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Did PSLE and O-Level Matter?

15 Nov 2019

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A Poly student reflects on the major national exams, and how they affected his life. By Lim Jun Rong Terence.

A few months ago, I was at an interview for an internship position at a local media company. I watched nervously as the interviewer flipped through my portfolio. I showed her a couple of films I made, but none of them had noticeably impressed her. I waited, fidgeting in tense silence – one that was broken by this scoffing remark.

“Oh, you got 7 distinctions for your O Levels? Okay.”

“Okay”? That was one of my greatest academic achievements to that date. She didn’t sound very impressed. It felt… kind of sarcastic. Was I showing off too much? Was it a mistake to include that in my portfolio?

Somehow, the rest of the interview went pretty well, and I was offered a position at the company (though I chose to go somewhere else). But that comment stuck with me for the rest of the day.

Perhaps the interviewer didn’t mean anything by that. Perhaps the inevitable stress I was feeling  caused me to read the situation wrongly. But nonetheless, it got me thinking...

Did my PSLE and O Level results matter?

I wasn’t the brightest of students in primary school. I scored an aggregate of 220 in the PSLE, which was considered meh back then. Still, it devastated me. I wasn’t able to go to the secondary school I had wanted.

I was really dramatic about the situation I found myself in. I remember sulking for the first month at secondary school. I didn’t participate in class, I didn’t study, and I spent every recess in the classroom brooding like an angsty teenager straight out of a Billie Eilish song.

Then after some time, for some reason... I stopped. I began to appreciate the little things in school. I liked the short conversations I had with the ‘chicken rice’ auntie whenever I bought her food. I liked my literature teacher’s flamboyant charm, even if I didn’t understand her lessons sometimes. Most of all, I found great joy in what could possibly be Singapore’s greatest delicacy – ‘Chicken Cheese Balls’; sold in the canteen’s snack stall.

Despite how hopelessly edgy I was in those days, I managed to make a handful of friends. My English teacher caught me writing Minecraft fanfiction during class once. She praised how good my writing was. She even borrowed the book and showed it to the other teachers.

For 13-year-old Terence, that was an incredibly heartening experience that thawed my cold, ‘emo’ heart. She inspired me to continue writing. I filled up numerous exercise books with my stories, and realized just how much I loved telling stories. I decided to pursue Creative Writing for TV and New Media in Singapore Polytechnic, and I studied really, really hard to make that happen.

I went into Singapore Polytechnic with seven distinctions for my O Levels, but I never mentioned this to anyone in school. My classmates only found out when I was invited for an interview on Talking Point to talk about why I chose to go to a Polytechnic. When they did, they started ‘worshipping’ the very ground I walked on – but only sarcastically. They would challenge me to triple-digit calculations, and if I couldn’t answer within 5 seconds, they would start booing and jeering. It was all in good spirit though – I didn’t mind. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how little my lecturers and friends cared.

It only mattered once

Looking back, there’s no doubt that yes, my grades did matter to some extent. They can open the doors for a certain school or course.

The shock of being unable to go to the school or course you wanted is an understandable one, but know that it will pass. When life throws us a curveball, we just plant our feet at wherever we end up, and make the best of the situation. I wouldn’t be where I am now, in a course I immensely enjoy, if I had gotten into the secondary school I initially wanted.

If you want to pursue high scores, that’s fine, but don’t obsess over it. Sure, it feels good. It might give you an interesting opportunity or two, but at the end of the day, that’s not what people remember. Ask anyone several years older than you – do people care about their results of an examination that happened years ago?

Study hard. Do your best, but don’t despair if things don’t work as planned. It’s not about how well or badly you did in the past. It’s not even about how many awards you have gathered.

It’s about who you are now – how hard you’re willing to work, how you present yourself, and what you can bring to the table compared to hundreds of competitors and high scorers.