SINCE their secondary school years, Catherine Lau Xiao Syuen and Nathaniel Inn Tsin Qian have set their sights on pursuing their tertiary studies at one of the world’s top educational institutions.
After all, they have older siblings who managed to achieve it – Lau’s brother won a spot to read law at Oxford University in the United Kingdom while Inn’s received a full scholarship to study engineering at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
In January this year, their much anticipated goal came to fruition when the 19-year-olds, who are former classmates at Wesley Methodist School Kuala Lumpur (International), were accepted into the institutions of their dreams – Lau, a former head prefect, will follow in her brother’s footsteps and read law at Oxford University; Inn, on the other hand, will pursue his engineering degree at Cambridge University, also in the UK.
Reflecting on their journey to Oxbridge, the duo, who will begin their studies in October, attributed their success to performing well consistently in examinations – namely, their International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and A-Levels, all of which they scored straight A*s – as well as investing time and effort in activities outside the classroom.
Inn said throughout his A-Level studies at Methodist College Kuala Lumpur, he put much thought into planning his revision schedule, which he found “extremely helpful for preparation”.
“I focused heavily on planning, such as when to cover certain topics and when to work on past year papers. It helped prevent last-minute cramming of information, and made the initial struggle of starting easier,” he explained.
He added that he also benefited from the revision techniques used by one of his lecturers, which included doing past year examination papers in high-pressure environments and compiling difficult questions for further reflection.
“My lecturer would sit students randomly around the campus – in the middle of the field or the busiest area of the canteen – and assign them a paper to complete,” he recalled.
He also emphasised that his goal as a candidate preparing for the examinations was not to get a perfect score, but to not make the same types of mistakes he had made previously.
In approaching outside-the-classroom activities, Lau and Inn had different strategies, with the former pursuing supercurriculars, which are activities related to her degree of choice, and the latter engaging in a wider range of extracurriculars. Lau, who studied the A-Levels at Sunway College, shared that utilising a few weeks of her holidays to intern at law firms, do research and read legal books aided her in crafting her personal statement for her university application.
On how he has reaped rewards from his activities, Inn said, “Being active in extracurriculars such as swimming and piano instilled in me a kind of perseverance which has carried over into other areas of my life, even in my studies.”
Their successes as college students, however, were not without obstacles, which they both had to learn to overcome.
Lau shared that her struggles with anxiety during her A-Level examinations led her to seeking counselling services.
“At a particularly low point, I decided to seek some sort of professional help, so I reached out to the counselling and wellness unit at my college. My Psychology lecturer, who is part of the team, helped to rationalise my thoughts,” she said.
Inn pointed to having to overcome his “fixed mindset”.
“To a certain degree, I initially avoided challenges because I was afraid to fail as it would prove my ‘stupidity’.
“I came to realise that ‘fixed mindset’ forced me into stagnation, limiting myself from growth and improvement,” he said.
When it came to the university application process, both concurred that the admissions interview proved to be the most strenuous.
“It was definitely a challenge having to quickly read and understand the legal cases that I was given 30 minutes before the interview, and then think on my feet as the interviewers grilled me on those cases.
“However, my interviewers were very friendly. Even though their questions were extremely difficult, leading me to think that I would not stand a chance of getting in, I still thoroughly enjoyed my interview experience,” Lau said.
Looking back on his experience, Inn shared, “One helpful piece of advice I received was that the interviewers were more interested in our thinking processes, rather than in getting the correct answers; they looked for teachability and our genuine interest in learning.”
While they are still months away from starting their courses, they are raring to gain as much as possible from their tertiary experience.
“I find law to be incredibly riveting because it encompasses so many aspects of life and involves various other disciplines, like politics, history and sociology,” said Lau.
She added that she is psyched about experiencing the Oxford tutorial system, in which students are taught individually or in groups of two or three by globally-renowned academics.
Inn said he looks forward to exploring a diverse engineering curriculum.
“Having had the privilege of interning at a fire hydrant company, I was able to witness the struggles and successes of being an engineer. My appreciation for the design and mechanics of systems has grown.
“The Cambridge Engineering course allows me to cover a range of engineering fields for the first two years of study without committing to one until the third year,” he noted.
For students aiming to join Oxbridge, Inn recommended taking a gap year after the A-Level examinations.
He said doing so helped him to craft a strong application as he did not have to rush through the process of writing his personal statement.
“I found it particularly helpful to ask seniors for feedback and advice,” he added.
Meanwhile, Lau advised aspirants to utilise online resources such as tertiary institution websites and YouTube videos to help them during the application process.
She also stressed the importance of having a “you never know if you don’t try” attitude, adding that fear of rejection has kept students, even those with an aptitude for academics, from the opportunity to study at Oxbridge.
“After all, you will not be losing out in any way even if you do get rejected – the skills and experiences you gain from the application process alone are already extremely valuable, and will help shape you into a better student,” she concluded.
Sydney, 19, a student in Kuala Lumpur, is a participant of the BRATs Young Journalist Programme run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team. For more information, go to facebook.com/niebrats.
Now that you have read the article, test your understanding by carrying out the following English language activities.
1 Without referring to the article, list as many facts as you can remember about both Lau and Inn. When you are done, exchange lists with your activity partner. How would you rate each other’s ability to recall information after reading the article? Remember to check both your lists against the article too!
2 Pick either Lau or Inn as your role-play character. If you decided to take on Lau’s or Inn’s character, how would you introduce yourself in a one-minute video that your university is preparing for newcomers? Practise giving your introduction. When you are ready, record yourself role-playing. Then, get your partner to offer his or her feedback.
The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) programme promotes the use of English language in primary and secondary schools nationwide. For Star-NiE enquiries, email email@example.com.