally smart, but more hardworking than the ‘genius’ kind who don’t work and still top the class.

They’re also very pragmatic. The environment in general is very extroverted and outgoing, and there’s a lot of pride and showmanship around. That’s probably also because the more introverted people are sitting at home mugging their ass off (ie. accountants). So there’s quite a big divergence, but those who set the culture are party animals.

To do well in Business school, although perhaps it’s true for other courses too, I think in general you need to be really versatile. You have to learn to work with people, speak up in class, plus be the mugger you probably were in JC. Time management would be useful if you don’t wanna sleep late, but I like to sleep late.

Daily work really differs from week to week. Like if there’s a big presentation, we'll have to research and decide on a topic, take charge of sections, prepare slides, present and write reports. The whole process is about 2-3 weeks of gradual, spaced out work. OR 3 days of intensive last minute prep.

It’s usually alright, but because we have 4-5 projects going on at once… If there isn’t a presentation, we won’t usually meet up to rehearse. Instead we’ll work through email and Google docs. Everyone loves Google docs these days

For my scholar’s programme, in year 1 we take three 4 MC mods, 1.5 mods each sem. One writing mod and one quantitiative reasoning mod – that’s all on top of our usual degree mods. The 0.5 each sem comes from a year-long mod which is S/U so its kay.

Both writing and quanti is damn heavy, especially writing. But it drills people to craft arguments in depth, and everyone feels that it’s very good although it is quite taxing and might pull down your grades.

Then there’s the residential life part... which is quite chill. There’re no compulsory events or hall points. Everything is like do if you want to. It’s very student-initiated, and people just take turns to introduce activities they wanna do.

There may be some peer pressure within the scholar’s programme, but I don’t really care about peer pressure. I guess people who are more competitive will be threatened since there’re lots of dean’s listers around, especially for FASS and Science - like every other person’s a Dlister (The Dean’s List is basically a list of the top 5-10% of students in the faculty by grades. You’ll learn about it soon enough if you’re entering a local university).

Wright: Y1, Male, Law at a University College in London:

(Because this was a verbose yet valuable piece, not surprisingly from a law student, I have refrained from editing it. I swear I only asked two questions.)

Initially, my decision to study law was not founded out of passion, nor necessity, but out of a budding interest. I cannot say for sure that this interest was moulded and shaped by the expectations of present society, but I daresay that if I was born in any age, or any epoch where the legal service was perhaps not so relevant to Singapore, or the world, I would have chosen to do so regardless.

I wasn't born with the concept of legal work burned into my head. Ambitions don't stay grounded, not do they remain uniform, they wax and wane, as feelings, and passion always do. I do not feel that failing to maintain a concept or clear idea of future profession somehow disqualifies you from said profession for lack of 'purity’. Such an antiquated understanding only persists in the minds of the deluded, for no one human is completely infallible.

There were times I wanted to be a palaeontologist digging bones in Utah, a tribal chief, an oncologist in Mt. Alvernia Hospital... endless hopes and dreams and flitting fancies scurrying to and fro from many whispers of cloudlike realities. I love dreaming, but I became more grounded to reality. And professions, though excellent if compatible with interests, sadly serve first and foremost to bring home the bacon.

Ever heard that having real passion in your work increases your creativity, productivity and your overall happiness? That is the ideal scenario, but most of the time it never materializes. Most of us go through life without ever reconciling our interests and our work, and it shows. The more fortunate of us have the choice either (1) to sacrifice our interests in the pursuit of profitable work, or (2) to forgo better paying work to pursue our dreams. Both choices have merits and shortcomings, but based on all the current self-help and feel good articles populating the internet, most people would be encouraged on a more 'moral' standpoint, to go with option 2.

There is nothing wrong with that, and ultimately the choice is yours, for no one should be able to question your motivations, but for the sake of all your prospective law students, who keep feeling as if they have to come up with an excuse or impressive answer to shake the stigma of a money grubbing option 1, sometimes the best answer is the truth.

The truth could be altruism, in that you wanted to help people through legal work - I know I did. Though people may argue that law is nothing about helping people, is it really fair to expect someone selecting a career choice to already know about the pitfalls and letdowns of real life work? It is a cruel reality and weird reasoning that individuals wanting to study law get discriminated for the shortcomings in the legal profession that they are somehow, inexplicably supposed to be aware of. No, altruism is indeed a very valid reason for going into any profession, even into the legal service, as if you want to help others, you want to help others, simple as that. 

Though altruism feels mundane, and maybe politically correct, remind yourself that the concept behind every profession is the same one: of service. Every profession carries an economic value and a moral worth, offering a service to others for a salary is the economic part, but in some professions, the moral aspect of their work is much more pronounced and noticeable than in others.

It is lamentable that our society somehow equates a higher economic value of your job with a lower moral worth, while failing to understand that sometimes, choosing a high paying job is a very moral decision in itself. For those who see going into the legal profession as a sacrifice of your interests and dreams, it is true that forgoing some happiness for monetary gain is a loss, but it is noble in its own right - who wouldn't want their family, or their future spouse to have an easier time in the future? You work more so they may work less, they may live more comfortably, it is easier for them to shoulder future burdens. One sacrificing his own happiness for the sake of his family - if that is not selflessness at heart, I do not know what is. Legal work is tiring, and offers none of the exultation and nobility accorded to some other professions, but I have never felt the study of anything quite as rewarding. It is worth knowing that at least, in our current confused and tentative state, we can be sure that we are doing something relevant and helpful, and that reassurance counts.

What is it like? Legal studies is like a cup of tea - how bitter or sweet it is depends on much effort you put in. You can do the bare minimum, or go the whole way. It is possible to get your second-upper just putting in the minimal effort, which will give you a pretty good and balanced sip of social life. However, the best teas are seldom the sweetest, and it is often those who put in effort that end up the most distinguished, as in every line of work or study.

It's easy to say, don't study hard, study smart, but when you're tossed into a field of studies that you experience for the first time, it is really difficult to pick out what to study and what is studying smart. The only good thing is that everyone is reset to a level playing field - anyone can succeed, as by virtue of the entrance examinations, the basic skills are all present, but as far as terminologies and knowledge are concerned, everyone is on the same foot. Therefore as with all things, good things come to those who are disciplined, and it is often those who work the most bitterly that end up with the strongest aftertastes. 

And finally, don’t give up on your dream. From my own experience, even not getting an interview from NUS or SMU isn’t the end of the world. There are plenty of options in the UK, and the only significant thing you have to worry about other than the grades is probably the LNAT.

The LNAT is a requirement to enter most UK Law schools, but it should not be anything more than just comprehension passages - by virtue of you wanting to study law, it tests you on nothing you should not already have - nothing legal in terminology but just general ability. That said, it can still be prepared for, and remember to be very discerning in your approach to questions - answering an LNAT MCQ question is not clear cut, often it is choosing which answer out of five is the least wrong, or the most right, never clearly wrong or right. The questions tax your vocabulary, sentence structure, and to some extent general knowledge.

Remember that though you may be accepted into law school, you do not change. I did not become any less smart when I was rejected by Oxford, nor did I suddenly become smarter when UCL gave me their offer. It is all in the state of mind, and being discouraged is our only fallibility. I learnt that when I came over: that nothing has really changed about myself except my perspective. So don’t become discouraged, and in the lead up to your decision to enter law school, let no one question your decisions or motivations, they are your own.

Theresa: Y3, female, medicine at NUS:

I chose medicine because it’s meaningful and fun, and the academic rigour builds character. Being able to meet, diagnose and treat patients is an honour and privilege.

The academics are very much self or senior directed. As seniors always say, you can study as much as you want or as little as you dare. You won't be judged. Until you get to the hospitals and maybe your tutors and the smart students might.

There’s absolutely no homework for year 1 & 2. Just mug mug mug. Or play play play. Whichever you choose. Year 3 onwards is a different world. Be prepared to study round the clock and give up even more things.

The medicine community is extremely tight. By third or fourth year everyone would know everyone by name. They’re lots of chances to get to know people within the faculty like during camps, plays, overseas service trips and others. In other words, any gossip spreads fast.

Your social circle will be redefined. Most of your friends will know the same jargon as you. Then one day at a gathering of old friends you suddenly find yourself having to explain every word you say. Medicine is consuming. Keeping friends is challenging. Making time for family is a very very conscious effort. Difficult, but not impossible.

One great thing is, the friendships you make in medicine are probably for life. Seniors are awesome and always ready to help.

And one last thing: your journey DOES NOT end at getting in. The plane hasn't even taken off yet. You can maybe- just maybe - start flying after 5 years. (That’s when housemanship starts).

Marissa: Y3, female, Business and Accountancy double degree at SMU.

My degree choices were almost a no brainer for me. It was natural I took that path with my affinity for numbers. I’d grown up in a very ‘finance’ family and my exposure to and interest in it started since young. I applied to UCAS, NTU and SMU, and ultimately chose SMU because they gave me a good scholarship.

SMU’s a bustling city campus. Going to school can feel like fashion show every day – so for the guys, SMU’s just what you’re looking for!!! It also means you get lots of good food choices, although mostly you’d eat at the koufu or kopitiam near campus since food can get a little pricey.

The transition from JC to uni was probably much steeper than from secondary school to JC, even though people tell you uni’s a breeze – it really depends on what course you do, where you’re doing it, and most importantly how you’re doing it. Suddenly you have to do everything yourself – planning what mods to take (even compulsory mods are left for you to allocate, and you have to make sure you clear them properly), what to do, who to take with, how much to study, and so on. Basically you become your own admin office. The most adminish thing you do is bidding for modules, which usually means researching past year prices, looking for people to bid in with for modules with group projects, finding the right prof who suits both your learning style and your…ahem…grade aspirations.

The social life in SMU is pretty happening too. They’re lots of cliques who study, drink and club together all the time. For a unique person like me who doesn’t really club, it can be an interesting dynamic to be part of.

And then there’s the world famous Class Part system, which more or less means everyone has to speak up in every class. The weightage differs from mod to mod, prof to prof, but can go as high as 20% of the entire grade. There’ll be people who can somehow answer all the prof’s questions, people who can’t but keep talking anyway, people who answer a few and then go entirely quiet after hitting the daily quota, people who repeat, attack, criticize, capitalize on others’ points – let’s just say social tendencies get magnified. It’s a mercenary system, yes, but as long as we are content to live in a world where numbers and grades are sovereign it’s probably the best way to motivate otherwise quiet students to stand up, speak up, and be heard. It really works.

Mark: Y1, male, Engineering at UC Berkeley.

I’ve always wanted to study abroad. If you ask me, as long as you have the financial ability to do so, the experience and network is well worth the cost. I’ll be honest though: Berkeley wasn’t my first choice. But it’s the top public university in the world, an amazing school for engineering, and located right smack in Silicon Valley. Plus, you can’t go wrong with the weather in California.

I’ve just completed my first semester, and time has flown by even beyond what I had been mentally prepared for. The academics are as rigorous as they say, the people as crazy (I blame all those…uh…substances), the environment as invigorating. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the startup fever gripping Silicon Valley, what with every other student an aspiring entrepreneur.

The networking opportunities here are immense – who knows if you’ll meet the next Mark Zuckerberg? However, being in a huge public school comes with huge drawbacks. The competition is intense, perhaps even more so than private schools. (The conventional wisdom that acing academics abroad is easy doesn’t always hold true.)

Resources are limited, and many programs are underfunded. Talk to any student here and they will rant about how hard it is to get into classes – I personally attended a Computer Science class last semester more than 1,000 strong, even larger than the capacity of the school’s largest lecture hall.

Sadly, paying school fees several times what your peers pay still doesn’t guarantee you anything beyond (if you graduate, of course) a fancy degree from an overseas university. You actually need to put in effort to fully attain that fabled overseas experience. It is especially easy to get lost in the crowd with a student population as large as Berkeley’s 30,000 students – if you don’t bother expanding your social circle, no one is honestly going to care. In fact, no one is even going to know who you are. In other words, you’re on your own – fend for yourself.

While other Singaporean students will unsurprisingly form your initial social circle – I’ve grown really close to my Singaporean batchmates – I feel you need to take the initiative to break out of your comfort zone and expand your social circle further. I mean, you didn’t fly halfway around to world just to meet Singaporeans, did you? Be warned though: it’s not going to be easy, particularly if you’ve already settled into familiarity. But no one said anything was going to be easy. That is, except some deluded friends who will insist that Asians are too smart for everyone else.

Now that the interesting part is finally over...

Let’s try to make sense of it all.

We’ve seen perspectives from different people, pursuing different paths, in different places. While they disagree on certain points – some’ll tell you to go overseas no matter what; some have no idea why people go overseas – there’s really one thing that’s always the same: everyone has their own, often compelling, reasons for choosing what they did.

You’d notice the factors that influence decisions recur – environment, experience, culture, costs, personal and parental preferences, school reputation. But if everyone considers the same things, then why doesn’t everyone make the same decision? Why, instead, do they differ so vastly?

It’s because of how much weight each person places on the same factor. For a socialite, school culture can be the main influence behind a decision, but for the socially independent academic that’s the last thing he’ll care about. We’ve also seen how scholarships and costs can make a huge difference.

In making your own decision, you’d have to know which factors you’d value the most, the ones which hold the most weight. Like Security Council members, these influences can rise up to veto and defeat your entire resolution. Hence, start by asking these members what they want. If costs are your primary concern, quickly rule out the schools you can’t afford. Then apply the second most important factor and rule more schools out. At this point, you don’t have to automatically eliminate schools which you may not get accepted for – never let the fear of rejection stop you from trying.

Eventually, the schools remaining would start to seem about the same, and that’s when you really have to slow down and consciously consider the merits of each, and think about which merits you value more.

Sometimes though, you still can’t figure out what’s right. That’s why the final decision is usually one of the heart more than the mind, a leap of faith where you know you’ve done all you could and hope you’ve made the right choice.

And one last thing – don’t keep your options open for too long either. In the days and weeks you spend deliberating between uni A and uni B, precious early application time is slipping away. We often think so much about the opportunity costs of choosing A over B that we forget the costs of not choosing either.

Hope this guide helps, and all the best for your applications :)

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