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Three things I did that helped me score 90 rank points for 'A' Levels

Updated: Jan 23, 2019

Story | Justin Ong

When I was 17, I entered Junior College having scored decent ‘O’ Level grades, and was put into what people considered a ‘scholar’ class, one where most of us were taking 4H2s and were given more attention by our teachers, and more resources by the school in general.

It was perhaps the ideal situation to prosper.

But at first that didn’t happen. I did badly for most of my subjects in J1. There was no sense of coherence in my studying, and I was often at a loss both in and out of class. So bad was my concentration that I would just stare helplessly at my mountain of notes, not knowing where, or even how, to begin.

I think many of you, at some point in your life, can relate to this. At the end of my first year, I was one of the lowest scorers in class, though fortunately I managed to promote. I went into the December holidays feeling rather sheepish and angsty, just knowing that I had it in me to do so much better.

And that’s where I want to start, that everyone needs to at least have that belief in themselves, from somewhere, no matter how irrational, that they’re able. That there’s something in them that can, and will, pull them across the line. There’s no way you can achieve a task if you’re always having to double check your abilities and doubting your efforts. It was with the mindset that I was able and that everything I wanted to do could be possible if I just worked very hard that I started my second year.

The second thing I did was to find a smarter study strategy. I took out a blank piece of paper for each subject, and drew a concise topic list, finding out precisely how much I had yet to learn about each topic and starting over again, learning definitions, formulas, finding patterns. I had to relearn a lot of what I thought I already knew, only to find out that I didn’t know that much at first.

What I learned, instead, was that a lot of what was going wrong with my learning come more from foundational problems than from my current efforts. If I didn’t know the reason of a basic formula, for example, my understanding of more complex formulas that borrow from the same concepts would also be flawed. Once I understood the basics, everything else naturally followed. The things I had learned but was confused about gradually started to make sense.

My philosophy would always be to try my best to solve a question on my own before moving on to the next question. But inevitably, there will still be things I didn't know, and some questions that mixed concepts together or that took a few extra steps to solve that I couldn't figure out. For the questions that I could never figure out despite my best efforts, I would quickly book a consult with one of my teachers to figure the question out together. I wasn't shy in seeking help from others, be it teachers or fellow students whom I know were stronger than me. I did so for virtually every subject, from maths to GP. The key to these consults is to make sure you do earnest work beforehand, and not expect the teacher to feed you answers but to clarify certain concepts that you already tried to understand beforehand. Only then will learning take place.

What I did in the months leading up to the exams was to find a reliable study routine. I believe that studying in groups only works if everyone in the group has the same goals and studies in the same way. It might be disruptive if one person takes many breaks, when you’re more inclined to study through the day, for example. A lot of your rhythms that you’re comfortable with would be disrupted.

I found a friend whom I would travel every other day with to a coffee bean beside SMU (it is now a Starbucks), and we would study there for a few hours on end, and I found it to be especially productive because we wanted the same thing from our studies, took the same breaks, and didn’t get too distracted with conversation. We would also teach each other certain topics that the other was weaker in, and it was also a good chance to get better at the topics that each of us were teaching.

I kept this routine up for most of my second year; of redrafting past ideas onto large pieces of blank paper, finding a consistent study partner, and making sure that I did at least 1 hour of studying a day. I found that the secret ingredient wasn't any one of the above things that I did, but really, it was to be consistent with everything above.

What I said about having the confidence in my abilities remained with me till the day I took my ‘A’ Levels. By my prelims I was already seeing some improvement, and right before my exams I told myself that all I had done is all I could have done, and that that has to be enough.

I always knew that I would be ok with doing badly if I had tried my best, but I would certainly not be ok if I did badly knowing I didn’t put in the work. The latter is certainly something I don’t want to have anything to do with, because it brings with it all sorts of regret, which might very well be the worst feeling in the world. So stepping into the exam hall, I was at peace with myself, that I had tried my best, studied consistently and in a manner which was critical rather than mindless. I went in not knowing if my best would be enough, but knowing that I would never regret trying my best.

To do well in an exam — or anything in life — is no accident. You have to be present and think critically at every moment of your trying, you have to be consistent, and you will certainly need the help of others. If you remember these three things, you will be on the right track to scoring to the best of your abilities.

Justin Ong scored six distinctions for his 'A' Level examinations, and is currently studying in Yale-NUS and majoring in Arts and Humanities.

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