So the A-level exam grades have been released and this year it’s a little more personal because my younger brother also received his results. He did better than I did in my time but unfortunately for him, it’s so much more competitive now that he definitely won’t be getting into the course of his choice if he were to apply for the big 3 (NUS, NTU and SMU). It’s little comfort that he did better than I did because just like the PSLE and O-level exams, the results are only useful for getting you to your next school of choice. Beyond that, no one cares how well or badly you did.

Anyway, the post isn’t so much about his results but more of the reaction of my mother. Although he easily qualifies for the course he is interested in for quite a few universities, my mother also looked at a few options that are willing to guarantee him a place but that he totally has no interest in. Basically, it’s like wanting to study film design but your mom wants you to study engineering just because you definitely can get a place.

The problem with this way of thinking is that this is so 20th century. In those days, getting into university was something of a rarity so graduating with a degree, regardless of the course studied, was something extraordinary. These days, graduates are dime a dozen. A much bigger proportion of each secondary school cohort goes to university and parents are much more willing and able to send their kids overseas. In short, merely going to university isn’t going to mean much.

What’s going to be more important is doing well there and a big part of doing well comes from the motivation of the student. To be honest, before I went to NUS to study economics, I had the view that every person who managed to get to a university (especially the big 3) must be really smart. After going through four years of university and meeting countless graduates who are/were colleagues, I’m not so sure.

I believe intelligence is pretty much normally distributed. The only reason why more people are got a university degree in my time versus my parents’ time is not that my generation is smarter. Rather, the opportunity for a university education increased. Similarly, I know many people from my parents’ generation and older who never got a degree but are possibly some of the most intelligent people I’ve met. My grandfather and my mother-in-law are two prime examples. The only reason why they never got a degree is that they had to enter the workforce to bring home some bacon.

While I don’t teach at a university, I’ve seen many students at my school fail to do well or even fail to complete the course due to a lack of motivation. And one of the biggest factors for a lack of motivation is that the student is only in the course because his/her parent(s) insisted that they study the course. Often, they can pass the first year because the modules are easy enough or the excitement of new friends and a new environment can pull them through. Once they go to the second or third year where the modules increase in complexity and become more specific to the course they applied for, their lack of interest becomes a chain around their ankles and they sink. It’s sad that we counsel so many students when we actually need to be counselling their parents instead. After all, if their son/daughter graduates with a lousy Grade Point Average (GPA), their future may be bleak.

To all parents out there, I know it’s fashionable in Singapore to be a doctor, or lawyer, or banker but not everyone has the aptitude nor interest to pursue those professions. It’s much better to let your child take responsibility for their own lives and be the best person he or she can be. Of course, you want to keep an eye on your child in order to make sure that they’re not going to become the best criminal but there’s no shame in being the best chef, baker or even dog groomer. They’re all decent professions that provide value to society.