Some useful websites for those who’re writing essays

If you need to write essays for your college application, there are a few sites that have provided interesting (good and bad) examples:

This site shows both the good and the needs-improvement essays. Those who post usually will edit the posted essay directly below so you can see how people think essays. If it helps, it’s a large collection.
This site is supposedly (according to the authors) good because it posts only the essays of successful applicants. It’s your own take whether to believe them or not… Be critical!

Guide to the SATs (1/2)

An Overview to the SAT tests

Disclaimer: This is by no means a score-booster, prep-course or official SAT information.

In this relatively short series, I will give a short overview of what the SATs are (yes, there is more than one), what they stand for and why you should take them. I will then go on to give some suggestions about which to take and when to take them.

More colloquially known as the test-that-you-have-to-take-to-go-study-in-the-US, the SATs are required for most colleges in the US that NUS High School students will be looking to apply for. Conversely, they are not required by universities in the UK, Singapore or Australia although a perfect score definitely won’t hurt your chances.

However, what most people know as the SAT is actually the SAT Reasoning Test, one that consists of three main sections, Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing, all of which are multiple choice except for a 25 minute essay in the Writing section.

SAT Reasoning

Test takers receive a score upon 2400, where a score above 2000 is said to be good, a score above 2200 is excellent, a score above 2300 is fantastic, and 2400 (just meant you studied your butt off) is a crazily awesome score.

This test is said to measure literacy and writing skills that are needed for academic success in college as well assessing how well the test takers analyze and solve problems.

The Critical Reading section tests your vocabulary (hence the term SAT vocabulary) as well as your grasp of sentence structure and various other nuances of the English Language. Critical Reading would be SAT Reasoning’s equivalent to English Comprehension. Read the passage and answer the questions. (Except in multiple choice.)

SAT Reasoning’s equivalent to the Essay would be the Writing section which requires students to first complete a 25 minute essay. (This author would like to gripe about the lack of time to complete a proper essay as well as other personal biases, but this is neither the place nor time.) The remaining sections of Writing call upon your inner editor (and Grammar Nazi) to help spot errors in short paragraphs.

The Mathematics section tests well… math. However, the only possible shortcomings most NUS High School students will have with this section are carelessness, carelessness and carelessness.

The following is a joke. Please do not take it seriously. It has not yet been properly validated, but every component of the following equation has some basis in truth.

NUS High School Students have Mathematics section scores as calculated by this formula.

(800)(1-Carelessness)(Skill in Math)0 where Carelessness is graded from a scale of 0 to 0.15.


No, seriously. As long as you checks your answers, remembers basic trigonometry and statistics as complicated as mean and mode, one will be fine. Your TI-89 will watch over you.

Now then, the very interesting question.

Is SAT Reasoning hard?

Yes, SAT Reasoning (in both senses of the phrase) is hard for the average NUS High School student. Although the Mathematics section is easy-peasy, some will still lose 30 points (or more) out of a possible 800 from this section as the SAT is graded on a curve and most good students get all the answers correct.

But surely 770 out of 800 is high, you might say, and rightfully so. 770 out of 800 is a very respectable score indeed. Not for NUS High School students and not for the Mathematics section.

If you should wish to apply to the big-name colleges of the US (which is normally why most people take the SAT anyway), or even the not-so-big name colleges that are still relatively competitive, a 770 score for math is not something to be incredibly proud of.

[Edit from Vanessa: I would like to add that one will get a 770 simply by leaving one math question blank. You don’t even need to get any questions wrong. Yes, this is from personal experience. The question I left blank was classified “hard”; I shudder to think of the points you will lose from not answering an “easy” or “medium” question.]

In fact, nice statistics from collegeboard.com, the administrator of the SATs and APs will tell you that a score of 800 (not 770) means that you scored higher than 99% of last year’s graduating class who took the SAT.

However, the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Education Statistics will also tell you that 3,328,000 high school students are expected to graduate in the 2008-2009 year. Assuming less than half of them apply for college (which is a severe underestimation but let’s go with that anyway), this means that 1% of those is a whopping 16640 students.

Got full marks for math? Guess what? So did 16639 other students.

Thus, the Mathematics section is hardly a good representation of your actual academic skill so there is no need to fret about it. But do not blow it off as nothing. Just play safe, check your answers and get your 800.

The most challenging part of SAT Reasoning for most NUS High School students would be the other two parts that test things that most NUS High School students did not enter NUS High School to specialize in.

Critical Reading and Writing

Basically, the spread of Critical Reading and Writing scores is somewhat representative of one’s actual English Language capability. I say somewhat because there are always exceptions to the rule. Yes, there are people who get 2400 just by mugging their butts off. Yes, that is possible, and No, I do not recommend it although you can do that if you reeeeallly want to.

Want to do well in the Critical Reading and Writing sections? Study English properly. Take time and effort to explore and attempt to understand the language. Investing in a good prep book will most probably also help you.

However, I do not recommend attempting to improve your English by using the prep books. The fundamentals are definitely not wrong in the books, but it is my personal opinion that they don’t teach you, only drill you.

I am not a terribly large fan of the Writing section as it has been shown to be relatively subjective, but the 25 min essay section is basically proof that SAT Reasoning is very muggable. There are techniques to answering the essay, most of which I choose not to mention here. (Google is your best friend.)

Besides the essay section, the MCQs of the Critical Reading section and Writing section are, in my humble opinion, relatively good indicators of your English standard. However, they can also be mugged, so if you were despairing at the thought of never getting that 2000 or 2200, despair no more. You can “hardwork” your way into a good score.

And good score on the Critical Reading and Writing sections is truly a good score, unlike the Mathematics section, so here’s to you improving your chances to look good. 🙂


Wait, you say. I mentioned that there was more than one SAT test in the first bracket of the article, didn’t I? (Yes, you can go back and check if you really want to.)

And yes, there is more than one SAT test. In fact, the second group of tests are known as the SAT IIs, or the SAT Subject Tests.

SAT Subject Tests

These are 20 1-hour multiple choice tests, the full list of which can be found here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAT_Subject_Tests) Different subjects have tests with different numbers of MCQs.

SAT Subject Tests are not optional, and most colleges that require an SAT Reasoning score also require at least 2 SAT II scores.

Normally, students take these tests to score well and show off to the college they are applying to. (That’s the idea behind it, at least.) Most colleges only require students to submit 2 SAT II scores. However, Harvard College requires students to submit 3 SAT II scores, so most people end up taking 3 anyway. (We can’t all get into Harvard, but we can always try?)

These tests are of average standard and revision with the help of numerous prep books (just choose 1 or 2) is highly recommended as the topics tested cover a very wide range of those learnt in the NUS High School syllabus.

Some colleges do recommend their students to take specific SAT Subject Tests should they want to apply to specific fields. For example, most science/engineering applicants will want to take Math Level 2 and a Science, depending on their area of interest.

The SAT Subject Tests must be taken seriously, (Puns amuse me, can you tell?), as they are not trivial in difficulty and careless mistakes, conceptual errors and temporary blanking out will definitely cost you marks.

They are much easier than our school exams, just covering more content at once, so worry not, fellow NUS High School student. Study and you will be fine.

So, Why?

Indeed, why then, should you burden yourself with even more tests that you will need to study for? It’s not like we don’t study enough…

Why should you take the SAT? Why do people take the SAT?

People take the SAT because colleges require it.

Colleges require it because it gives them a relatively good standard upon which to get a grasp of the applicant’s academic strength.

Simply put, an A in a high school in State X might not be equivalent to an A in a high school in States W, Y or Z, thus the need for a common standard.

Thus, the SAT.

However, as only US colleges require the SAT set, you should only take the SAT if you are considering going to the US for college. Other than that, there is pretty much no point.

So there you have it.

A more in depth guide to SAT Reasoning and the SAT IIs will follow shortly, so keep your eyes peeled! 🙂

Financial aid at need-aware schools like Stanford

Reproduced from a discussion forum (answers my own)

Q: Stanford tells you straight up that admissions as an international who needs FA is extremely competitive, but other schools don’t (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, etc). But won’t these other schools technically profit off me anyway?

A: The international need-blind schools are truly need-blind. There the admissions department and financial aid department are completely separate. International students are allowed to apply for aid at any time in the process (including after being admitted) Hence, those schools are equally competitive for internationals-with-aid and internationals-without-aid.

Stanford, on the other hand, is much more competitive for international students who need aid. Those who need aid are considered separately, and decisions are made depending on how much Stanford wants the student vs. how much money Stanford has.

Q: How selective is Stanford for an international student who doesn’t need aid? Would they take him if his stats were low? If his stats were average? Have you seen this situation before? (I.e. Stanford takes a student whose grades aren’t as high as another who applied for financial aid)

A: International students who don’t apply for aid are held to equally high standards as American students. They do not cut slack. All the internationals accepted to Stanford that I know are excellent students. I would describe the situation as ”much more difficult for internationals who need aid” NOT as ”easier for international who don’t need aid”.

Appendix. List of US unis that are need-blind to internationals
Amherst C, Dartmouth C, Harvard U, MIT, Princeton U, Williams C, Yale U, [edit] Cornell U offers international need-blind for Cornell’s class of 2014 onwards![/edit]

Olympiad experience

Hello everybody!

There were a series of posts on the NUSHS forum regarding Olympiad experience.. The seniors were just giving advice to juniors on whether the latter should go for Olympiads in light of other things e.g. CCAs, school modules etc.. I’m not gonna do that; I just wanna do a short post on what the experience was like. I am not very good so I am not qualified to give the invaluable advice that Vanessa and Zhong Ming gave last year (check out their post! =))

Singapore Biology Olympiad (SBO)


I have always loved Biology since I was year 1. We started training in Sem 2 of Year 5 (i.e. we get trained for 1 Sem) but for this year’s year 5s, I believe they have already started. When the class was first formed, we had to use the theatrette for the first two lessons. But then some people decided that they did not want to have to study a few (7-10) chapters of the Bio textbook every two weeks in order to sit for a 1hr 50 MCQ “practice” (i.e. graded quiz). We subsequently had lessons in a classroom.

We began training for the Practical after our school exams ended. All 20 were trained because there was simply too little time between the Theory and the Practical (3 weeks only) to train only those who made it into the Practical. About a week before the Theory, the SBO committee decided to limit every school such that each school can only send in 10% of their biology-taking cohort (i.e. those who dropped Bio in Year 5 are not counted). Apparently there were overwhelming numbers, because, as I heard, a lot of schools like to send some people for Bio O. So only 14 people got to represent our school. I think that’s a sad reality to face. Some people really put in their heart and soul (some more than me) but didn’t get to participate in Theory in the end.

In hindsight, I feel that the school training did not prepare us sufficiently for the SBO, except in the Physio area. There was a lot more reading to be done outside of Campbell, like what Vanessa has mentioned. Really hope this year’s juniors will be better-prepared!

Gruelling hours at NTU

The test was held at NIE gymnasium. I can’t remember the format for sure but it was something like four sections of 50 MCQs, with one 30min break in the middle.

I recall that our school team was quite tensed as we rode the chartered bus from school. Half of us were trying to cram. These people were generally the more motivated ones and those who subsequently made the Practical were cramming, thought the converse is not true.

The competition atmosphere was very tense and the chief invigilator was very strict. We had to put our bags in a separate room; sitting arrangements were fixed; they emphasized again and again that we must put our table numbers on our papers and worst of all: before the test, during the break and after the test, students from a particular school kept repeating the information that they know and compared answers. People were generally competitive, except for this one young man who sat to my right and slept for most of the test.

I was a bit disappointed because we had a lot of “recall” questions, which was different from what Vanessa experienced. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the shiok experience of going through something so intellectually challenging.

Singapore Chemistry Olympiad (SChO)


Training started in year 5 sem 1. I didn’t initially make the training class but because some people dropped out, I got pulled in. In Sem 1, we had 40+ people training. By Sem 2, we only had a class of 27. I am still not sure why I hung on. Maybe it is because Mr Murali encouraged me to stop whining and study hard for this SChO. I did the former but not the latter; I just attended all the training sessions.

After the exams, we had the fortune of getting trained by 2009 IChO gold medallist Terry. He is really very familiar with the topics and knew what to expect. Our school also supported us by loaning out 22 Chemistry Cube books to the class. Chem Cube is a power-packed book that condenses Physical, Organic and Inorganic Chem all into one.

High spirits at NUS

The Theory was held across two lecture theatres (LTs) in NUS. The NUS High team was allocated to LT27. Compare this with Bio O: we could sit anywhere in the LT we wanted as long as we put our registration numbers on our paper; we could leave once we were done; we could keep our bags with us as long as we didn’t refer to anything from our bags.

The NUS High team was enthusiastic and excited as we rode the public bus from school. We even took a group photo and did a cheer before entering the LT!

Our confidence was reasonably founded. As ZM and Nes alluded to, our school curriculum prepares us sufficiently well for the SChO, though I can’t say the same for IChO. The questions were no more difficult than what we encounter in our school exams, except for one question that required us to derive an equation. We didn’t get tested on Biochem and solid packing even though we prepared for it. I don’t know whether I can tell you the numbers for the medals yet because the school hasn’t announced it so I’ll just hold it for now 😉

General reflections

As you would have realised as I described the training process, people who take olympiads must have a HUGE DOSE of MOTIVATION. Like ZM mentioned, being good doesn’t mean you’ll excel in olympiads, though the converse is true. Plus you need a lot of DISCIPLINE to study even though your level mates are already through studying for their school exams and are busy with their ARPs.

Olympiads are definitely a once-in-a-lifetime (unless you’re a genius and you start taking them with your seniors) experience and I cherish that. However, two Year 8s mentioned in NUSH google groups that two years down the road, what you remember is not the info you learnt from olympiads, but the insights gained from your ARP/IRPs. I hope that puts things in perspective =)

Arnold Bennett: The real tragedy is the tragedy of the man who never in his life braces himself for his one supreme effort– he never stretches to his fully capacity, never stands up to his full stature.

UK unis for Class of 09

I will be relying on Zhongming to edit this post because although I know some statistics, I definitely don’t know the full picture.

Imperial & UCL: If you applied for a science course and your subject and overall CAPs > 4, you probably received an unconditional offer.

Oxford: I know one person has gotten an offer for physics. I don’t know if it has conditions though (or which college it’s from).

Cambridge: Summarised in table form below; all offers are unconditional, which was surprising considering the Class of ’08 received conditional offers.

Cambridge statistics for Class of 2009
4 offers, 2 unknowns, 3 unsuccessful.

If you have any updates, keep me posted. Thanks!

Alternative uni options: Israel

Some of you may know that last year I applied to the Technion Institute of Technology in Israel, among other schools. You’re probably wondering why. One of my reasons was Israel’s reputation as a tech powerhouse.

I recently read a very relevant article in the Straits Times, reproduced from the New York Times, about how Tel Aviv (the capital of Israel) is becoming a hotbed of technological innovation. I’ve uploaded the article here:

Even if you’re not interested in studying there, read the article. It’ll broaden your perspective and perhaps cast some light on my thought process!