My experience taking the A Levels

The A Levels – a dreaded rite of passage for junior college (JC) and Millennia Institute students. It’s widely considered to be one of the toughest exams in the world, which makes the A Levels preparation period one of the most stressful times in the life of a Singaporean student.

The very mention of A Levels tends to bring up almost traumatic flashbacks for most. Think heads buried in books till the wee hours of the morning, missing out on social events just to study, and crying. So much crying. 

For me though, I found the A Level period far less miserable than what it was made out to be. Perhaps it was Stockholm syndrome or stress-induced memory loss, but by the end of the exams, I was happier and more fulfilled than I had been in a long time. Here’s why:

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Going to an “elite” JC

First, some important background information. As much as every school is a good school, I went to what most would consider an “elite” junior college – Raffles Institution (RI) to be specific. 

In fact, I had gone to elite schools my whole life. I started at Raffles Girls’ Primary School, then went on to Raffles Girls’ School through the Integrated Programme (IP). 

Young meHow it all started.
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

This part is important – being a part of the IP meant that unlike other secondary school students, I was given the opportunity to bypass the O levels and go straight through to JC – and not just any JC either. This “through-train” ride, without so much as a “checkpoint” along the way, was part of the reason for my later struggle. 

This is especially significant because getting a place at such a JC is something that kids fight tooth and nail for. If not through academics, only those who are especially gifted at sports take part in the Direct School Admissions (DSA) exercise to try and earn themselves a spot.

With the privilege I was given through the IP, I was able to spend my secondary school years on enrichment programmes, rather than having my every move made with the O levels in mind. We had the freedom to take on electives, like Area Studies, which explored ancient Southeast Asian civilisations, and Advanced History, which unpacked geopolitical tensions. 

Without the pressure of sitting for a national exam, I took it to mean that whatever I did in my 4 years of secondary school wouldn’t affect my academics at all. While many of my non-IP peers spent every bit of their free time cramming, I was given free rein to stay out late on weekends, and I even got to travel frequently.

Basically all I did throughout secondary school was eat good food and have good fun.
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

My days were spent loitering around Orchard Road, and napping until Mother Nature woke me up. It was awesome.

The A Level culture in Singapore

With an alumni panel that includes the likes of former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, and former presidents Wee Kim Wee and Yusof Ishak, you’d expect RI students to be just as booksmart. Or at least, attempt to be by “mugging” every waking moment of their day.

And you’re right. Granted, there were stragglers who didn’t seem to care at all, but even they mostly cleaned up their act when they needed to.

As much as J1 was fun and games, by the time J2 started, everyone began to get serious. The library that was once empty was now full of kids trying to get a seat. What used to be a lively and bustling place to come to, was replaced with an atmosphere of cold sweat and anxiety.

A level studyingTables full of kids studying till dark was a common sight.
Image credit: Sheanna-Grace Tan

Just like the rest of my schoolmates, I, too, had quite the mindset change once I entered J2. I felt a sense of expectation, and the pressure to rise up to the occasion. The stakes were too high to be playing around, and seeing my peers buckle down pressured me to do the same. 

All this said, you’d probably think that my A Level experience was pretty miserable. After all, I’m not someone who appreciates structure – I’ve always danced to the beat of my own drum and lived my life very OTOT

Because of this, the “A Level routine” was a very unwelcome surprise for me, and like many, I often joked about just skipping the exams and dropping out altogether. 

A level studying
How I spent my days, the stack of papers on the left was only half of what I had.
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

Unfortunately though, this wasn’t really an option – skipping the As would have been tantamount to having my highest educational qualification be the PSLE. And in a world where paper qualifications are the prerequisite to practically all opportunities, this wouldn’t have served me well. 

Perhaps, then, it’s relevant to consider the effect this had in contributing to the enormous pressure on IP kids to ace the As. I’m not saying that this didn’t make up for the 4 extra years we had to ourselves, nor am I discounting the difficulties faced by the non-IP population. But this was an incredible amount of stress and pressure to place on 18-year-olds.

The support that I didn’t expect

When I tell people that the A Level period was one of the happiest times of my life, I mostly get confused looks, and occasionally a bit of a scowl. And I get it – we’re used to hearing horror stories about how cutthroat the A Levels can be. 

Kids turn into selfish monsters and it becomes every man for themselves. I personally knew of a girl who would steal notes from students who’d fallen asleep mid-cram at the library. Seniors also shared stories of some buying out tuition slots even if they couldn’t attend, so others wouldn’t be able to get extra help just before the exams.

For the longest time, I too, shared this impression, and thought that I would have to be just as cutthroat if I wanted to succeed. But to my surprise, it was quite the opposite. Instead of a lonewolf journey where I would have to fend for myself, I had nothing but support while prepping for the A Levels.

Raffles InstitutionMy view most afternoons when I stayed back with friends to study in school.
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich 

Although I did have to fend off some leeches, it was in this fight that I found a community that made my journey much less lonely and painful than it could have been.

Chances are, you know the saying “It takes a village to raise a child” – this very expression is the one that I believe best encapsulates my experience. In the face of the Goliath that was a national exam, the pebbles I had in my slingshot were a whole community of people that allowed me to focus solely on the exams without needing me to worry about anything else.

A level consultOne of countless consults that our teachers held for us.
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

This included my teachers, who made themselves available for consults 24/7, and replied to my questions even in the wee hours of the morning. There were also my parents who acted as my personal chauffeur. They always offered to drive me anywhere so I could save precious study time.

I could also lean on close friends, who were always quick to offer moral support, while sharing notes to ease the workload, and making care packages when things got too tough. 

As if that wasn’t enough, even neighbourhood aunties and uncles who knew of the ordeal I was facing, did what they could to let me know they were rooting for me.

There was the auntie who worked at the bakery I frequented, who would make sure to reserve my favourite bun for me, even though she knew I’d only be able to stop by right before they closed. I’m not sure how she knew I was about to sit for my A levels, but she always made it a point to wish me good luck.

There was also the uncle who always said I reminded him of his granddaughter. He owned the drink stall right opposite the bakery, and would sometimes give me a cup of milo on the house when it wasn’t busy.

car ride
My parents drove me anywhere I needed to go. I would spend the drives revising.
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

These actions, while small, really added up. Collectively, they played a huge part in keeping me in good spirits and preventing me from experiencing too bad of a burnout.

In retrospect, it showed me 2 things: the first, that no matter how alone I felt, I was never truly alone. At a time when I was so caught up in my own struggles, everyone around me did what little they could to make things easier. 

The second, was that the reason why everyone was so quick to help was because of the A Level “culture” in Singapore. It didn’t matter if you were sitting for the exams or not, you recognised that it was a stressful time for students and those around them – their teachers and parents included.

And this isn’t something that’s unique to Singapore either. Just look around Asia and you’ll see similar sacrifices being made by the community to help out students taking national exams.

In China, whole families move to special study facilities to help their kids prepare for the infamous Gao Kao (high school university entrance exam). Also, in South Korea, planes are rerouted during the national listening examination to minimise disruptions during the Suneung (College Scholastic Ability Test).

Gao KaoStudents in China cramming for the Gao Kao.
Image credit: Reddit

Perhaps there’s something about seeing a national examination as a burden to be carried by the whole community that unites us. Yes, it’s difficult, and sure, it’s painful for the students and everyone else involved. But it certainly is touching to see practically the whole nation rally together in the name of academics.

For me, this was something I couldn’t help but appreciate. I went into my exams with the support of my entire community, and came out really fulfilled and proud of myself. I was never a studious person, but I really worked hard for this, and the feeling of finally being done was one that was indescribably satisfying.

Thoughts on the A Level experience

I want to first disclaim that this is all my personal experience – in no way am I trying to trivialise anyone’s difficulties. Although I’ve painted a pretty rosy picture, there were, admittedly, times when things weren’t nearly as encouraging. 

Some days, things as small as not being able to understand a simple concept would make me cry so hard that I couldn’t breathe. I also had days when I would study for 10 hours straight, hoping to make up for the lost time spent gallivanting in J1, without even so much as a bathroom break. 

My decision to focus on the positives here instead was deliberate. I’ve come to realise that there is far more value in finding beauty where it seems like there isn’t any, than to focus on only the negatives.

If you’re going through A Levels soon, I encourage you to adopt a similar approach. Focusing on these precious moments will ease the stress that comes from resenting your circumstances.

A level study hours
By the end of the A Level period, I had racked up over 300 hours of study time.
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

Thinking about it now, perhaps the stress wasn’t all that bad. At the very least, having to study for the A Levels gave me a concrete goal to work towards, and something productive to do with my time. I even picked up life skills from the 333 hours I put into studying: time management, for example, is something I apply to my tasks even today.

And hey, I did get a pretty nice cert at the end of all of it. 

Yes, the stress was a lot, and the constant pressure to mug did get to me, but I’d like to believe that this mentality was useful for me when it needed to be. It gave me the push I needed to get my act together and now I’m grateful I did it. Never again though.

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Cover image adapted from: Cherisse Goldwich

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