YARDSTICK: How important is scoring a string of As in the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia examination to a young person's career development? Is it the be all and end all that can unlock many doors and lead to a successful career? Suzanna Pillay and Tan Choe Choe speak to several top scorers to find out
WHETHER it is to go off to university, college, Form, Six or A-levels, take a year out and travel or move straight into the working world, the choices are endless, as noted in the book What's After SPM?
The book, published last year, is an anthology of 101 career pathways taken by 101 young Malaysians after their SPM. Among those sharing their stories are Grace Lim and Wan Nadiah Wan Mohd, who sat their SPM in 2001.
Lim, a lecturer at Methodist College Kuala Lumpur, opted to do Form Six after scoring 11As in her SPM, as she wanted to teach.
"Getting all As in SPM is not a prerequisite for a successful career, but it is certainly helpful."
A young person's dream of college or a scholarship, however, doesn't have to end just because he or she failed to score straight As in SPM, says Wan Nadiah, who was awarded a scholarship to further her studies at Harvard University in the United States after scoring 8A1s and 1A2 in SPM.
Today, Wan Nadiah is director of business development and corporate communications at Sunway Medical Centre. She also sits on the selection panel that interviews Malaysian applicants interested in pursuing scholarships at Harvard. To become a competitive applicant for college and scholarship after SPM, she says it is better to focus on getting As in fewer subjects and be involved in interests outside of school.
She has interviewed applicants shortlisted by Harvard who did not get straight As in SPM.
"Good universities and effective employers will evaluate a person not just academically but also in terms of critical thinking, communication, talent and passion," she said.
Indeed, former SPM top scorers who have joined the workforce or are pursuing their degrees consider a string of As not to be the only prerequisite for career success.
Wan Nadiah Wan Mohd director of business development and corporate communications, Sunway Medical Centrel Completed SPM in 2001.l Scored 8A1s out of nine subjects
After SPM, I obtained a Public Service Department (PSD) scholarship to pursue biotechnology but since the course was not offered at Harvard University, I switched to biochemistry.
However, by the time I graduated from Harvard, the biotech fever in Malaysia had passed and I found that I was not really interested in pursuing a PhD or spending time in labs after four years of research.
I was lucky because the liberal arts programme at Harvard allowed me to take classes not just in biochemistry but also in economics, literature and art. I landed a job as an associate at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), an international strategy and consulting firm.
Two years later, I left to pursue a Master's degree in Public Health Nutrition under the Maxis Scholarship for Postgraduates. I felt that the future lay in healthcare, particularly in nutrition, obesity and wellness.
I am also passionate about education, so, when I returned home, I applied to work for the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation.
I was offered a job at the Sunway Group Strategy Department on the strength of my experience with BCG. After a year, I was transferred to Sunway Medical Centre. I now serve as the director of business development and corporate communications at the hospital.
Nobody can forecast which industries or skills will be in demand a few years down the road after you graduate. The speed of change in economy and knowledge is too rapid, as evidenced by my failure to secure a job in biotech just a few years after the BioValley and national plans for biotech were launched. But a good university will hopefully provide the right environment and mentoring to develop the skills needed to cope with changes.
Jasmine Yow communications officerl Completed SPM in 2005l Scored 10A1s out of 12 subjects
After my SPM, I applied for a PSD scholarship to study medicine, but was unsuccessful. My option was to take up the Asean scholarship (2006-2007) offered by the Singapore government to study A-levels at National Junior College, Singapore.
The pressure of having to maintain good grades proved too much for me. A month before my final exams, I was diagnosed with mild bipolar disorder. I returned to Malaysia and gave tuition for a while. In June 2008, I decided to pursue a Bachelor of Journalism degree at Taylor's University College.
In late 2009, I wrote a book on my battle with depression, Behind That Shiny Resume -- Jottings of a Troubled College Student, published by Armour Publishing, Singapore. I wanted to share my story in the hope that it would inspire others. I am still on medication, but am learning to cope with life's challenges better.
I am now working in the media line in Adelaide, Australia.
Despite my breakdown, I do not regret going to Singapore at all. Yes, the pressure led to a breakdown, but it is not to be blamed. We can all develop the capacity to handle pressure.
The SPM results helped my career as it allowed me to get a scholarship to study in a junior college in Singapore. However, I don't think they are a prerequisite for a successful career. What helps a student or person is good attitude, hard work and perseverance.
Grace Limlecturer at Methodist College Kuala Lumpurl Completed SPM in 2001l 11As out of 11 subjects
After my SPM, my heart was set on doing STPM with the aim of entering a public university. I wanted to get a Bachelor in Education degree to teach in secondary school.
I took up Economics, Accounts, Mathematics, Literature in English and the General Paper. I don't regret taking any of these subjects because I gained much knowledge learning them. Scoring 4As and 1B in STPM is an accomplishment I am proud of.
After my degree, I started my first job as a lecturer at Methodist College Kuala Lumpur, two days after my university undergraduate examinations ended.
While teaching, I pursued a Master's in Arts (English Literature) degree, which I completed in January. The three years that I spent working and studying were stressful, but worthwhile.
I have plans to pursue a PhD at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. I've already been offered a place for an MPhil in Education at Cambridge, which will hopefully lead to a PhD in education. I will be leaving for Cambridge in September.
Iskandar Zulqarnain Mohamedundergraduate, University of Cambridgel Completed SPM in 2007l Scored 10As, 1B out of 11 subjects
After SPM, I had lots of freedom to do things in my life. What I studied and what I did in my spare time was no longer dictated by having to get an A for a subject I had little interest in, or in filling up my curriculum vitae, for that matter. The expectations (studying, budgeting, etc) of studying at Cambridge empower me and I do not find it a burden.
I am a second-year medical student in the University of Cambridge. I chose medicine because I want to help others. While it is true that you can do that regardless of what field you work in, medicine allows you to form a personal connection with the people you help.
I have mixed feelings about studying overseas and adapting to a new culture. I come from an English-speaking family, so language is not an issue.
I am enjoying my studies very much. It is hard to pinpoint one part of the experience that is nice.
To all SPM students thinking about furthering their studies abroad, my advice is take the good parts and leave the bad.
While there are lots of great things out there, as Malaysians, we've got a lot of good things going for us, too. I feel it is important to realise that we are not inferior to students from other countries; they are just like us. Allowing yourself to feel inferior to other people will only stifle your ability to do your best.
Fong Tze Junn Full-scholarship student at Taylor's University Collegel Completed SPM in 2008l Scored 11As and 1B (Chinese) out of 12 subjects
I've been giving tuition to SPM students for the past four years. I always tell them not to take the exams lightly. Instead of worrying about the grades, you should be more concerned about whether you deserve the grades and whether you have learnt anything. It's about how you prepare yourself.
Some things are not graded in school. You have to do projects and oral tests, but those are not included in the SPM results. Language proficiency tests don't count because teachers would try to help out. I guess that's why you see many employers claiming that graduates can't even communicate well these days.
My SPM results enabled me to get a scholarship from Taylor's University College to pursue a Bachelor (Honours) in Accounting and Finance degree.
I have always been good with figures so I chose a degree in finance and have been scoring straight As every semester.
I still don't have a solid ambition. But I am inclined towards a career in the finance sector, probably as a trader, banker or financier.
So, do you need good results to excel in life? Not really, because we have seen many successful people who haven't even completed their education.
But, in the world today, you would need a paper qualification to get you through the door.
Avinaash Subramaniam undergraduate, Harvard Universityl Completed SPM in 2008l Scored 11As out of 11 subjects
I am majoring in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) at Harvard University. I am also taking classes from the Psychology, Chemistry and Religion Departments out of interest.
I chose this major because I'm interested in the use of plants as anti-psychotics, and to learn more about traditional medicines and healing methods. I believe they can benefit the poor who cannot afford to buy expensive western medicine.
At Harvard, I realised that all the things we studied in secondary school were a waste. I needed to retrain myself to think in a new way. I discovered that not only did exams prevent you from understanding the material but also that exams were not everything in life.
Anybody can excel in exams by using the correct answering techniques, but to excel in subjects requires much more than that.
I feel SPM is not a good way to assess how intelligent a student is because some brilliant Malaysians who didn't do as well in SPM are successful in their college life.
I did well in SPM because I studied hard but it did not help me to deal with the world after secondary school.
Studying is supposed to be fun, where students engage in subjects that they truly enjoy. However, exams suck the soul out of that.