Singapore is known for being an academically rigorous country. School here is very competitive, and only the top of the top make it to the public universities like NUS. Before I came here, I was warned about what I was getting myself into. Warnings ranged from “Be prepared to adjust to an academically challenging education system” to “Are you crazy?! You’re willingly going to university in ASIA to study Science?!”.
But hey, I thought, I’m a Scholar, right? How bad could it possibly be?
At first, it doesn’t seem all that different from back home. We go to lecture, take notes, review said notes after class, do some readings, write up lab reports, etc. Material-wise, it isn’t that much harder than what we’re used to. They go a little faster, and they expect us to remember a lot more from our foundation courses than most of my profs back home ever did. They don’t have office hours, and you’re mostly expected to figure out the answers to your own questions. But all in all, it’s not so terrible.
And then we hit midterm season.
My friend once compared Singaporean exams to being blind-sided by an armoured truck while running up a down-escalator when you’re running 10 minutes late for the most important interview of your life.
And I’ve got to say, she pretty much nailed it.
I hate to sound like a petulant 4-year-old who didn’t get her way, but exams here are hard. And I don’t say this lightly. If you don’t know me, you at least know the kind of grades we need to get into and stay in Scholar’s Electives, and the calibre of work that we’re used to. I promise you, this isn’t the rant of a bitter, slacker exchange student (or maybe it is…).
It isn’t just the amount of detail they expect you to remember—although it is incredibly impressive how much students here can retain—or even the higher level thinking that they demand—which I swear sometimes feels like having to relate…two things that have nothing to do with each other while making it sound academic and totally convincing. No, it’s having to do all that in a very limited time span which makes it borderline impossible.
Exams at NUS: memorize everything, know how to apply anything to the most obscure of situations, and write as though a serial killer were chasing the tip of your pen across the page.
Now, I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating. But I assure you, if you were here, you’d feel the same way. Case in point: my Fundamental Pharmacology final exam was two hours long. We needed to know the names, mechanisms, signaling pathways, side effects, and contraindications of 160 different drugs. The exam consisted of: 128 multiple choice questions with negative marking (and no, I don’t mean -0.25 if you get one wrong. I’m talking full-out minus one mark if you aren’t right.) PLUS three long essays. And when I say long, I mean long. Like we’re-going-to-give-you-three-separate-10-page-booklets, please-include-diagrams, there-are-five-parts-to-this-question long. And maybe if I weren’t used to school back home it wouldn’t have been so bad. I mean, most profs at UWO would have given us 2 hours just for 128 multiple choice questions without the negative marking. …right?
So that’s what exams are like. They’re a little stressful. In a why-am-I-doing-this-can-I-drop-out-of-school kind of way. But wait! There’s more.
See, NUS relies heavily on the bell curve. So it doesn’t matter how well you actually did on the exam. What matters is how well you did in relation to everyone else. And remember how I said only the best students get into the big public universities here? Yup, so “everyone else” just happens to be a bunch of very smart, very hard-working, genius students. A professor once told us that typically, the difference between an ‘A’ and a ‘C’ on his final exam was 4 marks. FOUR marks. To say things are competitive here would be the understatement of the year.
So how do students here cope? Realistically, they’ve gotten used to it. It’s what school has always been like for them—sink or swim, adapt or get weeded out—from primary school to secondary school to junior college to university. Less seriously, they pray to the Bell Curve God. After every exam. He even has a Facebook page.
My problem? The Bell Curve God hates me.