Part 1: A Systematic Approach

As the last of the turkey-bone porridge is slurped up—and indeed that is one of the best uses for a bird with such limited culinary value—the first half of the festive season has already come to an end, almost as quickly as it began. For a capable and lucky 30% or so of the 2016 O-level candidature, however, the news that their diligence and good fortune have landed them a place in a Junior College is likely to bring renewed mirth and good cheer. Of course, this is soon replaced by perplexed anxiety or even panic at the plethora of JC choices before them. With so many competing considerations for individual success, and a severe shortage of good information as to what specific JCs are like behind the glossy PR façade, it is no wonder that many are at a loss, especially when the coming two years can decide the three or more subsequently, and in some cases, substantially influence the decades after.

This article does not pretend to simplify this weighty choice. Even from the cursory sweep above, its inherent and necessary complexity is apparent. Indeed, the danger faced by many parents and students facing “analysis paralysis” is that they succumb to the temptation of oversimplification as the JAE deadline draws closer, ultimately making suboptimal and totally avoidable choices. Rather, the first instalment of article seeks to impress upon the reader the centrality and polycentricity of a JC’s specific fit to the student, and propose a systematic approach to considering this polycentricity and making a decision.

The second instalment of this article will then discuss certain considerations that still hold true today, even as some specific information might have changed from when the author was in JC, not so many moons ago. The author hopes that by doing so, the JC selection process will be demystified, and that students will be able to make more systematic and confident choices.

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The fact remains that a student must know what he actually needs and wants from his JC journey, and then find out the extent to which he can find it in various JCs before making the best choice for himself.

Best School, Best For Who?

This first instalment shall now make a bold claim, that the best JC for any student is that which is best able to cater to his specific and diverse needs. His, not the hypothetical “average student’s”, and not those of the students prominently featured in glossy PR materials.

Of course, this seems all too obvious in abstract, especially when politicians and idealistic parents and students often repeat the platitude that every school, not just the “elite schools”, is a good school. Yet all this invariably goes out the window when the same parents and students must buckle down to make their choice. Too many are blinded by dazzling digits and bold claims, failing to consider the myriad factors influencing success and progression that are hidden from view, papered over by numbers and PR pamphlets. Thus, some students who scrape into elite schools find the pace of teaching too swift, the CCA opportunities limited to IP-track elite performers, the career guidance unsuited to their needs and the ethos excessively ambitious and culturally alien, whereas others who believe state platitudes may find low-quality discussion or even anti-intellectualism, scant CCA and leadership opportunities, career services or even marking schemes that actively disadvantage them in overseas applications, and an uninteresting or even restrictive social environment—all of which could have been avoided had both groups of students not based their decision on numbers or platitudes alone. The fact remains that a student must know what he actually needs and wants from his JC journey, and then find out the extent to which he can find it in various JCs before making the best choice for himself.

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First, the student should identify clearly as many of the outcomes they want out of the JC journey as possible.

So, we are now back where we started, with the question of what exactly constitutes a good fit and how to find it being no simpler. And that is quite the point. This question can and should never have a simple or universal answer. Anyone who claims otherwise underestimates the diversity of human need and desire, and of the paths to fulfilling them. There is no easy way out of this question, and parents and students succumb to the temptation of oversimplification and overgeneralisation at their peril.

There is, however, a way to systematically approach this vexing enquiry, which should reduce some of the consequent headache (and possibly the desire to self-medicate!) First, the student should identify clearly as many of the outcomes they want out of the JC journey as possible. This does not necessitate a strong conviction as to what the student wants in life, something even many middle-aged men struggle with as they suddenly purchase open-topped sports cars and clip-on shades while rediscovering their erstwhile interest in rock music. However, the student should at least have a clear sense not only of his short and mid-term goals but also of his comparative strengths and weaknesses and what is necessary to maximise or overcome them, based on what he and his parents know about his learning and leadership styles, optimal social environment and so on. It’s all well and good wanting 70 or even 90 rank points, but as or more important to know whether you need substantial hand-holding to get there, whether and how you are affected by the tenor of your learning community and so on. And if you want to hear ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls, be aware of the kind of school support and careers advice that you will need.

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This is no mean feat considering the vast amount of insider information required as well as the highly qualitative nature of certain factors, but the student must do the best he can in this highly asymmetric situation which favours the JCs and those privy to insider information

Then, the student should make a subjective decision as to the relative priority of each of his desires, and assign it a numerical weight. It is entirely up to the student what weight he assigns to each factor, bearing in mind the consequences stemming from his priorities, and it is not even fatal if the weights change through his JC journey, as JC is when people change the most. What is crucial is that he considers each and every of his previously listed needs and desires and assigns all of them a nonzero weight. This ensures that he has not wilfully or unwittingly omitted any of them from consideration.

Subsequently, in what some might consider the most challenging step, he should obtain as updated and accurate information as possible regarding the extent to which the JCs under consideration meet his needs. This is no mean feat considering the vast amount of insider information required as well as the highly qualitative nature of certain factors, but the student must do the best he can in this highly asymmetric situation which favours the JCs and those privy to insider information. Where seniors and guidance counsellors fail to provide sufficient information, internet forums may be used as a source of last resort. But information can come from the unlikeliest of sources, and the aspiring university student and very possibly future white-collar professional would do well to learn and apply this lesson early.
Armed with this valuable information, he should then rate every JC on every aspect, multiplying the rating score with the weight and summating the results to find his most ideal choice. While there is no disguising the fundamentally subjective nature of this enquiry, as seen in the subjective ranking and weight, approaching the question in this systematic manner should reduce the confusion and solve the problem of not knowing where to start.

Fig 1: A sample ranking table for a non-IP Science student aiming for US schools and selective local courses. Note that school D eventually ranked highest due partly to better CCA opportunities for non-IP students, even though school A scored higher for academic performance and tied for CCA diversity and strength. Academic and CCA strength are prominently trumpeted in PR materials, while the presence of CCA opportunities for IP students is a “non-traditional” indicator that is not usually part of PR materials and indeed takes some investigation to discover, but whose importance in US applications is often overlooked.

In the next instalment of this article, we will discuss some considerations in choosing the best JC for your present and future needs and aspirations.

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