• Wong Wing Lum

Crossroads | Next steps after A / O Levels, where should I go?

Updated: 20 hours ago

Whatever you might be feeling, you are not alone. Let’s unpack how you can look upon your options.

Change is coming

“We will no longer have fishes swimming down three separate streams, but we have one broad river, each fish negotiating its own journey.”

This was the image then-Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung painted when he announced major educational reforms made to Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), O- and N- Levels in March 2019.

Under the new Full Subject-Based Banding (FBB) system, students will take subjects in different tiers depending on their capabilities in secondary school. After which, all students will sit for one common national examination, which is the merger of the O-Levels and N-Levels we know today. The new framework is scheduled to take full effect in 2027, kicking off with the fresh batch of secondary one students in 2024.

For many, the move was lauded as a right step towards bridging the divide and stigmatisation brought about by educational streaming. Those who have gone through the system can certainly attest to the additional edge if you either i) had the means and resources to supplement your learning or ii) were good in studying (in other words to put frankly: in memorising and regurgitating).

While the winds of change may have begun to blow, the fact remains that for now, most of us have already been conditioned to hold academic excellence to the highest regard.

Change is coming, but mindset shifts take time. If we are not – by society’s definition – book smart, are we still then worthy of finding success? The quick answer is yes, of course. The not-so-straightforward answer is that’s a journey you must walk to find out.

State of Mind

To those who underperformed, many might offer words of consolation.

You may perhaps never find any comfort in the sea of attempts to do so. It’s a terribly lonely feeling to fall short of your personal goals. At this point, our sense of self-worth is inextricably woven into how well we have fared across these examinations. I took my O Levels and A Levels years ago. Yet, I can still vividly recall how those few printed alphabets on a laminated piece of paper could easily send my world crumbling.

I’ve watched friends stumble from this with a shaken confidence. On the other end of this spectrum were those who refused to be beaten down nor defined by their results.

In short, it really sucks. You should take some time to feel your emotions in their totality, a process for which there is no fixed timeline. It’s not only okay to grief, but also essential that you do so.

Tips on mental wellbeing:

1. Try not to fast-track your grief. Process your emotional needs and unpack what you need to do to feel better. Remember to let people in as you navigate this formative phase of your life.

2. You may be hit by that jittery sting of regret. Symptoms of which include revisiting the past and reflecting upon where you could have done things differently. Learn to stop yourself from entertaining budding thoughts on the ‘what if-s’ and the ‘could have been-s’. You can’t change the past, but you are in control of how you can carve your future.

3. There comes a point where you must leave these feelings behind. Moving on means that you make a conscious decision to not let the matter profoundly affect you anymore.

You are much more than a couple of alphabets on a sheet of paper – and you’ll go on to do great things if you allow yourself to believe that it’s possible.

Where can I get help for my mental health?

Get a mental health check by the Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT) here.

If you’re looking to address more specific concerns, check out these two directories compiled by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) and National Council of Social Services (NCSS).

If you are looking for less immediate avenues to seek help, check out these guides on free mental health apps, YouTube Channels, podcasts and books.

What are your options? Pt. 1: The Conventional Route

For ‘O’s

Choosing between JC or Poly

f you’re still deciding between going to a junior college (JC) or polytechnic, head over to this comprehensive article by theAsianparent who did a stellar job comparing the two options. Take a stab at the JC or Poly quiz by SmileTutor as well.

If O Levels was like climbing the Bukit Timah Hill, think of A Levels as hiking along The Great Wall of China. Personally, I feel that nothing ever truly prepares you for the rigour of JC. This brings me to the not-so-secret recipe on how you can succeed in JC: sheer discipline and diligence (for two straight years).

Sugar, spice and everything nice

Consider what your end goals are. If you have a clear idea of what career you wish to pursue, a polytechnic pathway might be a better choice as it will effectively arm you with skillsets that prepares you for work. On the other hand, JC might work better for those who are i) still unsure about what they want to do in the future and ii) looking for a more secure path into university.

Prioritising JAE options and applying via DAE

Let’s say you really want to get into this particular school/course but you fail to meet the enrollment criteria. Unfortunately, since 2016, JCs have been stricter in enforcing standards requested by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to reject appeal requests from those who do not meet the cut-off point (COP). Hence, it’s not advisable to prioritise them in your Joint Admission Exercise (JAE) application if you did not meet the COP.

By and large, while the guidelines for polytechnic courses may not be as stringent, you need to be strategic in ensuring all of your 12 choices count. Look at how far off the points are. If you’ve only just missed the mark, it may be worth listing them high up in your JAE application. Prioritise the order according to the courses that you’re most passionate about, followed by those you have a general interest in. To increase the likelihood of success, remember that your aggregate score should be around the required JAE ELR2B2 for these courses.

You can also try to appeal directly to the course of your choice under the Direct Admissions Exercise (DAE). DAE allows applicants whose qualifications are inapplicable for JAE to apply for admission into full-time diploma courses across all polytechnics in Singapore. Visit the respective websites of the colleges to find out more details.

Exploring possible alternative interests

However, let’s say that you’ve missed the mark by a considerable margin. It may be a stretch to rank these options high up as applicants with lower aggregate scores will be deprioritised depending on the courses’ demand and supply. At this juncture, it’s crucial to allow more room for flexibility. Repivot and keep an open mind in exploring options that you’ve never considered before.

If you are unsure about where your interests lie, craft a list detailing the options for which you meet the cut-off points. You can find the full list of post-secondary courses in polytechnics (SP, NP, TP, NYP, RP) and Institute Technology of Education (ITE) and their information here. If you have an eye for art, cement your artistic inclinations by looking into specialised schools with diploma programmes offered by LASELLE College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).

Find out more about each option by going to the school’s website or attending their open houses. One way to get authentic, in-depth insights into the school experience is to tap into your personal contacts of seniors who were ex-students of the said course or school. If you do not have any direct sources, find them on LinkedIn. Search for the course or school keywords and drop a polite message to ex/current students about your queries.

As long as you’re earnest, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how willing people are to offer their helping hand.

Questions you can ask:

  • Tell me more about the school culture (teachers, students, extracurricular activities etc)

  • What are some of the opportunities that the school offers?

  • What makes you excited about the course/school?

  • How has the school support you in your learning?

  • What are your career plans after you’ve graduated from the course/school?

  • Upon graduation, where have some of the seniors moved on to?

Going to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE)

ITE is an alternative route to tertiary education where you can be equipped with essential vocational skills that will allow you to be job-ready upon graduation. You will have the opportunity to study for a National ITE Certificate (NITEC) and progress to higher NITEC (1 year) or polytechnic diploma courses in related fields if you’ve met the minimum entry requirements.

Academic Progression for ITE Students | Credit: ITE

A lot of our work at Hatch entails speaking with business owners and company managers to learn about their hiring needs. What has been consistently clear in that process is that the technical skills ITE graduates are equipped with are critical to business and in demand. Our society’s stigmatisation against the capabilities and potential of these graduates is unwarranted, untrue, and self-fulfilling. Through our work, we hope to move towards a future where skills and character competencies are valued in and of themselves, and not through the archaic proxy of paper qualifications.

At present, we can take solace in the inspiration of individuals who have achieved success in their own right. Take the story of 23-year-old Nicholas Chan, who was “far from being a straight-A student”. Mr Chan had quit secondary school in his third year and later took his O and A levels as a private candidate. In 2019, he became the first ITE graduate to enter NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

Success is not limited to re-entering mainstream education. The example here is just one of many exceptional ITE graduates who have demonstrated outstanding resilience in overcoming life’s detours. Mr Chan was featured because he has achieved commendable milestones that are out of reach even for those who’ve sailed through smoothly their educational journeys in Singapore.

What I hope that you take away from this: All roads lead to Rome. Even if your calling does not lie in these prestigious occupations, success in your own definition is very much within your reach if you have the grit to work for your dreams.

For ‘A’s

Applying and appealing to your desired university course

Before 2020, admission to local university courses has been largely dependent on academic merit. This means that you can roughly estimate your chances of admission based on the 10th percentile of your desired course’s indicative grade profiles (IGP). You can check out this comprehensive database compiled by Digital Senior across the three local universities Nanyang Technological University (NTU), National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Management University (SMU).

If you have fallen short of meeting the required grades, fret not. From 2020, then-Education Minister Ong Ye Kung announced that all six autonomous universities will start to ramp up aptitude-based admissions as a more holistic means to assess one’s potential to succeed in a course, with NTU pledging to increase this mode of admissions to 50% in the coming years.

Broader assessments – including interviews, portfolios, personal essays and entrance tests – will be factored in to give a fuller evaluation of an applicant’s competency. This shift in focus away from academic cut-off points gives more students a fighting chance to enter their desired courses based on character attributes, skills and passion.

When it boils down to what universities for, SMU admissions office summarises succinctly: “Beyond academic grades, we are looking for interest in SMU and the programme that the student applied for, passion for learning, traits of resilience and innovation, good analytical and critical thinking skills, whether students are team builders and players, have good communication skills, and have an inquiring and questioning mind."

If you fail to get into your desired course, you can always appeal. A tip is to use the power of stories to build your case. When you are drafting your personal essay, dig deep and talk about your journey that led to your passion for the course. Exercise authenticity as you reflect upon your motivation behind enrolling in the field of study, and your aspirations in doing so. To further strengthen your application, you can also ask your former teachers or employers to craft a letter of recommendation to vouch for your personal conduct. For more information on how you can appeal, head over to this helpful resource compiled by Digital Senior.

Exploring alternative options and interests

The strategy for most is via a university-first approach, which is to secure a spot in one of the more established autonomous universities (NTU, NUS and SMU). However, it matters more to choose a course that aligns with your interests rather than institutional prestige.

Stay open to exploring other possible interests that may have never crossed your mind. There’s no harm in looking into other options out there. Besides, other autonomous universities – Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) – are already making leaps and catching up (or even surpassing) with their counterparts.

How so?

Graduates from SUTD have reported a second consecutive year of higher salaries and full-time employment rate compared to their peers from other AUs in 2018 and 2019, while SIT graduates have progressively roped in steady increments in earnings compared to their predecessors from 2018 to 2019. Meanwhile, in their first graduate employment survey, the full-time employment rate for SUSS graduates was comparably high at 90.9% for 2018.

As for local private universities, hold your horses on the skepticism. There are legitimate concerns regarding the value behind their accreditations, as private university graduates indeed command a lower starting salary compared to public university graduates.

But you’re in for the long game, you’ll find that most employers recognise that the most valuable attributes – skillsets and character – are intangible (see below: How are things changing in Singapore). Once you’ve garnered enough work experience, your qualifications are going to matter a lot less. Hence, the biggest consideration factor would be the tuition expenses for private universities, which are marginally higher as compared to AUs.

Going to Polytechnic

Perhaps after your time in JC, you’ve formed a better idea of what you’re interested to make a career out of. You can certainly use your O-Level results to apply for diploma courses in polytechnics. Furthermore, MOE has recently announced that those equipped with an A-Level certificate can apply for course exemptions in 110 out of 230 courses across the five polytechnics. This means that using your A-Level certificate, you can potentially shave off up to six months in three-year diploma courses. On top of that, JC graduates can apply for a spot in August and secure their placement as early as the second semester in October. The earlier that you can get started on the course, the faster you can finish and move on to the next phase of your life.

Retaking your A or O Levels

If you i) cannot get over not being able to enter your dream course/school, ii) have exhausted all the options mentioned above, and iii) believe that the results you’ve received are not reflective of your true potential, you can consider giving the examinations another try.

The first hurdle you might face is the fear of lagging behind your peers. If it inspires any confidence, some of the most influential people we know today didn’t get an express pass in life as well.

  • Former First Ladies of the United States, Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton both failed the bar examinations on their first tries.

  • Former Executive Chairman of tech company Alibaba Group Jack Ma was rejected from 30 jobs – including KFC – before he started Alibaba in 1999. Two of his colleagues, founders of Alipay and Taobao, also failed to get into MBA courses because they failed their math exams.

  • Singaporean Jack Sim, or more commonly known as “Mr Toilet Man”, who failed his O levels and graduated from vocational school with a certificate in hotel management. He would go on to become a millionaire by 29 and dedicate his life to tackle the world’s sanitation problems.

Rewire your mindset to think of it this way: Rather than a waste, the additional year spent is an investment towards the future you wish to create for yourself. After all, what difference does a year make compared to a lifetime headed towards the direction you want?

The second obstacle you might face is the inertia from getting back to the grind.

As the saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.”

Outline the intrinsic and extrinsic changes you must make in order to achieve your desired outcome. This component can include circumstances, personal discipline and motivation, or additional resources necessary to supplement your learning. As you consider these factors, ask yourself honestly if you’re willing to make the personal sacrifices to achieve your goals.

If you’ve made up your mind to retake your examinations, check with your respective institutions if you meet certain criteria required to retake your examinations in your current school. If not, you can enrol as a private candidate. Here are some guidelines to look out for if you’re looking to retake your O-Levels and A-Levels as private candidates.

How things are changing in Singapore?

Do qualifications and grades matter?

Let’s be honest. Before an individual’s job experience becomes rich enough to shine on its own, qualifications and grades play a vital role as pre-qualifiers. In essence, they do matter (to a certain degree) in helping people get one foot through the door.

Though, it’s helpful to note that more companies and higher learning institutions are beginning to look for other ways to assess applicants beyond their O-Level scores. That’s because the focus is now shifted to their latest academic qualifications in A-Levels or polytechnic grade point average (GPA).

Academic qualifications provide a tangible metric for which employers can reasonably gauge an applicant’s personal and professional bandwidth. As Managing Director of Robert Half Singapore Matthieu Imbert-Bouchard puts it succinctly, “Academic transcripts indicate the intellectual aptitude of an applicant. They are also reflective of the individual’s diligence, research ability, critical and analytical skills, and project management skills.”

Must I get a university degree?

It depends. The typical route for regulated professions in healthcare, financial, law and engineering sectors generally requires a higher education qualification. That said, more efforts are channelled towards creating more viable pathways to go about accrediting these practitioners without the need to acquire a university degree. One example is the formulation of the National Engineering Career Progression Pathway in 2019, which allows those with a diploma or ITE certificate to be recognised as engineers without having to go to university.

But if you’re hoping that your university degree can be used as a meal ticket, you’re in for a rude awakening. The Economist reported that the valuation of a college degree decreases as the number of graduates increases. The fallacy lies in overstating what they call a “graduate premium” or “return on investment” in higher education, which is the difference between the average earnings of someone with a university degree compared to someone with no more than a secondary-school education.

Bringing this home, fresh university graduates were already having a tough time securing full-time employment before Singapore was hit by COVID-19. Unemployment has been on a progressive rise since 2016, hitting resident degree-holders the hardest. According to graduate employment surveys across NUS, NTU and SMU, only 78.4% of graduates managed to secure full-time jobs six months after their graduation in 2017 – the lowest figure in 10 years.

An increasingly educated workforce means that holding a degree no longer bears the prestigious mark of a good hire. As Andreas Schleicher, head of education research at OECD points out “countries have skills shortages, not degree shortages”. You need much more – eg: soft skills, hard skills, practical work and volunteer experiences – to stand out from the competition.

What employers are looking for?

According to a 2019 report by Manpower Ministry, academic qualifications were not the main consideration for some 51% of professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) vacancies – roles of which included software, web and multimedia developers and commercial and marketing sales executives.

Mr Imbert-Bouchard also acknowledged that qualifications and theoretical knowledge only tell one side of the story. They cannot substitute practical experience and “do not reflect a candidate’s passion, their growth potential, or their cultural alignment with the company”.

The great news is that he’s not alone.

Leaders across different companies and organisations in Singapore echo his sentiments. A common thread is the recognition of character attributes as stronger indicators of an employee’s potential to succeed. Increasingly, more employers are looking out for other benchmarks – such as soft skillsbeyond their educational credentials when it comes to recruiting talent.

A recent NTUC LearningHub Survey also found that 7 in 10 employers intend to hire workers with broader skillsets to be able to take on hybrid roles. They singled out effective communication, teamwork or collaboration and data analysis as the top three most valuable supplementary skills required for this hybrid role. Find out how you can progressively improve the most in-demand skillsets in this guide.

What are your options? Pt. 2: The not-so-conventional Route

The hiring landscape is changing, but educational institutions are still slow to react in better preparing students to be job-ready upon graduation. That’s where training providers like Hatch come in to fill the skills gap. Take for instance Google, who defiantly challenged the giants of higher education by launching Google Career Certificates in mid-2020. Their six-month courses were designed to get any individual enrolled in high-paying high-growth careers. That is, without the need for a college degree and at less than a fraction of what it would cost to go to a university.

With more accessible avenues to acquire in-demand relevant industry skills, the world is still very much your oyster even if you’ve hit a tiny roadblock in your educational journey.

So, don’t despair. This could be an opportunity to blaze a trail towards creating a society that comes to value an individual’s merit and skills they possess as opposed to their qualifications.

Find out what excites you (and pays the bills)

Begin with the end in mind. We’ve established above that it’s not enough to go through the motions of conventional education pathways and wait for things to fall into place. You have to intentionally carve out time to reflect upon the difficult questions. Is there an intersection between your interests and what you can realistically make a career out of? Think long-term. What do you envision yourself doing in the future such that it will bring you the most fulfilment?

Not everyone has the luxury of a defining eureka moment that sends a strong signal of what they are passionate about. Switching on discovery mode helps you to narrow down the fields that you are interested in. With COVID-19 still ongoing, there are free webinars and taster programmes that offer a peek into specific job roles and industries.

You can also get started by tapping into free online resources to increase your exposure to different fields of study.

Skilling up

As you complete the courses, top them off with certifications (note that additional costs may apply). This highlights your competencies in a given subject matter to prospective employers. Once you have roughly verified your interest in topics that excite you, do a landscape sweep on all the possible options where you can get formal training through accredited courses.

You can gather unbiased insights on the quality of the classes by approaching past alumni who have listed their credentials on LinkedIn. Do note that some specialised schools have specific entry requirements that applicants must meet before they can enrol (eg: specific grades and certifications).

Here at Hatch, we run two main programmes: the Hatch Immersive and the Hatch Accelerator. While both of which are industry-centric courses covering emerging digital and design sectors, they differ in programme outcomes. The Immersive is designed for jobseekers looking to break into the UI/UX Design or Digital Marketing industry in under 6 months. While the Accelerator aims to equip students and working professionals with industry-relevant skillsets and build portfolios that impress.

Putting skills into practice

The last step is probably the toughest to materialise. You’ll need to seize opportunities where you can apply newly acquired skills in a professional setting. Here’s where it’s important to sell yourself via an outstanding resume and stellar job interview.

Head in with a mindset to grow. Because you’re just starting out, you must manage your expectations regarding the remuneration package and employee perks. As you rack up more experiences, you can get a clearer idea of what you’re good at and wish to do more of. You can then go on to negotiate better packages depending on the value you can bring to a company.

If you join the Hatch Immersive, you can leave this step to us. Our programme is primarily designed to secure employment outcomes, hence students can expect internship attachments or flexible work arrangements upon graduation. Our graduates have since been employed in a range of digital and design-related roles across different sectors of the industry.


It’s important to start thinking about these questions early on, so you can find out what you identify with. You don’t need to have all the right answers right from the get-go. Even if you do not have something that burns you up with fiery passion, you can learn by elimination about what pumps you up or puts you off.

As you embark on the next phase of your life, we at Hatch implore you to be courageous and to be brave in taking the path less travelled if it’s something that you believe in.

After all, there’s no linear pathway to learning.

You can always choose to further your education in the future.

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