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  • Kwok Cheng Leng

Mid-University Reflection: What I Wish I Had Done Differently in NUS

In the blink of an eye, I find myself approaching the end of Year 3 Semester 1 of my journey in National University of Singapore (NUS). Can you imagine that, in about two short years, I'll be stepping into the workforce and becoming a 'real' adult? Assuming, of course, that I manage to land a job after I graduate (fingers crossed, please send prayers my way).

For me, university has been a delightful journey so far, and I’m not yet ready to let go of those glorious three-month-long summer holidays, flexible schedules and school days condensed into just a few hours.

Trips to Johor Bahru are definitely a must during long holidays

As I stand at the midpoint of my university journey, I find myself reflecting on the decisions that have shaped my academic experience. While there were many things I loved about my university life, I also realize some things I wish I had done differently, such as better leveraging Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) grading, seizing overseas opportunities in the early years, and engaging in financial planning.

1. Maximizing S/Us in Year 1

As many of you should be aware, undergraduates are granted the generous opportunity to exercise the S/U option for up to 32 units of courses read in the first year, but only a maximum of 12 units of S/U can be carried forward for subsequent years. This means that 20 units of courses can only be S/Ued in Year 1, and will be lost if not utilized after the first year.

With that being said, not all students need to utilize the full extent of these S/U options in Year 1, as they may excel in all their coursework. I, unfortunately, do not belong in that category.

Back in Year 1, while I did understand how S/Us worked, I foolishly did not plan my modules with them in mind. Like most people I knew, I treated S/Us like a safety net, though I could have used them to my advantage instead.

From the beginning, there were courses that I had dreaded or expected to struggle with, but I naively chose to do them later on in Year 2 because, well, clearly, I believed in the old adage: “out of sight, out of mind”. Turns out avoidance and running away from my problems did nothing to help my Grade Point Average (GPA).

If I were to do it all over again, I would have taken (or at least tried to register for) NM2103 Quantitative Research Methods and HS1501 Artificial Intelligence and Society in Year 1. These were the two courses I had predicted I would have trouble with, and indeed, I had to utilize 2 out of 3 remaining S/U options for them in Year 2.

If you’re an incoming freshman, please beware not to make the same mistake as I did! Capitalize on the 5 S/Us in Year 1 by tackling the courses that you anticipate will be challenging right from the start, particularly those compulsory core courses that already sound like potential troublemakers. I mean, if you foresee yourself having to S/U them anyway, this is all the more reason for you to do them in Year 1.

2. Making the Most of Overseas Opportunities Early On

When I entered NUS, the only two overseas programmes that I had been aware of were the Student Exchange Programme (SEP) and NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC). I had my sights set on SEP early on as I had always been keen to explore and enhance my studies abroad. Sadly, that was all my vision was confined to.

It wasn't until Year 2 that my perspective broadened, thanks to friends who introduced me to other exciting overseas programmes. One of such was the Global Industry Insights (GII) course in Bangkok, Thailand, organized by the Centre for Future-ready Graduates (CFG). This one-week trip involved company visits, seminars and networking sessions that opened my eyes to the variety of job prospects available abroad.

Visit to the Embassy of the Republic of Singapore in Bangkok during GII

I consider myself fortunate to have seized the chance to join the GII programme in Year 2. It definitely shattered my previously narrow career outlook, and I cannot imagine what a missed opportunity this would have been if I had not learnt about it through a friend!

Now that I’m in Year 3, time has become a limiting factor in pursuing opportunities abroad. If I could share advice with my Year 1 self, it would be to cast a wider net earlier on because, truthfully, if not now, then when?

In the working world, activities like winter programmes might be harder to come by. It’s only now that I’ve begun to seriously contemplate them, having heard glowing reviews from my friends. With just two more winters remaining in NUS (and that is if Year 4 undergraduates are even allowed to participate in winter programmes), I regret not looking into such options earlier.

Had I done my due diligence in researching and actively seeking more opportunities in Year 1, I could have grabbed and accumulated a wealth of enriching experiences, strategically spaced throughout my years in university. In this manner, I would have been able to better maximize what NUS had to offer and enhance my overall academic experience.

Gratefully, I managed to pursue opportunities starting from Year 2, which, in my opinion, isn’t too late. However, I would still have preferred to initiate this journey of exploration in Year 1. Especially for some programmes such as those within NOC that may span across a year, delving into the idea of them at this juncture in Year 3 is challenging due to the commitment they require. Early planning and preparation would have been more suitable for such endeavors.

If you're also keen to capture more fulfilling experiences abroad, a pro-tip would be to keep an eye on your email inbox for any upcoming activities! Be sure to check out NUS’s Global Programmes webpage or speak to your CFG career advisor to understand any career-related international events you can get involved in. Last but not least, don't forget to read my guide on applying to SEP if you're planning to go!

3. Don’t Underestimate Financial Planning

Not to be like that incessant financial advisor, but financial planning is truly a crucial yet often overlooked aspect of university. As you might have inferred by now, personally, I am very eager to embark on programmes that might demand a lot financially, such as SEP. While I did expect to spend a considerable sum on exchange, strangely, I failed to give careful consideration as to where this money was going to come from.

Before you call me out, yes, I know. How paradoxical of me to expect needing a substantial amount of money yet leave the thought lingering at the back of my mind — as if money was simply going to magically fall from the sky to sponsor my endeavors.

Money definitely did not fall from the sky to sponsor my GII trip,

featuring our visit to The Grand Palace in Bangkok above

Faced with the imminent reality of my exchange commencing next year, the impact of just how much it is going to drain my savings is hitting me now. Can you imagine that accommodation alone is going to cost me at least $7000?

Though I had monitored my finances every semester and held some part-time jobs, the lack of longer-term financial planning resulted in overall inadequate fund allocation. To say the least, if I had engaged in better budgeting and saving during the previous semesters, I could have definitely put aside more money for SEP. Having a thicker stash of cash stowed away will also enable me to immerse myself fully into the SEP experience, reducing worry about whether I was going to live my life in financial deficit after exchange.

This additionally ties back to my point about broadening the scope of exploration when it comes to offshore opportunities early on. Having a more comprehensive understanding of the external prospects I would have liked to undertake would have significantly facilitated better financial planning in the long run.

Long story short, if I could turn back time, I would have given myself a wake-up call, and made sure to engage in proper financial planning according to my priorities. In view of my potential big expenditures, I would have also chosen to invest more of my time in higher-paying part-time positions.

If you’re planning to spend on big ticket items but haven’t given much thought into your finances, then it’s time to get real and take a long, hard look at your bank account. Unfortunately, not everyone can have the privilege to be financially empowered by a scholarship, their parents, or by a winning 4D ticket.


To conclude, I hope these insights can help current and prospective students better harness S/U options and the available overseas opportunities, while avoiding ‘bankruptcy’ by devoting time to thoughtful financial planning.


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