Aow Si Li, Sara

SGIA Grade 12 students have received early acceptance to reputable and world-renowned universities. Sara Aow Si Li, from the Class of 2022 IBDP cohort, received an offer from Imperial College London to study Chemical Engineering.

How long have you been at SGIA?

6 years. I moved to SGIA when I was in Grade 7 (2016).

Why did you decide to apply to the universities that you did?

Canada and UK: Both countries have renowned universities for chemical engineering and include industrial experience years in their degree programmes.

Australia: I have been to Melbourne several times and enjoyed the atmosphere there, so location-wise I found it a good choice. Monash University (the only university I applied to) is also one of the G8 universities, and is thus rather renowned. It is also known for being a more practical and application-based university with industry connections.

Singapore: It has two renowned universities, NUS and NTU, and is also my home country. You might say that in my perspective, they are my safety schools.

For engineering courses, I strongly recommend searching for degree programmes that offer or include industrial experience. It is important for engineers to not only learn the fundamental concepts of engineering, but also be able to apply it to the real world where they will work in. The universities I have applied to offer this, which is one of the reasons why I applied to those universities.

The hardest to choose from were the UK universities because UCAS only allows applications to 5 universities. I ended up choosing Imperial and Manchester as reaches, and Bath, Sheffield, and Birmingham as safeties. To answer the question of how I ultimately decided on those 5 universities, I endlessly browsed The Student Room and Reddit to narrow down universities which are known to be good for the engineering field, since most, if not all, universities in the UK offer industrial experience in their engineering programmes. Location also played a minor role in my decision-making, because I would want to study in a campus whose atmosphere fits my preferences (or, at least, seems like it would fit, since I viewed the campuses virtually)

How did you feel after receiving admission offers / acceptance letters?

I definitely did feel the sense of achievement whenever I received offers, though they were most prominent when I was given offers from universities that I knew were more challenging to get into, like Imperial College London or the University of Manchester. For me, a reason why I applied to multiple universities was to test where my current knowledge and abilities lie, and whether I was capable of getting into a certain university even if I do not end up studying there for my undergraduate degree.

How has the SGIA IB Diploma Programme helped prepare you?

I am currently a second year IBDP student, and while I cannot confirm with absolute certainty that the IBDP has prepared me for university (not having experienced university yet at this point of time), I can say that the skills I gained have made me feel more prepared to tackle the challenges that lie ahead of me.

Two crucial skills to master in the IBDP programme are time management and responsibility, especially for tasks like IAs, EE, TOK, and CAS, which have a lot of deadlines in the second year. Objectively speaking, a single IA can be accomplished within two to three days if you really set your heart and mind to it without distractions of any kind, but knowing the typical student, this is not usually the case. We procrastinate, we leave tasks for future us to handle, and we accomplish these tasks in “instalments”. Therefore, it is important to divide these major tasks into smaller segments to accomplish over time. I believe that such skills will help me better manage my time in university to accommodate not only my courses, but also other extracurriculars and professional commitments. Furthermore, writing IAs and EE has helped me develop a sense of how research reports are written, which I believe I will find useful in the future when writing project reports or my thesis.

Additionally, though I cannot attest to this particular advantage of the IBDP, many seniors who took IB Mathematics AA HL mentioned that the content covered in the syllabus is as rigorous as the first to second year of undergraduate math studies, which I think would be beneficial in terms of giving us a head start in math courses.

Tell us about your university application / admission journey?

My journey is no different from anyone else’s. Although everyone’s university application journey may differ in some aspects, most of it remains the same: needing to write countless essays and personal statements, and to face the arduous task of entering our personal information over and over again to the different universities we plan to apply to. I was not one of the people who applied to over 15 universities (trust me, some of our classmates did do that), but I was not one who applied to less than 5, either — you could say I was in the middle range, so while I did go through the tedious process of typing out essays, I did not have to do as much as those who applied to tons of universities.

I do think, however, that where we take different paths on our journeys is when we reach the fork in the road called the admissions. Although our paths may cross every now and then, most of our admissions journey is taken alone. It can be a thrilling adventure when we witness the fruits of our labour — being accepted to the universities we applied to, and even more so when we are awarded scholarships — but also sorrowful ones when we experience rejections from those universities. I, too, have felt pride and joy when I received offers from the universities I applied to, and though I have not experienced the latter as of the time of writing, I know classmates who have gone through it and were rather disappointed. Nonetheless, it is best to remind oneself that when one door closes, another opens. There are more universities out there than you think that will recognize your abilities and skills, and accept you for them.

What advice do you have for Grade 10 and 11 students who are preparing for their university journey?

  • Do not take university applications lightly.

University applications can easily get tedious, especially for those applying to many universities or writing a lot of application essays. It is important to keep track of time and plan out which applications you want to complete first. For example, I applied to the UK, Canada, and Singapore, which have deadlines in October, January, and March respectively. (I have excluded Australia because the university I applied to has multiple application rounds.) Therefore, I made sure to direct my attention to one country’s application at a time to avoid overwhelming myself with all those applications.

There are always similar or common essay prompts across university applications, such as describing yourself or naming a few of the most impactful extracurricular activities you did. To keep your university application journey as efficient as possible (knowing that you also need to juggle other commitments like A Levels or IBDP), make full use of the first few essays that you write. For instance, if you wrote an essay for a university application in January, and another university — whose deadline is in March — requests you to write an essay for a similar prompt, you can simply take the January essay and tweak it a bit to fit the criteria required for the March essay. Do not fret — this is not plagiarism (unless your original draft was copied from somewhere else).

  • Reuse those essays.

  • Speaking of essays, you could get people you trust to read your essays and give you feedback on them.

Okay, so you have written that essay. But you have also thought about it and read through it countless times that it seems so familiar to you. Now, get a fresh perspective from someone else. Do not show the whole world your essay — that is not the point here; simply ask a close family member, friend, or our university counsellor to read through it. Since it is their first time reading your essay, they might view it differently from how you have and could give you constructive criticism so that you can submit a better essay.

If you have not already involved yourself in extracurriculars, do it now. Extracurriculars can give you that boost you may need in order to obtain that offer because it reveals your passions and commitment outside of the academic realm. If you are someone who has never stepped into the extracurricular world, start small, and you can build your way up. However, always remember that no one can push you to develop and improve through these activities if you do not possess your own innate desire and determination to do so.

My own journey began in the second half of Grade 10, when a friend convinced me to join Harvard Model Congress Asia 2020 (and mind you, I was a really shy kid who was terrified of public speaking back then, so perhaps you might argue that this was not a small start). It was then I realised that despite lacking in communication skills, I really liked the thrill and the atmosphere that conferences like HMCA gave. That was truly the spark of my entire public speaking and debate career, for I subsequently joined more HMCAs and MUNs, and spoke in a TEDx event and various international IB conferences.

Another thing you can do is making your own initiatives. I founded our school’s environmental club with a few of my classmates because of our concerns towards issues brought about by climate change around the world. You could do something similar, but with your own passions and interests. It does not have to mean establishing a school club; it can also mean community service.

Some countries, like Singapore, would generally favour academic accomplishments over community service (though that is not to say that they do not value the latter at all), so taking part in academic competitions could also count as a valuable extracurricular.

  • Extracurriculars are your friends.

  • Does the phrase “your grades do not determine your future” sound familiar?

To a certain extent, I agree with it. You should not let one failing mark shatter your hopes and dreams. However, when it comes to university applications, it can be a factor determining whether or not you get that offer. Of course, not all universities have high minimum entry grades (unless you intend to apply to universities like Oxbridge or T20), but keeping your grades decently high will allow you to access more opportunities, such as scholarships.

  • Lastly, do not be (too) discouraged by rejections or failures!

At the time of writing this, I have not had any university rejections (sincerely not intended to be a flex), but if you ever get a rejection in the worst-case scenario, remember that there are a lot more opportunities out there for you to pursue. Feeling sad and disappointed is normal, but make sure you pick yourself back up and continue moving forward.