In 2014, I got my Alevel results back. By all accounts, they were bad. In fact, they spelt BBAD, or bad.
My dreams of becoming a doctor were cruelly popped like a bubble. When I collected my results and saw the grades on the paper, I hurried away. I didn’t want to be caught crying.
But my teacher called me back.
Hey John, you forgot something.
She handed me a bag of scholarship materials.
You must be kidding. How could I qualify for a scholarship with these results?
I didn’t know.
All I knew was that I wanted to spend the next 2 years in National Service, the compulsory army for Singaporean boys to go through, to do something.
For the next two years…
I knew no night and day. I volunteered for all the organising committees at the charity I was volunteering at, and took on large scale events for the likes of 330 people.
During the nights out from the army, I would hurry to a friend’s home nearby to do the administrative work. On weekends, I would spend it with my team. In the army, I would be reading books on leadership, and hardly spending any time playing.
I thought that doing this would help me to get into medical school through Discretionary Admissions.
Alas, in September 2015, after finishing the organising, I called Yong Loo Lin Medical School. They still told me that I needed the base grades to even qualify for discretionary admissions.
There. My hopes were now really crushed.
Daily, in the leadup to Christmas, I would take a chair up to the highest floor of my apartment building, stand on that chair and wonder if I should flip myself over.
Some have reflected that this seemed rash and impulsive, especially when I hadn’t even tried other paths.
Others have said that this is immature and stupid. But at that point, as a 19 year old, I thought my results were my life.
Then came that one night
One night, I couldn’t take it anymore. I called a hotline for help. They referred me to a doctor, and the GP suggested that I go to the Institute of Mental Health.
From there, it seemed like my life was going to unravel. I remember coming out from IMH thinking,
My life is over. Now I have a mental health record. Who’s going to give me a scholarship or even a university place?
Not knowing what to do, I stuffed myself with cakes, chocolates and cookies to fill the emptiness within me.
Within a month, I grew by 8kg.
Now this was February 2016, one month before the university applications opened. How was I going to get myself into a good enough mental and physical shape to take scholarship interviews?
I thought this was it.
If that’s you today, struggling, I hope this article can share some hope in your journey, and help you see what can help in your own journey.
The time I got my scholarship
I’ll take you back to the time I went for my scholarship interview.
There’s a panel of 5 sitting in front of me.
I’m dressed in a white Oxford shirt, that’s still a little tight from the weight I’ve yet to lose.
Yet in that interview, it becomes a casual chat, filled with many laughs.
At the end, I ask a question about funding that makes them think quite deeply.
And 3 days later, they offer me the overseas scholarship.
This is an attempt to explain.
Know what you want
You need to be clear about what you want. Because if you don’t know what you want, then it doesn’t matter what you do.
This is a tough question. As a 20-year-old, how could you be expected to know that clearly what you want?
That’s why the time between your end of exams to the time you interview, can be a valuable time to do so.
If you’re doing the Alevels you would probably end around December. Take the three months to do something that you really want to do. Get an internship, a job, travel. Something you’ve always wanted to do, but never could.
Scholarship panels are looking for people who are clear about what they want.
In Singapore, the differentiator is what you do outside of school
Turns out all the volunteering activity did matter for the scholarship body that offered me the scholarship. They were impressed that I had done so much during my two years in the army, and to them, this showed commitment.
If you’re trying to get a scholarship today, the easiest thing to demonstrate that you’re interested is what you’ll do outside of school.
School can only show the results you get. But if you start doing something outside of school, that will show commitment, dedication and drive to make something happen. It shows the initiative you take.
Beyond that, the diversity of experiences you add will be respected in the public sector scholarships you go for.
“We seek to have a range of recipients from different backgrounds and experiences, so as to enhance diversity in the talent pool,”
Singapore’s Public Service Commission, on 22 July 2020, during a closed door dialogue with scholars
My advice is that if you’ve yet to start, do things outside of school. Take up leadership positions to show how interested you are.
Don’t waste your time in National Service
If you’re a man, this one’s for you.
Most of my colleagues in NS spent it scrolling through girls on Instagram, playing games, and wondering where all that time went during NS.
NS is a time to relax after your 18 years in a fiercely competitive environment, but it’s also a time to further extend your differentiator.
You can do this by engaging in meaningful activities like:
- Leading committees
If you don’t try, you won’t know.
I was shortlisted for the following scholarships:
- SUTD scholarship
- SCDF scholarship
- NCSS scholarship
- International Medical University (Malaysia) 25% scholarship
- Murdoch University 25% scholarship
This was after I applied for close to 20 different scholarships through BrightSparks.
The important thing is to try.
Don’t wing the interview
For me, I was lucky because I happened to read a newspaper article covering the exact organisation I was interviewing with, just 5 minutes before. That gave me the inspiration to ask the question, that made them impressed.
You need to answer 5 basic questions for yourself before entering the interview:
- Who are you?
- Why this organisation?
- Why you?
- Why you, over everyone else?
- What are you good at?
You also should take time to practice this with someone so you can make sure that your replies are well rehearsed.
Take time to relax, and joke
When I made a witty comment during the interview, and caused them to laugh, I could immediately see that they were more keen to engage with me.
You’re likely to get a scholarship if you’re more likeable, compared to if you were so hated that no one wanted to speak to you.
This is vital. Small talk matters.
A scholarship has obligations
Unless it’s a bond-free scholarship, you need to be clear that who you’re joining, is what you want.
Trust me. The 4 years in university has the potential to change your worldview drastically.
Don’t end up signing something you don’t want.
But beyond that, if a scholarship is what you want, don’t stop yourself. Try, and you may be pleasantly surprised.