That day, I knew my life would change. If you’ve gone through national service, you would know how people going into it would have felt. The shuffling of feet, whispers telling their partners how much they were going to be missed - these I did not imagine. I was there. I dreaded it, and dragged my feet into the interchange. It was melodramatic. Just like that local movie, we took the ferry onto the island. Swore our lives into potentially fatal allegiance, clearly not knowing what was going to happen. We left the dining area, formed up in neat rows, and turned around to look at our loved ones waving back. Till now, everyone’s journey was the same, equally pathetic. But mine was about to be different. My group took a long detour around the area and proceeded into our cluster. I barely had time to note the large letter “T” hanging on the wall before we were screamed at to face the floor, push the Earth. This is it, this is what the military is. We were instructed to do many things which were simple, if only because it was simple to just follow instructions. I missed home immediately, but I thought I could quickly adapt. I was ready. Days later, I was told to go to the medical centre to take my height and weight. I took off my shoes and lifted my feet onto the machine. It spit out a piece of paper: ‘BMI : 27.1’ Unclear what’s going to happen, I waited for my name to be called. ‘As you are overweight, we have to remove you from BMT and recourse you. Here’s your status, PES D (temporary pes) and you will be put Out Of Training (OOT).’ I wouldn’t say I am a smart man, so I didn’t argue or ask much. It was abrupt. I returned and my Officer-Commanding spoke to the few of us at night. What he said still rings in my head: ‘You guys will be put out of BMT, and recourse into an obese training company. You guys are heavy and the pressure put on the knee will be intense as our training will be tough, and there will be a lot of training that includes running. To avoid getting you guys injured and having knee problems, we will put you into a programme that allows you to train more progressively. ‘ Stunned, I asked, ‘Sir, so what does the obese BMT do?’ ‘You will run every day for a few weeks to cut down weight so you can embark on more intense training’ I was stumped. That seemed no different from what we were already doing here. Being new to the Army I didn’t (dare) ask further. I packed my belongings again after taking everything out on the first day. My sergeant shook my hand and said ‘ORD LO’. What a day. I spent the next two weeks in the HQ, basically not doing anything but watering plants, playing table tennis and sleeping. Reporting to camp at 8, waiting for lunch at 12, dying to go back at 5. Some people loved it, I didn’t. The next Monday we received our posting orders - we were finally getting out of there! On mine, the letters “DVR” were printed. I was excited for a while, thinking that they somehow sent me to the divers. Maybe a heavier person dives faster. I was quite wrong. I made great friends during my driving course and got posted to Nee Soon Camp. There, days were long and nights were short. I learnt a great deal. But eventually I asked my Motor Transport Officer, the officer in charge, to send me back to BMT. Stunned, he asked why. ‘Because I want to be an inspiration to others, sir. To those preparing to enlist. I aspire to inspire.’ I think he laughed, but he was extremely efficient. By next month I was in an obese company. Those were the best days of my army life. I fought and worked hard, making sure that my performance would guarantee me a place in command school. I achieved the Platoon Best award. I treasured my remaining time with my BMT mates because I knew that after our final 24km we would all march down different, diverging paths. We tossed our caps and split our ways. A week later, the manpower department called me. They told me, me, that I was selected for OCS. But I needed to extend my service. I extended my service. OCS was difficult. I wasn’t a very fit and strong person despite my size. All I had was the determination to work hard. But I wasn’t someone who was outgoing and outspoken, the sort usually thought of as ‘leaders’. My OCS journey was a tad tougher and longer to me as compared to the rest. Having been hit by a knee injury in the early phase of my cadet term, trying to be physically capable as my stronger peers and trying to crack my brains on how to complete the detailed planning of a battle were serious obstacles for me. Still, I needed to complete this course. Every night, misery and worry hid behind my smile. Sometimes I would ask myself if it was worth all this trouble – why should I go through all these difficulty? Why not just serve these 2 years and end it quick? But I looked around me and I knew that, whatever difficulties I was facing, I wasn’t the only one. I made it to the 18th of April, commissioning day. Tossing my peak cap was a lot like tossing my jockey cap. There was an inexplicable euphoria accompanied by a deep-seated sadness, rooted in the knowledge that the band of brothers I fought with in OCS will be embarking onto different command lives very soon. I realized how cruel reality can be and how constant change can be. But I knew that we have to adapt to changes to be stronger. Now here I am - just disrupted my service to study - and I still feel that all that trouble was worth it. Enlisted, September 11, 2013. Removed from BMT 3 days later. Driving Course, November 2013. Recoursed BMT, February 21, 2014. Commissioned, April 18, 2015.I hope my story can inspire future batches. Because if we, this generation, don’t know why we must defend, then those after us have a thousand more reasons to argue why we don’t. To those who are facing difficulties and hardship, never, never, never ever give up. Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain. Happy 50th birthday Singapore. - 2LT Yiliang
Articles tagged under experiences:
“The teacher affects eternity. He can never tell when his influence will stop.” Over the years, I was fortunate to be under the guidance of a handful of people who taught me lessons that changed my life. From schoolteachers to private tutors, military instructors, and even friends, these people left such a great impact on me that they invariably changed the way I think and learn. Back in secondary school, English Langauge was a subject I struggled with. I found no joy in reading and had little to no interest in English classes, which spanned the longest period then. English lessons were a painful ordeal at worst and an extended recess at best. My mother enrolled me into English tuition and things took a turn from there. When I first entered his class, I was taken aback. Unlike typical school lessons, there were no flashy presentation slides, no shambolic mind maps nor endless grammar drills. Yet his classes sparked my interest in reading, writing, and falling in love with the language. It was not because he had an excellent teaching pedagogy – things were kept simple and minimalistic. Neither was it because he had ‘key methods’ to tackle exam questions. If at all, his classes at first glance were far from interesting. It was just chalk, board, and himself. What was in play and how did it have such profound implications for me? His passion. His passion for the subject was overwhelming and overwhelming. He spoke with zest and enthusiasm about a myriad of topics. The way he encouraged us to steer away from rote learning and foster curiosity, to ask ‘why things happen’, beyond knowing ‘how things happen’. He challenged us to think rather than to memorise. Over time, I began to love the subject and, more specifically, I began to love his classes. The best teachers don’t have the best teaching methods; they inspire you and make you love the subject. When we enter junior college, Economics is a subject almost entirely alien to us. The enthusiasm of studying a new subject vanished as quickly as it materialised. In fact, I vividly recall how I first struggled to understand the concept of price elasticity of demand and the punctuation of ceteris paribus in our essays. Achieving single digit scores for economics tests was commonplace and tutors never failed to hound their students for the need to evaluate their arguments. But what the heck is evaluate? Dark days shrouded upon us as we transitioned from microeconomics to macroeconomics without actually knowing what we’ve learnt for the former. Until my class had a new economics tutor who gave us a beacon of hope for a subject that no one really understood. Our new tutor, passionate about the subject, was eager to share the joy in learning economics. As a young college tutor, he was very much aware of the difficulties students faced in grasping economic concepts. He took time to devise a structure and technique to aid students in analysing and understanding them. His passion was not only for the activity of teaching, but also for the ends it serves. Such teachers have humility in knowing that they serve a purpose larger than themselves. "Those who love teaching teach others to love learning." Even outside formal academic education, the great teacher continues to inspire – this time in the domain of military training. “Lead by example”, “do the right things, even when no one is looking”, “integrity” and “care for soldiers”. These are some of the mantras that were drilled into us from the beginning of the officer cadet course. You might just roll your eyes and dismiss these as foolish ideals. Yet I’ve actually met someone who embodies all these values and never fail to show us that it can be done. His dedication, discipline and concern towards the platoon inspired many to strive towards achieving such ideals. Most will remember him as the instructor who gave the most terrifying ‘tekan’ sessions. But guess what? The same instructor, who everyone hated for giving us relentless and brutal punishments, became the same instructor who touched the hearts of most of his students. The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The great teacher inspires. You don’t have to be an excellent teacher to change the hearts and minds of others. The people whom I have shared above weren’t the best teachers. Yet they made the most impact on their students’ lives. They exhibited the same passion for the subjects they taught, unwavering dedication to help others understand what they teach, and genuine concern for the well-being of their students. Because of what they have done, they have provided an inspiration for their students and set an impetus for them to change for the better. The things they did were not superhuman feats but very much achievable by you and me. It is the genuine desire to impact others, and to help others achieve greater heights, which inspires. Many of us will definitely have someone who deeply inspired us because of certain things they have done. It will be my greatest wish to see more people taking the initiative to help one another grow both intellectually and emotionally, to fervently speak about their passions and to share lessons they have learned with others. The next time you meet your friends, try speaking about your passions, try sharing something new you’ve learned, or lend a helping hand to those in need. It is passion, dedication and compassion that inspires. It may not seem like much now, but these are the small things that change lives.
We’ve talked about it with relatives and friends, heard stories, and even watched a film on it. Amidst the elation and euphoria of post-graduation freedom, the thought of enlistment is both dreaded nightmare and inevitable reality. Many of us are unwilling to forfeit our short-lived freedom and most are unfamiliar with the army. So here’s a list of 11 things I learnt in BMT, which I hope provides a glimpse into the first stage of military life. 1. Expect homesickness. For many of us, this will be the first time we are away from our family or friends for this long. Gone are the days where we can leave our beds in an untidy mess and return to sleep having it done for us. Communal living also means you have to be considerate to your friends in the same bunk. No one likes a person who throws his trash everywhere. Homesickness is common and it's part of the adjustment process. I recommend bringing along pictures of your friends or loved ones. It helps. 2. Expect long days and short nights. I always tell people that "you never really know how long a day is until you enlist", and that's a truth. As a recruit, you're constantly working round the clock. The first activity starts at six in the morning (or earlier) and only ends around ten at night. After that it's a mass orgy in the shower to meet the lights-out time. I’ll always remember having to share a shower cubicle which three section mates to expedite the showering process just so we can get to bed on time. This cycle goes on pretty much for the two months in BMT and the only respite you will probably have is your seven hours of ‘mandatory uninterrupted rest’. Military time and civilian time seem to run on different schedules. A day will feel like a year in Tekong. That thought may stress you up initially, but you'll soon come to terms with it. 3. Be prepared to learn a new language. Army lingo is unfamiliar to most and punctuated with many acronyms. Probably because it simplifies communication between troops in wartime. "No go", "half section", "drop five", "tio stun". You probably don’t understand their meanings now but rest assured you will be a well-versed native speaker soon. Then there's "IA IA IA IA IA" and "arty arty arty”. There are some which don’t really make sense like "bua long long" which actually means “to take your own sweet time”. And finally, the two most hated and dreaded words in BMT: "force prep" and "stand by" (which is pronounced in the weirdest way possible). When you hear them...be prepared to face the floor. 4. Sometimes you just have to suck it up. More often than not, you're going to disagree with some instructions your commanders give, their lack of understanding or their unreasonable punishments. That's normal. Things don't always go our way. Sometimes we are just unaware of the rationale behind those instructions. Sometimes, it simply does not make sense but we have to do it anyway. Instead of bearing grudges, take this as a learning point. How are you going to give instructions so that your subordinates understand your intent? How are you going to treat those ranked below you? Some of you will eventually go into specialist or officer school to be trained as commanders. Observe the different styles of your commanders, learn what you think is good and discard what you think is undesirable. 5. You'll look ridiculous. You're bald. Get over it. 6. Be prepared to be pushed beyond your limits, both physically and mentally. The last time most of you ran was probably a good half a year ago. Your physical fitness has definitely plummeted and it's time to start the engines running again. Physical fitness aside, there is another aspect of fitness that we train for in the military: combat fitness, which is a rough mix of grit, attitude, skill, endurance, and morale. Soon enough, you'll be donning your SBO and carrying field packs for route marches. It's no easy task. The sudden heavy load on your back would push you to your physical as well as mental limits, especially when you go on longer distances. Digging shell scrapes will also challenge the limits of your mental resilience. It's a herculean task that I have trouble with even today. My only advice: wear gloves, secure your rifle, keep digging. 7. Holding weapons is not as cool as it looks. Seriously, you will know what I mean soon enough. The excitement fades away as quickly as it comes. ND/AD, IA, rifle cleaning, handling with care, sleeping on it during SITEST. Suddenly a rifle becomes the most sacred thing in your life. Cool? 8. There will be a point in time you'll want to sign on. Kudos to the SAF recruiters for this and I guarantee that you will experience this phase. I concede that the SAF scholarships are attractive but it comes with a hefty price tag - six years of commitment. There are cases of scholars regretting joining the organization, but cannot leave. It becomes, at best, a painful obligation. I am not against the idea of having a career in the military but a military life is not everyone's cup of tea. There are also cases of scholars uttering loving their career. Look beyond the prospects of having an overseas education funded, or signing on just to get out of a seemingly difficult army life (it’s not much better elsewhere) - wait a little longer to see if the military suits you before making the commitment. 9. Don't live your life in army. An advice from a good friend. You'll be spending five, sometimes six, days a week in the army. Everything that revolves around you is about the army. When you meet your friends, you're going to speak about army. This often bores the girls out (we're sorry). Do not lose yourself in this vortex. Continue to pursue your interests or hobbies even with the limited time you have. You've got Monday to Friday for army. That’s more than enough. 10. Black tape is the panacea for everything. Fixing torn pants, securing items, silencing someone, concealment, bandage, and markings. Just about any problems you face under the sun, black tape never disappoints. 11. You're going to miss this place. You surely will. Especially when (or because) it’s over. I fondly recall my time in BMT and they were one of my most memorable moments. My section mates connected well and although we were quite the mavericks, we had the most fun out of the rest. You're going to meet people who will be your close friends even after you pass out of BMT - friends and commanders alike. So there you go, 11 things I learned in BMT. Everyone will have different experiences and tell you different tales when they leave Tekong. There is a lot more you can learn, but I will leave that for you to discover yourself. In no time, you will be embarking on your baptism of fire - the 24km graduation march - and then you will have your share of experiences to brag about. All the best! -written for my juniors and friends enlisting in Feb and May 2015.
“It’s good that you’re going in. Just give them your two years and then you don’t have to worry about it anymore.” The bus was somewhere along some road in Pasir Ris. The exact location didn’t matter, although it was going to be a road I would love and hate depending on which side of the road I was on. It was the first time in years I was sitting on a commercial bus with my grandmother who, now in her seventies, was not very fond of walking. But she’d come along on this special occasion, and was speaking to me in Hokkien. I struggled to recall the last time I was on the road with her. Blurred scenes of a tour in Thailand, when I was 10. That was 8 years ago. And even then, was it really her? I recalled a cheerful, energetic woman who was picking up English from Channel 5 serials, who cooked up a storm every Chinese New Year to satisfy hundreds of guests. I remembered perfectly black hair. I wasn’t done counting all the silver strands on her head when the bus pulled into the terminal. I was to have one less thing to remember her by. I soon found myself aboard a ferry with her. What an adventure it must be for her. Except this time we weren’t going for any holiday. Do you know how black holes work? I don’t. But I’ve always imagined that at the heart of each one, there was something evil. Now I felt like I was on a high speed collision course with one of them. Every inch, every cell within me wanted so much to just…not go. How hard could it be? But I was already caught its gravitational field. I had been since I was born, male. “It’s not about what you leave behind, but what you will gain in the days ahead.” I was fond of such inspirational, meaningless generalities. Maybe it would calm a troubled spirit or two. But not mine. And how can it not be about what I’m leaving behind, when that is precisely the reason I was doing this? How can I forget the people I would swear to protect? It has always been, and will always be, about what we leave behind. Enter an auditorium and a sea of confused faces. A gas chamber of lambs awaiting an unknowable slaughter. I took my seat alongside two strangers. On my right was another boy. He was not like me. He was talking to a friend next to him. On my left, darting, unsure eyes were scanning the room. Painfully alone, our situation was the same. Was he looking for an escape? There is none, I told him telepathically. I wasn’t sure, but I imagined my parents were seated behind me, somewhere higher up in the auditorium. Watching me, watching my every move to assure themselves I was fine. Watching over me. With the loudest voice I could muster in that situation, I repeated: “I will preserve and protect (pause) the honour (pause) and independence of our country (pause) WITH MY LIFE! (emphasis added)” I was made to stand in a line next to hundreds of those like me, waiting for our families to pick us out. With each unfamiliar parent that passed I knew I was to have one minute less with them today and for the next two weeks. They found me, as they always do, and we proceeded to where we were to have lunch. I knew things would never be the same again. In school, I was always the last to finish my food, and my friends would always have to wait for me. My days in a uniformed group taught me how costly a weakness this was. And it was this knowledge, coupled with a frantic sense of loss and disorientation that drove me to wolf down all the food in front of me. Reluctance, on one hand, told me to eat slowly, to take my time and enjoy every minute of this final meal. But fear, on the other, reminded me of my weakness. Speed up or be left behind. My grandmother, as usual, coaxed me to slow down. I replied that I was fine, taking care not to look directly at her because I knew it would bring tears to my eyes immediately. I needed to prove that the food was good - perhaps even a reasonable substitute for years of home-cooked, hand-made affection. I needed to show that I was going to be able to cope. This was the last scene of the play, and I had to finish strong. I needed to be someone I was not ready to be. Then, loud and clear, 3 times, “All enlistees are to gather in the area to the left of the cookhouse immediately.” Yes, this was it. There was no doubt about it. I still hadn’t finished the food. I stood up and told them the only four words I could muster, “I have to go.” “It’s ok, take your time, finish the food first.” “No, I should just go.” As I took my place in the seventh column of the twenty or so neat rows that were beginning to form, I looked back at the cookhouse to see the grandstand of parents, siblings, girlfriends and grandmothers who had gathered on the side of the building, as near to us as they could. Everyone was smiling, waving enthusiastically as their sons, brothers, boyfriends and grandsons took their place in the kilt of our nation’s defence. Either I was the only one feeling as wretched as this, or everyone else was doing a much better job hiding their emotions. No wonder they say life is but a stage. It dawned on me that I wasn’t the only one going through this. Nor were the thousands of Singaporean sons who would change their addresses that day doing this alone. In reality, the entire family weathers this together. Mom does the laundry despite your increasing protests, Dad fetches you home whenever he’s free, your girlfriend keeps you sane on the weekends…when they called it national service, maybe they really meant to say that the entire nation serves together. I waved back, conjuring up a smile. I remember that scene. My parents, next to each other, mom on the left, dad on the right, with one arm around my mother. And my grandmother, standing on his right, looking at me with her usual serene expression. She wore a black shirt with a red floral pattern, along with straight, black long pants. It was her nicest and favourite shirt. Her hands were behind her back, giving her a look of authority and benevolence. And as I waved once again she smiled, and raised her right hand to complete the goodbye. Years later, this image still brings tears to my eyes. But the sadness in these tears has evaporated. Yes, it did happen. And it really hurt. I really did spend two years of my youth following orders and fearing punishment. The people I loved really did grow older. But the good things, they happened too. I saw for myself how and why easily things could go wrong for us. I saw the inner workings of the military machine that’s meant to ensure our sovereignty amidst a challenging global climate. I understood why there must always be rough men who keep vigil at night to protect the bedrock of our young nation. And most importantly, I saw their faces too, for I was momentarily one of them, and each one was as human, as brotherly or as fatherly as the next. A famous writer once said that perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but nothing left to take away. And boy do they take away from us many things. Some lose career opportunities, others can’t get to the schools they want, some break up with their girlfriends, almost everyone loses freedom. But that teaches us what’s really important. Because when you know you only have control of your mind and body for one and half days every week, everything unnecessary just falls away. Video game rankings, expensive clothes, even exam results – what we wouldn’t give to just spend time with the people we love. And at least for the first time in eighteen years I was doing something that actually mattered for someone who did exist. It stopped being just about me - my homework, my grades, my wants, my interests, my dreams, my aspirations. There were larger forces at work. In the middle of a training exercise I realised that if I messed things up someone could actually die. My BMT sergeant once told me that BMT is really meant to break you down – they reduce you to basic building blocks which can be repurposed into something useful. That stuck. It doesn't matter if you're a recruit known primarily by your 4D number, a trainee in command school or a soldier in a unit - when you're a 'lowly NSF' you feel inconsequential, like a tiny ball-bearing in the huge SAF machine. But there is comfort in the knowledge that this machine serves an important purpose, and every day we have peace, every night our families can go to sleep without wondering if an RPG will hit them as they snore, that is one day our efforts succeed. If two years from a generation of males can win a lifetime of peace for a nation, then it is a worthwhile, albeit very, very costly, sacrifice. That is why only pride remains in the tears that fall. It is the pride of telling Dad that the grenade you threw is the same one he threw thirty years ago. The pride of knowing that if something comes along which threatens to undermine what you stand for, you, alongside many others, can and will fight. It is the pride of looking at your pink IC and knowing you’ve earnt it, a pride only sweet because it used to be painfully bitter. It is the pride of having once wore green. To all the past, present and future soldiers of Singapore, Happy SAF day.
I have a theory. The theory is that no one ever gets “the results they expect”. That is, except the top students who expect straight As and get them. The theory is that you either do better or worse than you thought you would. That when you get your results something actually changes. You say “oh…now I can actually apply for Medicine! Should I?” Or you say “looks like I can’t be a doctor anymore. Hope my parents don’t force me into Business.” The theory is that because we only take A levels once (phew), we can never really “expect” anything. Plunge litmus paper into acid. It turns red. Plunge litmus paper into acid again. It turns red again. We expect the next time we do this the same result follows. But we can’t precisely expect something we’ve never experienced before and will never experience again. So on results day everything changes. Your result slip elevates you into the fabled realm of the elites. Or it vindicates two years of lost youth. Or it opens doors you never would have considered. Or it condemns you into the abyss of normalcy where your dreams vanish into vacuum. I have another theory. The theory is that the first one’s wrong. The theory is that because you can’t even “expect” any results in the first place, it’s impossible to do better or worse than you "expected". The theory is that you simply do as well as you did. In fact you already did that months ago, sitting in a cavernous hall filled with the hopes and dreams of people like you. Scribbling furiously in blue or black ink made up of the blood, sweat and tears of 18 years till now. It’s a historical fact as much as what you ate for breakfast. You tell someone important “these are my grades”. Never that “these should have been my grades”. So on results day nothing changes. Plunge litmus paper into acid. Acid is acid. Plunge litmus paper into acid again. Acid is still acid. On results day someone hands you a red or blue slip of paper. Acid remains acid. People look at the red or blue slip of paper and determine you. Let them. Acids and alkali react differently. If they all reacted the same way we wouldn’t need both as much as we do now. The theory says what matters is not how you did, but how you did it. Not what you did, but what you do. Will you say “This slip of paper declares that I’m not red enough. I will never be red enough.” Or will you say “The slip of paper claims I’m not red enough. I think it’s wrong. I’m going to prove it wrong. Even if it’s right, that only means the same thing – I need to be redder.” We carry this red or blue slip of paper with us for a while. It helps people who don't understand understand. It seems to change where we go. Then, we realise we’ve reacted. We’re not the same. That slip of paper no longer determines us. If it ever did. “So I’ve got my A level results. Now what?” The theory is that you knew the answer even before you could ask that question. Plunge litmus paper into new solution. Let's see what colours emerge and effervesce.
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. 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 :)
Interviews are that pesky thing standing between you and, supposedly, living your dreams at your dream university. They're when you realize you’ve lived for 18 years with cruelly little to show for it – especially when trying to convince a skeptical, middle-aged professor about your ‘arduous passion’ for medicine or how you’d ‘indubitably value-add to the vibrancy of the school’s pedagogical association’. Whatever that means… To help us all survive these rather interrogatory times, here’s a quick guide to tackling interviews. But before that... What’s an interview, really? Some say it’s a chat. To others it’s a trial. Some interviews are so intellectually intense they make A levels seem a piece of cake (Read: Oxbridge interviews). But despite the differences in how interviews are conducted, they really all have one simple aim: To choose the right and best person for the job. That’s right - it’s a selection process (surprise surprise). In other words, the fundamental question every interview needs to you answer is: Why should we pick you? They’re not interested in how smart/charismatic/philanthropic/passionate you are, nor even whether you were a school councillor, chairman of 3 clubs simultaneously and did five thousand CIP hours – unless all these somehow goes to show why you’re the person they should pick out of the thousands of other hopefuls. Therefore, when the interviewer says “introduce yourself”, he’s asking “who are you and why are you the best person for the job?” When he asks you to relate one instance where you demonstrated leadership and creativity, he’s asking, “are you creative enough for the job?” When he makes small talk with you and mentions the weather, he’s actually saying: “the right guy can converse intelligently even over mundane topics – can you?” And if we work backwards from this central question, there’re only two possible scenarios as to why people fail interviews, namely... Scenario A: You’re not the right person If A’s true, then congrats! Not getting something you’re not suited for is actually good for you. Just ask [insert name here], who went to [insert unsuitable university course here], totally regretted it, and ended up changing courses. But wait…what kind of lousy interview guide tells you to be happy you failed an interview? Well technically, if you weren’t the right person for the job, not getting chosen actually means the interview succeeded by producing the right outcome. And they all lived happily ever after. Except there are probably those of you who currently are not the right person but somehow still want it badly. Which, if you think about it, does not quite make sense, but today’s society where people ‘want’ things without really knowing why it’s a pretty common occurrence. If you happen to be one of these people, then what you really need to do is to become the right person, rather than focusing on interview skills and other related myths. This means you have to actually develop an interest for whatever you need to be interested in, become skilled at whatever you need to be skilled in, and do whatever you need to have done. For example, if you’re applying to medicine, it sorta helps if you took H2 Chemistry. An Ivy League hopeful do well to be able to point out the university’s city and state on a world map. Avoid also applying to a Design or Arts school without having a design portfolio. A common mistake is to think being ‘interested’ in or having a ‘passion’ for something is an inherent personality trait that we have to be born with. It’s not. Let’s face it: at 18, we know close to negative infinity about accountancy, engineering, business…heck at that age I didn’t even know the difference between universities and colleges. Saying you have an interest in any university course is pretty much the same as telling people you’ve fallen in love with a girl/boy you’ve never ever met and now want to marry her/him. You have to really understand and have experienced something to be passionate about it. Sadly, that two week internship where you learnt how to use the photocopier probably wouldn’t make you fall in love with whatever you’re doing. But having actually done that mysterious thing known as actual work makes you infinitely more believable when you waltz into the interview room trying to convince interviewers you know what you’re signing up for. The good news is, this means if you currently have zero interest for something, it doesn’t mean you will never be interested in it. I’d daresay you only think you wouldn’t like it because you don’t really understand it at all. Granted it’s gonna take work, but as Randy Pausch awesomely reminded us, Brick walls are only there for us to prove how much we want something. If you wanna get through that interview that badly, you’d naturally not mind going through all that. If you do mind, then perhaps you don’t really want it that much. And because here we always go the extra mile for service, here’s the best self-improvement guide I’ve ever read (warning, expletives used for greater self-improvement value). Now that you’ve turned yourself into a square peg for that square interview, the only way you might still fail the interview is in… Scenario B: You are the right person, but can’t quite show it. Once again, congrats! Because you’ve gotten through the hardest part. Now all you really need to do is pray and with luck and some faerie dust you’ll somehow the find right answers to show how awesome you are the next time round. At least, that’s how it always feels, since painfully few schools ever teach how to handle interviews. But what if I told you the A level syllabus actually did teach us how to properly answer interview questions, without intending to? IF there is one thing you learn in GP, it’s how to answer questions. Heck, if there’s anything to be learnt from the entire A levels at all, it’s how to answer questions. With prepared, textbook, perfectly keyword spotting answers. If you’ve just finished A levels, you’re probably one of the best question answerers in the world right now. And why should interview questions be any different from written ones? Behold the almighty PEEL format. The heavens themselves illuminate upon its hallowed descent, and somewhere in the distance, but not too far away, comes the angelic laughter of many a GP student whose essay had once been turned to pure gold by the PEEL’s midas touch. Presently it lands authoritatively into the realm of interview answers, and once again works its magic, reshaping incoherent, unfocused attempts-at-answers into critical, evidenced, interview-owning assertions. Because you probably have no idea what I just said. The PEEL format (which I totally dissed here) can be a really helpful way of organizing your interview answers to better show you’re the right guy for the job. What’s also great is after 2 years of mental jackhammering you should already know exactly how it works, so you can apply it easily. Of course, thinking in the PEEL format is not something the average person does. For illustration purposes, a here’s an interview question I actually encountered along with a PEEL-ed answer I wish I had thought of at that time. After I said I had just completed my BMT, the interviewer asked: “Do you think the army is obsolete?” And if I was Albert Einstein for 5 minutes, I would've responded: P: While some of its training methods and equipment may be obsolete, I think the army itself is still very relevant today. E: People usually identify the army’s disciplinarian practices and corporal punishments as a thing of the past. These have mostly remained unchanged for decades, and some say these should be replaced with modern teaching methods. E: If military training methods really did not change since 1967, then they would really be ancient, but that’s not the case either, because nowadays even corporal punishments are highly regulated and administered in the context of supposedly ‘new’ training methods. They’re actually using laptops in BMT now. And considering how society is supposedly getting softer, actually corporal punishment may be getting more and more, not less and less, relevant. If you’re talking about the army in general, then all the more it is not obsolete. People think there’s no danger of war and that means we don’t need an army. But it’s because we all have armies that’s why there’s no danger of war. Or at least that’s what they tell us in BMT. L: So honestly I think the army is not obsolete and does not seeming to be becoming any more irrelevant. For best results, recall that the entire point of an interview is to determine whether you’re the right person with the right interests, skills, and knowledge for the job. This means your answer, should aim towards trying to highlight the aspect you need to highlight. In the example above my answer was more inclined towards demonstrating the ability to hold opinions contrary to popular belief. This is also known as ‘critical thinking’, which is something they look out for in law programmes. If you’re getting interviewed for accountancy, your answer could aim towards demonstrating how meticulous or organized you are instead. Sadly, none of us have close to half the brains Einstein had. Which brings me to my next point, that you should prepare certain answers and responses beforehand so you can organise them well. It’s impossible to foresee all questions, but because all interviewers invariably only want to know one thing, they really can’t stray far from certain questions like “tell me about yourself” or “relate one experience where…” That’s where having thought through your life story is especially important, because even if the interview questions don’t directly ask for it, it’s very likely you’d be able to draw on your past experiences to support what you say. If you’re really proud of that one time you won the Math Olympiad, or think that student convention you organized really proves how amazing you are as a person, then prepare a short narration of the entire episode and practice saying it. One helpful guide to storytelling is the 2-5-1 rule, which simply put means to introduce the story and setting in 2 sentences, go through the entire body in 5, and reassert the point in 1. Note: I am not making this up. They teach it in Officer Cadet School #Reliable. And again because we always go the extra mile, here’s an example of the 2-5-1 in action: "In 2012, I organized the 56th Asia-Africa Model Conventional Student Leader United Sports Meet. This was an annual event where student leaders from across the two continents would compete and bond over sports. As chairman of the organizing committee, I was responsible for the planning and execution of the entire event. This meant overseeing communications between the 52 participating schools, ensuring the logistics were ample yet still fell within the $50k budget, and taking care of the safety of the 5000 participants on the actual day. One major challenge my committee and I faced was overcoming the language and cultural barriers between the African and Asian participants and getting them to bond. After some brainstorming, we managed to solve the problem by getting everyone to play a warm up game in which Asian students would try to guess basic African words like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ from the African students’ charades, and vice-versa. The entire experience showed me how even the biggest events are invariably about people, relationships, and human interactions. I believe with such experience I will be able to successfully organize and execute even larger scale events with the university." Note: The above events are entirely fictitious. Any resemblence to people, characters and events is purely coincidental. It’s not a hard and fast rule definitely, but the 2-5-1 works because it sounds just right, neither too long nor too short (like the proverbial miniskirt), and forces you to get to the heart of the story as fast and efficiently as possible. You’d also notice that in the given example I tried to boast without boasting (see 4th sentence) and include a little ‘problem’ in the story to make it more engaging (see 5th sentence). And on this note, perhaps it makes sense to talk a little about... Lying In Interviews You probably think everyone does it. I think so too. Then there’s that fine line between exaggeration and outright deceit, and presenting facts in a certain way sure isn’t as bad as making them up. Thing is, you really only need to resort to such ‘interview techniques’ if you’re facing scenario A, not B. In other words, the only time you actually need to lie to get pass an interview is when you’re really not the right guy. You need to feed the system false information so it can produce the wrong outcome. This is also known as creating market failure, the negative effects of which I’ll assume you’re familiar with. I’d hazard a bet that most of us only lie or embellish the truth in interviews because we think everyone else does it. So everyone does it because everyone does it. That doesn’t make any sense at all, because whether or not we should lie in an interview should depend on whether it would actually help us pass the interview, rather than on whether other people are is doing it. Fear Of Losing Out (ironically, “FOLO”) means we do it without realizing it may actually work against us. For the vast majority of us who have consciences and eyes, it’s hard to be convincing when we’re lying. Add that to the typical skepticism that every interviewer (particularly if they’re academic professors) is bound to have, and you’re not going to get far with being unpersuasive. What you say is not as important as what the interviewers hear. It doesn’t pay off to go on an entire tirade about that one time you saved Rapunzel from the Pharoah of Langkawi if all it does is make the interviewer question everything else you said. In fact, if even 10% of what you say leaves an impression, you’ve probably already succeeded, so focus on getting a concrete, believable message across rather than writing a speeddating profile for yourself. To reiterate, interviews have only one purpose – to choose the right (read: best) person. If you’re not doing well in interviews you’re either not the right person or aren’t very good at showing you are. Depending on what exactly’s the problem, focus on doing, knowing, and saying what you need to do, know, and say to demonstrate and persuasively prove you really are the One. In the end, integrity pays, and getting rejected for something you’re not suited for may turn out to be the best thing that could happen anyway. Good luck! Disclaimer: This article has necessarily been written in a generalized way to cater for the variety of interviews a potential reader may encounter. Some interviews may turn out to be entirely different, and owlcove takes no responsibility for any angered parents, lost dreams, death threats, or any other damages whatsoever arising from any use of or reliance on content herein.
It’s over and you are invincible. Just conquered the hardest test of your life. It all gets better from here, they said. And it does. You’re 18. What’s there to fear. You can drive now. Even get into Zouk after being checked. Now you reclaim those weekends spent with ten year series’. You’ve already planned everything in the painful weeks leading to the exams. This time, it’s having fun with a vengeance. Before you have to go to that other place. Finally, the food you wanted to eat, the movies you wanted to watch, the games you wanted to play, the friends you wanted to meet. Throw in a class chalet, or two, if your secondary school class still exists. But before that, maybe just one, two weeks of rest and letting it sink in. You’ve earned it, definitely, and no one can take it away from you. The sky’s bluer now. A month. Christmas and New Year and parties in between. It’s all been great. Maybe you should learn a new language, or how to play the guitar. It’s fun, but after awhile it’s not. Whatever, now’s the time for fun. Because if not now then it’s never. If you’re fast, you start learning to drive. At 20kph, it’s already thrilling. The power of adulthood taps you on the shoulder and you welcome it like a long-awaited friend. 25kph. Another month. You remember you have to go to that other place. You’ll find out more about it soon. Meanwhile, an internship or a job. Working for the first time! Long sleeved shirts, neatly pressed by Dad. The daily commute mixed with the fresh smell of Raffles Place coffee 30 minutes early to work. You look dashing in that new pair of leather shoes. After 18 years, you’re ready to contribute to this society. And it’s good. You don’t actually need to do much besides what you already do in school. How easy can it get? And you’ve learnt how to operate the photocopy machine. Useful stuff. 30kph and third gear. It’s February. Chinese New Year. Relatives you meet once every year. How do you feel about that other place? They ask but you have no idea. It’s impossible to know. Until you’re there. It looks…fine. You’re on a ferry now. How hard can it get? A pledge. With your life. You’ll be out in two weeks, you think. The food’s ok too. The only hard part that day was waving back at them. You remember something you learnt in school. About commas and exclamation marks and Mrs Tilscher and the sky splitting open and eating you up and you wish it really did now as you race up the stairs in a stiff pair of expensive boots you didn’t pay for but actually did. They cut into your feet but you have to run and run or else you have to run even more. The first time you run yourself along the coast you look across the channel between there and here and wonder why it has to be like this although you know the answer and how you just don’t want to accept that it really has to be like this. The view from your bed is the best you ever had because the quiet lights of the jetty and island opposite this island are right there and you tell yourself you will never understand the difference between what you supposedly are now and what you were then and will be in two years’ time. It gets better. The first time you run back home (in your mind, because you force yourself to walk) it seems things are all okay now. Maybe tomorrow when you wake up you will discover it was all just a dream or maybe it’s actually all over and this itself is the bad dream. Or someone comes and tells you it was all a very cruel yet well-executed practical joke and you don’t have to go back there. He doesn’t come. The second time you’re on the ferry was supposed to be easier but it’s the same. The same new feeling for the next two months as you learn how much you have to learn and for the first time learn how to kill someone, with good reason, when necessary, after having taken proportionate steps. One weekend Dad waits for you in the car and you cannot wait to tell him you’ve done exactly the same as he did twenty years ago except it’s probably very different now even though the bomb you used is the same. You don’t say anything but moments of eye contact transmit everything you wanted to say and reassure you you’re really doing this for something even if that something is just earning a right to look Dad in the eye having been through this as well. Sitting behind him on the TPE you can’t recall whether he had this many white hairs before A levels or if you just didn’t notice. Letters on a rainy day in a forest on an island. The first time in a long time you cried (in your mind, a lot more). Then it was finally time and you’ve never seen the park look this beautiful before as each step takes you nearer and deeper into the heart of a country you’ve pledged to defend. You wonder if you will be able to see the city in the same light again as day breaks and you march in with five thousand more yous and the smell of freedom and new uniforms soaked in old sweat fill a stadium already bursting with pride. A week. Then, again. When you go to that new place there’s no ferry ride but everything is new and unfamiliar and you wished you could have just gotten that other posting along with your friend. Should have indicated interest for that long ago. Anyhow it’s a new regime under new management and again you struggle to understand why it can’t just be for two months because two months alone were enough to twist the universe into this. You survive, somehow, although everyone does, somehow. December and life settles. 40kph. You’ve vocated. Then it’s a blur of exercise and exercises and duties and making it for the last bus and dinners with buddies, not friends, and knowing in years to come you’d be happy to see them again. 50 kph. The phone rings and you remember someone is waiting for an email about something you have to properly arrange else someone really could die. As things start to fall into place piece by piece the parts of you that had to be locked away somewhere you did not know by someone you still don’t know arrange themselves inside you again. They’re the same you you knew you were but put into this different you the parts don’t seem to fit. Fitting or not you’re just relieved they’re back again and you even speak with the same voice you had long ago. Once a sergeant had told you the first two months break you into bits so you can be reconstituted into what your country needed you to be. Maybe now you really are more of what you’re needed to be and that Friday as you leave your bunk you realise soon it will be all over and soon you will close this door for the last time and open another. A shiny crested plaque later all the memorabilia you’ve acquired from the past two years (did it really happen?) are going into a big black bag in the storeroom. Just so you’d remember it did happen the plaque goes into your room instead. Thankfully things are okay now and you can still count how many white hairs he has. In a few months who you were taps who you are on the shoulder and together you look for who you will be. You wake up and everything feels the same. Everything is the same. Except "What Then?" has become "What Now?" Note: This is not at all a factual recount of my own experiences, but an attempt at portraying the possibilities after A's. It was no doubt influenced by and skewed towards my own perspectives. Do take it with a pinch of salt (especially for girls, unless you're signing on).
A few weeks ago, I left my part-time job as a bartender. Few of us aspire to eke out a living in the F&B industry, for the simple fact that it is notoriously difficult to rise through the ranks. Also, this journey involves a large degree of grueling menial work – the very thing we’ve studied so hard to avoid. But I have a soft spot for the F&B, due to some inexplicable satisfaction derived from providing impeccable service to make someone’s night out better. I was there for barely 3 months. It might not sound like a long time, but it was my second job. 5 days a week I work in an office, and on my 2 off days, I’d spend all night slugging it out at the bar. To say it was tiring would be a gross understatement. But the experience will probably stay with me for quite a while. The job didn’t quite pan out as well as I’d expected, because the F&B industry is, at the end of the day, operations-centric. They’d let a newbie mix, but only during lulls – and there’s no such thing as Friday Night Lull in a bar. I did have tons of fun making many cocktails, from martinis to mojitos, daiquiris to margaritas, and even alcoholic coffees. Virgin, half ice, sugar-free, double shot; you name it, I’d make it. I tapped keg after keg of beer. But that load spread over 3 months works out to be only about 10-15 cocktails a day, which was far from what I was looking for. I wanted 50 cocktails a day. I wanted to be Main Man, behind the counter, not Occasional Visitor whose primary job was delivering drinks. But operational efficiency was the catchphrase of the day, everyday. So I decided to leave. But it’s not that which I want to immortalize in writing; it’s the innumerable nonsensical situations that I faced. Some are longer stories, and some are one-liners. For all the “educated” or rich (or both) people out there who have never tried a F&B job (this is already my second and I doubt it’ll be my last), I think you’ve shortchanged yourself, for F&B is one of the most colourful and eye-opening industries the world has to offer. The icing on the cake is that Client is often as rich and as successful as we would like to see ourselves be in time to come – exactly what makes all these lessons so poignant. So here are some of my more interesting encounters, in no particular order: 1) “Can I have some ice for the wine?” Had to explain (with different words) that Baron Rothschild would roll in his grave if he saw ice cubes swimming in a glass of Château Lafite. 2) “Why didn’t he serve me?” Had to explain the ladies first rule to a man, in front of his wife and daughters. 3) “Can you make the wine warmer?” followed by “How did you make the wine warmer?” Had to explain how our supervisor hugged the wine bottle to his chest for 10 minutes, leaving out the colorful language unleashed in that time. 4) “Can you take the ice out of the mojito?” 5) An order came for a warm coke, a coke with 2 ice cubes and a normal iced coke. Upon serving, I was told by the 2-ice girl that she wanted a bucket of ice. Upon fetching the bucket of ice, I was told to "get that thing away from [her]". That Thing was the paper wrapper of the straw that she had just opened, and she was gesturing like it was a dead lizard with leprosy. Still at the table, I eavesdropped on a debate as to whether the warm coke needed two or three ice cubes, watching the mother touch the glass with 2 fingers to gauge its exact temperature. Well, māṁ, it looks like the coke has to be 28.7C. Anything hotter and throats burn, anything cooler and your son will die of a coughing fit. 6) A man sits down and takes out 4 Blackberries from his pocket, and proceeds to line them up in a row. Did I forget? This guy is the patriach of the family in number 5. 7) “Bring me the rest of the can (of coke)” This is so classic, and yet it happens at least once a week. For the record, I work in a bar where the average tab is S$150 per head, where Aventadors and MP4-12Cs are regular visitors to the carpark. 8) A particularly fickle man who ordered a double shot whisky on the rocks with a side of water, poured too much water and insisted we had given melted ice. 9) “Why are you taking so long to clear the table?” Because one person only has two hands yea? 10) A bizarre lady who sought compensation for her shoes ruined by a thunderstorm, on the grounds that there was no covered walkway between the road and the restaurant. 11) An attention-deprived lady who commented loudly onthe aesthetics of each drink I carried past her, but each time I stopped to give her an explanation, she insisted she was not interested. About 10 drink explanations later, she eventually ordered one drink - a strawberry mojito - to be shared amongst her three friends. 12) “See, how sharp am I, I know that there’s some wine left inside the bottle!” A lady who ordered me to tip the bottle upside down over her friend’s empty glass before I took it away, despite my insistence that there wouldn’t even be enough for her friend to take a mouthful. The best part? 6 drops dripped out, one by one. Drip drip drip, drip, drip…drip. 13) The women (lady was misused) from 10 to 12 are actually all the same frightful and particularly peculiar person. 14) An especially fun night where a man pretended to do a magic trick with me as his impromptu assistant. His sole aim was to slip me his credit card without his friend’s knowledge because it was his treat. 15) “What are you going to do if I say it tastes absolutely horrible and makes me sick to my stomach?” A man, jokingly, when asked if he liked the tasting portion of a bottle of wine. 16) “It’s too warm and it tastes absolutely nasty. Get me a new one.” A grumpy man, seriously, when asked if he liked the tasting portion. 17) “I would very much like a triple shot, but that’s something my wife would very much not like.” One particular married man, but this could potentially come from any married man. 18) “I think it’s quite fruity. A bit dry.” An 8 year old girl receiving wine training from Daddy. 19) “If I have another pint, sir, my wife will have to carry me home. She doesn’t like doing that.” Possibly the most creative way to turn down what the industry terms as upselling, the act of forcibly recommending upon an unwitting customer another dish or drink for the sole purpose of profit. 20) After a scolding session by a superior, a senior colleague dropped two coconuts on the floor, and we had no choice but to consume them. Dropped. 21) “Cheers, Bing. It’s been a long week for all of us.” This was my best day. A complete stranger and her two friends offered me a drink, invited me for a toast, asked about my life and sent me on my way. She’d read the name off my minuscule nametag in the 4 times I brought rounds of drinks to her. There are truckloads of other stories about bizarre customers, and also of good times, but I cannot recall them all. What I do remember, though, is how many of my foreigner co-workers are degree-holders back home who have come here to earn money to support their families. They are so humble you wouldn’t have known unless you asked. To top it off, many of them are very poor, to the point where they will eat nothing more than rice with sauce because it’s what the restaurant provides for free. But these same people will never hesitate to offer you their food, drinks, muscle, time or anything that they happen to have at all, to make you happier and your job easier. The biggest takeaway I had is that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, or how ‘successful’ you are if you are obnoxious, uncultured or just plain cocky. It’s a shame if you have to wave it in the faces of others before they can tell that you have what you have, or are who you are. I’ve met people drinking expensive wines who courteously asked if I was having a busy evening as I served their cocktails, as well as people with the keys to their Ferrari on the table asking me to bring the rest of the coke. All in, I must tout that a job in F&B will give you fresh and possibly startling insights into the various types of people who exist in this world. It will humble you, yet it will teach you so much you could never learn elsewhere. It is hard menial labor, but it is hard menial labor you’ll probably never do again after university. Bankers, Doctors, Lawyers or Politicians you may aspire to be, but between an internship running coffee at a bank and a job running coffee in a restaurant, I think the latter offers an unparalleled wealth of experience you cannot really get anywhere else. You’ve got to try it once. If anything, you’ll know to treat your waiters properly the next time round. The author has 2 months of wedding banquet experience with Shangri-La Hotels and another 3 months in the abovementioned but undisclosed bar. He is currently patiently waiting for his opportunity to further improve his understanding of the fundamentals behind the invisible hand that makes the world go round at the tertiary level in the capital city of our formal colonial masters.