Arrived home yesterday to find the annual "Scholarships" edition of tucked between the papers. It's the season of the year again when the GCE A Level results are announced and the scholarship application frenzy officially kicks off.
Just thought I'll provide my perspective on taking on scholarships, that might hopefully lend some use to the hopeful 18/19 year old folks out there who are considering taking on scholarships. My perspective is obviously shaped by my journey through the education system, and my employment as an investment banker for more than 8 years where I have had the opportunity to work alongside many ex-scholars, most of whom have broken their bonds.
My educational certifications, are at best, "above average" when compared against the national standard, with an L1R5 score of 10 points for my O Levels and an A A B for my A Levels. Those scores were obtained in the first couple years after the Y2K celebrations, and if you account for grade inflation that seems to be the norm these days, they look downright "average". I was more focused on my "after-school" activities (such as my real CCA and chasing skirts) and playing bridge with friends in JC than my studies, and the only driving factor behind getting grades good enough for the next leg was my parents insisting that I will have to fund my own studies if I was not able to get into a local university. Pretty sure neither my parents nor I was aware of the "Ivy-League", else I might have turned out differently. LOL one can only hope...
With those grades, I managed to wiggle my way into a local university where I did a Business degree with a finance major. Things did change quite a bit during my national service days and it slowly dawned on me then that I had better put pedal to the metal when I went off to university, so as to attain maximum optionality. I hadn't quite figured out what I wanted to do before university, but I guessed that getting a top grade for my degree would keep maximum roads open, so I hit the ground running from day 1 and managed to squeeze out a first class honours / summa cum laude degree.
Except for a couple of study awards received for taking on exchange programs in university, I was never a recipient of a scholarship. My dream when I was in my teenage years, obviously unduly influenced by too many movies of the "Black Hawk Down" genre, was to receive a academic study award from the SAF and join up the SAF as a special forces soldier, but I ended up out of course during my army days, which put an end to that. I guess you can say I got pretty lucky to get kicked out of course...
If there is just one word of advice I can give to teenage scholar wannabes it is optionality. Now receiving an invitation to take on a scholarship, at your stage in life, will perhaps be the culmination of your achievements then. Your parents and family will be proud of you, and will perhaps exert undue pressure for you to sign on the dotted line. It is however, your entire responsibility to ensure you know absolutely what you are getting into.
And my humble suggestion is to look for something that will give you the maximum optionality in life. Ideally you will want an all expenses paid scholarship to an institution and country of your choice, that is bond free.
Prestige is something that is secondary at this stage in life. I have known many a PSC scholar who decided to break his bond and join banking to a tune of a S$250k bond breakage fee that Mom and Pop could probably have afforded to send him to university with, or even less (the breakage fee is subject to a interest rate that dissuades the scholar from breaking hid bond) and perhaps somewhat a bit of emotional baggage for depriving someone who could have really used the scholarship (I like to think that scholars in general have empathy and heart - isn't that what the scholarships board normally look for?).
When you are 18/19 years of age, there is quite a high chance you are not entirely sure of what interests and drives you, and what you think could be satisfy you from an intellectual standpoint. Thus, it doesn't really make sense for you to sign on a bond for 4 to 6 years, and then embark on your learning journey through university, where I dare say would be the most formative four years of your education from a personal development standpoint.
Well if you really desire to be an educator, work on defence policy in MINDEF lead troops in exercises in the SAF, help fix the broken rail transport systems with LTA / SMRT or bring in MNCs with EDB go for it, but please know what you are signing up for. I would strongly suggest doing some internships in relevant positions to get a taste of what is to come before you pledge away the first 4 to 6 years right out of school.
I would even go as far as to suggest that taking on a local university scholarship that is bond free, would probably make more sense than taking on an all expenses paid [insert relevant ministry / stat board / company] scholarship that allows you to attend an Ivy-League college. Fact is although a local university degree isn't as marketable as an Ivy-College degree, you still need to be in the top tier of your class to get one of those top paying banking or consulting gigs. And another fact is that these top jobs have actually started to hire more local university kids than in the past.
So please put aside the beaming smiley faces (is it me or do those look less and less genuine these days?) that look up at you from the papers and those scholar interviews before you sign up. Think about whether you can really see yourself working for that organisation in that particular role for 6 years after university.
Keep your options open as much as you can, for the worst thing you can do is to commit to something that you don't have particular exposure to, in the prime of your life, and find yourself stuck, either financially (in debt from breaking your bond) or for the next six years right out of university.