Decisions After N Levels

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There are many pathways available now that you have received your N level results. Let’s take a look at some of them:

1) Promotion to Sec 5N(A)

Must get less than 19 points in English, Math and three other subjects (ELMAB3) and at least a Grade 5 for these five subjects.

Will sit for the O level exams in the same school.

2) Direct-Entry Scheme to Polytechnic Programme (DPP)

Must get less than 19 points in English, Math and three other subjects (ELMAB3) and at least a Grade 4 for English and Math and Grade 5 for three other subjects.

Will attend the Higher Nitec course at ITE for 2 years, and if the minimum score is achieved, will get into a corresponding poly course.

3) Polytechnic Foundation Programme (PFP)

Must get less than 11 points for ELMAB3.

Will study for a 1 year curriculum related to a diploma course and then proceed to that course.

4) N(T) students can go to ITE and if they get A for Eng and Math, and B or better for one other subject, they can apply to 4 N(A).

5) Those who cannot or choose not to go through the aforementioned options can opt for the Nitec courses at ITE OR repeat the N level exams.

6) Those with the means – time and money – can opt to study for a private diploma/ degree.

Now that the options are all laid out, let’s have a discussion on what suits you better. The following points are based on my experiences and discussions with colleagues. Please consider them with your own teachers, counsellors and family members before coming to a decision that will be satisfying or at least cause minimal regrets.

1) Many students will be tempted to take the O level exams. They may wish to spend another year with their classmates or their parents want them to avoid ITE. The peer pressure and social stigma can be overwhelming.

The truth is that a student who gets a 1 for N level is expected to get a B4 for O level. This is the general trend. Are there exceptions? Yes. Are there many exceptions? No. There is a sudden and huge leap in curriculum demands between N and O level exams. A student who gets 4 for a N level subject will most likely get a D7 for O level. 

For example, my younger brother was a top N level student in his school. He achieved 9 points. After spending an extra year at school, he sat for his O levels, failed badly and could only qualify for ITE. If you are sure that the 5N(A) students with whom you will be in class with are diligent, you may benefit from this choice. If your form and subject teachers hint that you should return, this choice may be apt. If you had the option of choosing between N(A) and Express streams after PSLE and decided on the former, you may benefit as well. If a school has a very strong 5N(A) team of teachers with a commendable track record, you may benefit from opting for this choice. It takes a great alignment between many different factors for N(A) students to do well at O levels.

The truth is that O level exams are more competitive because there are many more people taking them. There are, of course, former N level students who did well for O levels. Based on experience, however, most should avoid this option as they tend to fare poorly at O levels. 

2 and 3) Direct-Entry Scheme to Polytechnic Programme (DPP) and Polytechnic Foundation Programme (PFP)

If you meet the academic prerequisites, you should opt for the DPP and PFP. The truth is that the O level exams are centred on generic knowledge not very useful in real life. Being able to calculate differential equations and balance ionic equations would not be useful to most. Why not spend that extra year learning skills and acquiring information more aligned to your interests?

Do note that not all courses are available for the DPP and PFP. If you already know what you wish to study in polytechnic and are certain that these courses are not available at the DPP/PFP level, then you may have to consider option (1).

4) N(T) students can go to ITE and if they get A for Eng and Math, and B or better for one other subject, they can apply to 4 N(A).

As with all other options, consider your natural inclinations and decide on a most suitable pathway. Do note that the N(T) curriculums are vastly different from the N(A) ones and be prepared to make necessary efforts to adapt to steep academic changes.

5) Those who cannot or choose not to go through the aforementioned options can opt for the Nitec courses at ITE OR repeat the N level exams.

Between these two options, the first one of going for a NITEC course seems more appropriate. You get to pick up new skills though you may have to face a certain social stigma. The truth is that many students who choose to spend one year and repeat their N levels end up with the similar grades. Unless you are certain that you will put in a much greater deal of daily effort, it may be more realistic to go to ITE and learn new skills.

A side note: school fees can be heavy for foreign students. It may be a economically sound decision to sit for N levels again and try to get into a polytechnic course in as few years as possible. 

6) Those with the means – time and money – can opt to study for a private diploma/ degree.

Many people do end up taking degrees at private institutions even if they were to attend polytechnic courses. My cousins, my own brother, many relatives. For some of them, having a degree opens up certain job opportunities. For others, not at all. I will not rehash tired arguments about the value of a degree and relative academic prestige of various institutions.

If you have the money and are certain that a private diploma course will be useful and am willing to learn more independently, you may wish to consider this option.  

Again, please note that these opinions are derived from observing batches of students. THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS – a N level student can do well at O levels – though most are not exceptions – a N level student usually do poorly at O levels. Consider carefully if you can be one of these exceptions and make sure that it is not just wishful thinking.

Also, note that academic grades are not everything. One is more than the sum of one’s N/O level grades. If you were to run your own business(es), grades are not important at all. However, if you were to choose more traditional career pathways, grades may have an outsized influence. 

Lastly, a less appropriate decision may set you back by a year or two as well as incur an expense of time, money and opportunities. BUT it is not a life-or-death decision. Different  openings will present themselves whatever your decision.

I shall end with this disclaimer: the following points are based on my experiences and discussions with colleagues. Please consider them with your own teachers, counsellors and family members before coming to a decision that will be satisfying or at least with minimal regrets. Bear in mind that there are exceptions to academic stereotypes though not many. After all, these stereotypes exist because they have been proven true often enough. Either way, there is no easy option in choosing and in life.

All the best and choose wisely! Enjoy the break while it lasts.

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