World insight: reinventing student admissions in Singapore

Holistic admissions offer a level of fairness that traditional academic criteria alone cannot provide, and it is a new approach in Singapore, writes Kristen Lynas

September 19, 2016
People on Supertree suspension bridge, Garden by the Bay, Singapore
Source: Getty

I doubt any student applying for admission to university in Singapore would say the process is easy, but most would agree it is fairly straightforward.

Like many educational systems around the world, students armed with the relevant results, such as the A levels or international baccalaureate grades, can predict with a fair degree of accuracy their chances of admission to a given college or faculty in Singapore. Or so it was until Yale-NUS College opened its doors. 

When the National University of Singapore signed an agreement with Yale University in 2011 to set up Yale-NUS College, the two universities committed themselves to reinventing existing models of education by combining many of the interactive learning methods of American liberal arts and science colleges with the diverse intellectual traditions of Asia and the world.

Yale-NUS College also introduced to Singapore a new way of practising holistic admissions, moving beyond grades to truly look at a student as a complete person, taking into account their interests, passions, attributes and academic merits. 

When prospective students and parents in Singapore hear that admission to Yale-NUS cannot be predicted purely from grades, their first reaction can be one of anxiety. Understandable, given that it introduces a level of uncertainty into a process that has thus far been a fairly predictable affair. But once students and parents understand that an applicant is considered as an individual, in the context of his or her environment, they realise the opportunity it presents for applicants to be considered as more than the sum of their examination results. 

Choosing students on criteria other than objective academic metrics is not without controversy. In the US, many point to the opaque nature of holistic admission processes as an opportunity to dissimulate nepotism, elitism or affirmative action policies.

Critics also point to the potential socioeconomic bias that is included when elements such as essays and extracurricular activities are included – elements that can be influenced by one’s access to tutors, coaches or facilities. But the fact that a process can be manipulated does not mean that it is inherently flawed. When applied consistently and in light of an individual’s circumstances, holistic admissions can offer a level of fairness and inclusion that academic criteria alone cannot provide, particularly in an environment in which standardised metrics don’t exist. 

In the case of Yale-NUS College, we receive applications from more than 50 different countries and a multitude of academic systems. Our commitment to need-blind admissions and a full-need financial aid policy attracts candidates from the full range of socioeconomic situations that the world has to offer. In this context, the individualised, labour-intensive process of holistic admissions gives us the information we need to compare such vastly different profiles. 

A liberal arts education gives a student far more than just paper qualifications – our goal is to nurture young minds and develop our next generation with the means to appreciate and understand the breadth and complexity of issues, the capacity to think critically and solve problems, and the skills to effectively communicate and lead.

To achieve this, we consider character traits such as intellectual curiosity, community spirit and commitment. These are obviously difficult to assess and limiting the impact of subjective interpretation is a challenge we address by assessing the students from a number of perspectives.  

Academically, we review course transcripts from multiple years in addition to final examination results. The choice of courses and the trend in grades provide insight into the applicant’s interests and challenges and can often tell a story of motivation lost or found. We also request two letters of recommendation from teachers. In an academic setting like ours, with small class sizes and interactive teaching methods, a student’s level of engagement in the experience is key.

Obtaining teacher recommendations can be a challenge for applicants coming from educational systems where such practice is not common. Our admissions counsellors spend a significant amount of time working with educators and counsellors around the world to demystify our application process, even offering essay and letter writing workshops. 

We also listen to the applicant’s voice, both figuratively and literally. The application includes a short questionnaire and two personal essays. We recognise that written submissions can give a heavily edited and, at times, misleading view of an applicant, therefore, we also interview every admitted student.

Unlike other schools that rely heavily on alumni interviewers, our admissions counsellors interview our applicants themselves. This ensures consistency in interview experiences and allows the counsellors reading and assessing the application to speak directly to the applicant.  

Once an applicant’s file is complete, it is read in its entirety, by two admissions staff and reviewed in a committee. The committee makes a concerted effort to consider the applicant as an individual and within the context of his or her environment.

It is a labour-intensive process, but the effort pays off. We have outstanding students whose grades suffered at some point because they were caring for a sick family member. We have students who may have delivered an underwhelming performance on their final exam results but their annual transcripts attest to their academic potential. And we have students who may not have been in the top five per cent of their class but have made a significant and lasting impact on their community through their efforts.   

While our admissions team has to devote more time and effort to assess the individual applications, holistic admissions has yielded the college four classes of outstanding students. As a small residential college, the concept of community is particularly important and a holistic admissions process allows us to find individuals who thrive in this environment where living and learning are closely intertwined. 

With our new Class of 2020, our young college finally has finally reached a "full-house" with cohorts in each year of the four-year curriculum. In May 2017, we will graduate our first class and we look forward to seeing the impact these thoughtful, intelligent global citizens will have on the world.  

Kristen Lynas is executive vice-president (administration) at Yale-NUS College .

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