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Mr Chen's anecdotes.

I NEED TO PICK MY JC SUBJECT COMBINATION! ... NOW WHAT?!

Updated: Feb 5

You’ve had your fun.


You’ve met all the hunky and pretty candy in your OG and finally gotten (somewhat) familiar with your new campus. You’re ready to take on the legendary and incredibly intimidating 2-year JC journey that you have heard so much about.


But WAIT! Don’t go out yet!

You heard me. There are shit loads of 'U' to be scored in JC.


The journey towards A level and eventually your degree is an arduous and dangerous one. You will need your starter JC subject combination. Each subject has its own challenges and merits. Most of us are here in JC because according to our research, JC offers the path of least resistance towards matriculation into a local university. For some, it may be the only way to get our desired degree and hence our dream job after we finally cross the finish line in this academic marathon we’ve been running in since we were 5.


It is true, some courses have specific prerequisites to join. This is especially true for the conventionally regarded elite courses such as Dentistry and Medicine. The JC subject combination chosen is likely to have an impact on our journey in university.


As far as possible, we want to keep our options opened. We don’t want to be caught in a spot. Our subject combinations, ideally, should leave many doors open. However, we might not have the aptitude or inclined towards a specific subject. The decision is, therefore, a difficult one.


It would be best if we examine the strengths and weaknesses in each commonly taken and popular subject. In addition, we should also consider the past experiences with said subject, or the lack thereof, before we make our decision. Learning a subject at a lower level does not always extrapolate into better grades. Similarly, having no experience in a subject does not necessarily mean a one-way ticket to failure. Hence, it is also important to identify if we possess interest and the skills to excel in the subject.


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The most common and popular subjects in JC:

(Click on the hyperlinks to read the section you'd like to read)


The front-runner - MATH


Math is almost always the first subject selected as part of any subject combination in JC. Since we were 7, it has been imbued into our head how important math is. We have also been trained to do so well that we’ve developed a brand around the Math we learn in Singapore (Singapore Math).

Some of us secretly hope that, at some point, we can stop learning Math. However, the unfortunately reality is, most courses in a Singapore local university has Math as a prerequisite for matriculation.


BUT HOLD UP.


I know what you’re thinking.


"I cant believe I failed A Math for so many tests in upper secondary! It’s actually so easy once I started studying!"

And bitch now thinks he or she is ready to take H2 Further Math and possibly taking H69 Math.



I get it. You’re right.


A Math really isn’t that difficult once you start learning calculus (differentiation & integration). Like I told my students, most of the time the methodology is just one direction. Furthermore, A Math, unlike primary school math and E Math, requires significantly less critical thinking on your part and hence seems to appear easier.


However, the same cannot be said for H2 Math, let alone H2 Further Math. Ask your seniors how they feel about H2 Math versus A Math in secondary school. Ask them how many A’s they scored so far in JC2. Ask them how much effort they have invested and if they necessarily yielded a proportionate return. Ask them how long it took to adjust to H2 Math syllabus.



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H2 Math does contain elements of A Math, which is a prerequisite for H2 math in most JC, and it is an extrapolation from A Math. (Yay, differentiation and integration!) Essentially, we teach you 1 new simple technique for a significant number of chapters. However, the questions asked are tedious and it always requires application of techniques from other chapters in secondary school such as trigonometry. Furthermore, questions are more contextualized and problem-based. There will be fewer questions that only requires run-of-the-mill steps taught in each chapters.


A distinction in A level H2 Math is very achievable, however, it will take significant amount of time to adjust. On the contrary, the same cannot be said for H2 Further Math. (I dare you to take up University Math, Linear Algebra) H2 Further Math requires a genuine interest and natural aptitude towards it to achieve that same 20 RP that you desire so badly.

I still recall vividly how my last H2 Math lesson in TPJC went.


"Congratulations on finishing the H2 Math syllabus. Please do not learn any more Math beyond this. This is more than enough knowledge to last your entire life."


And next in line - CHEMISTRY


I never understood Chemistry in Secondary 3 and 4.


I have absolutely no recollection of what I learnt for any of my Triple Science in Bowen Secondary School apart from that 1 time when Mr Marvin demonstrated how to calculate oxidation state for a MCQ.


I was terrible in all 3 sciences. I don’t know how I did it but I emerged from O level relatively unscathed with B3 for all my sciences.


"Unscathed."


So you can imagine my struggle and hesitation when I enrolled into science. Maybe my poly friends were right, I’m only in JC because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I remember how Mrs S Neo was presenting organic chemistry as introductory lecture.


"If these molecules scares you, you probably shouldn’t take chemistry." She said.


The structure for A level Chemistry syllabus in most JC are relatively straight forward. In JC1, much of your time would be dedicated to studying physical chemistry (chemical calculations etc) and inorganic chemistry (atomic structure and chemical bonding etc). While the entirety of JC2 is dedicated to organic chemistry mixed in with foundation topics you’ve learnt in JC1. Hence, the importance of organic chemistry cannot be more apparent.


Many tuition centres would say if your foundation is weak, you’re going to struggle in A level chemistry. They want you to believe there is a significant knowledge gap between O level Chemistry and A level Chemistry. They want you feel FOMO, and to join them before you get left behind in the dust.


If that was the case, I am probably the next Chemistry prodigy for the millennium.


From my perspective, there is indeed a surmountable gap between O level chemistry and A level chemistry. Mole concept, which can usually be broken down into mechanical steps, is no longer as straightforward when put in context of redox and electrolysis. Much of the calculations actually concerns physics concepts. Hence the name, physical chemistry.


Organic molecules are no longer straight chained carbons with only 1 functional group. You will need to identify different functional groups within the same molecule and deduce the synthesis route in the correct sequence of reaction before applying the appropriate reagents and conditions to arrive at the finished molecule. Other times, you will apply your knowledge in chemistry to biology. Truth is, Chemistry is simply difficult. Are you shivering in fear yet?


Actually, maybe I was the next Chemistry prodigy for the millennium.


However, I argue it is precisely because of the large knowledge gap that I excelled.


Everyone starts on a equal footing, a clean slate.


However, starting at the same start line does not mean the race is any easier. Based on my observation, Chemistry is the only subject that has gotten harder for both O level and A level. Questions are more complex than ever. Questions now are geared towards testing you on mechanism and reactions that I learnt in University. You are expected to derive at the answer based on extrapolation from existing fundamental ideas taught to you.



Q: What do you see in this image?



A: The easiest 20 marks of my life.


Maybe I’m biased but my students are primed at answering organic chemistry questions. (Because I taught them all my secret move during Chemistry tuition. XD) Look through any H2 Chemistry paper and you will realize how skewed the marks are in terms of allocation towards organic chemistry. Chemistry at higher level, besides raw calculation for physical and analytical chemistry, memorization for inorganic chemistry and organic chemistry, it also requires a level of visualization organic chemistry.


Any organic chemistry question is just a giant jig-saw puzzle.



And then there's PHYSICS


I hated Physics. Hence, I invited a guest writer for this section. The section below is contributed by a former student of mine, now turned tutor, Cadence.


As someone who set her sights on Engineering since Sec 4, I knew I had to take H2 Physics as a prerequisite to most courses. Besides, I only took Physics and Chemistry in secondary school, and it made sense to continue with pretty much the same subject combination in JC.


O level / IP Physics is usually a prerequisite for H2 Physics, and for good reason. Many topics are extensions of what was previously learnt, with further mathematical treatment required. For instance, a firm grasp of the concepts of differentiation and integration, while not strictly required, would be immensely helpful for most topics.



"HELICOPTER! HELICOPTER!"


The difference between O Level and A Level physics would probably be the deeper understanding required, as you will be required to derive / prove certain formulae based on the basic definitions. There are more formulae to know, but simply memorising them is insufficient to get you that A, as the explanation questions hold a fairly high weightage of marks and cannot be answered with just the equations alone.


In fact, I felt like I had to memorise less formulae for A level as opposed to Y4! Many become second nature with lots of practice, and it is unnecessary to memorise everything as you are equipped with the skills to derive some on the spot from the formula list provided at the beginning of the paper. With most of the formulae provided or derived, most of my "memory space" was spent on definitions.


The introduction of modern physics (quantum physics / nuclear) and fields may be daunting, with a higher level of visualisation required (What do you mean gravitational potential is zero at infinity? What the heck is infinity?), but a solid understanding would enable you to see connections between topics (such as gravitational fields and electric fields which are conceptually rather similar).

"How H2 Physics went for me." - Cadence


Notably, there is an increase in cross-topic questions, where you blend formulae and concepts from different chapters together to arrive at your final answer (I always say that if you're at your wits end, just draw a free-body diagram and find all the forces HAHA). There's also some overlap with chemistry if that's your thing, either in nuclear physics or thermal physics! While not a direct overlap, knowing one can help you to understand the other. Something I personally enjoyed was the ability to explain real-life phenomena around me with my newly-acquired knowledge, from the movement of plates on a Lazy Susan at the dinner table, to medical equipment and LIGO detectors.


The appreciation for the science behind things around you comes in handy for the last question, where a long passage is given about a certain topic (anything from cooking a turkey to designing a concert hall), and you're tested on your ability to apply your knowledge.


You might hear that it's not the best idea to take H1 Physics, and I personally agree as easier topics are taken out while many of the harder ones are left in. The narrower scope also means that question setters get much more creative, and in fact some of our hardest tutorial questions for the relevant topics come from the H1 papers!


"While this is how H1 Physics went for me." - Yao Le


All in all, I'd say H2 Physics is a pretty good deal to take due to the relatively smaller jump from O levels and the wide range of courses it's a prerequisite for. While school papers are often ridiculously difficult, especially MCQs with a lot of tedious calculation for a measly 1 mark, the actual A Levels rarely throw such curveballs and have relatively straightforward questions. Overall, I actually enjoyed A level Physics more than Y4 because of the lower memorisation required, as well as the applicability to real life.



The hot favorite for girls - BIOLOGY


I took triple science but he brazenly pon-ed his O level Pure Biology paper because his teacher was shit. Hence, I invited another guest writer for this section. The section below is contributed by a former student of mine, who shared many laughs with me, Clarisse.


This section will be about the Best science, Biology.


I’m sure that many of you triple science students back in secondary school might be torn between Biology and Physics. In my opinion, only choose biology if you have a genuine interest in the subject (sounds cliche I know) or your dream career path involves biology, or else the multitude of diagrams and processes and never ending pages of notes will make you wish you were never born, seriously. For those who have never taken O level biology and are considering A level Biology, the same advice applies.


Biology in JC can be fun and I would even go as far to say that I enjoyed learning it more than in Secondary school. In secondary school, I only remember going through the motions and memorising whatever needed to be memorised without much understanding. Did I actually know what a hepatic portal vein was? Definitely not. Back then, my favourite part of studying biology was making pretty notes.



"自己写,自己爽"


But please never make pretty notes for biology in JC, or any subject for that matter, I am begging you. (Yao Le would agree, right?)


Content wise, the basics still matter, like biological molecules, membrane structure, transport across membranes etcetera. These would most likely be your first few topics in J1 (for my school at least). From my experience, only the very basics mentioned above, as well as genetics, that you learn in O levels are applicable to A levels. Everything else from the respiratory system, circulatory system and transport in plants, doesn't matter.


Personally, the hardest thing that I had to experience when transitioning from O level Biology in IP to A level biology was learning how to learn biology, and how in depth I would have to be in my understanding in order to score well. As mentioned, I got through O level biology by making "aesthetic" notes and mind maps, memorising things word for word without much understanding and rarely doing any practice questions. Of course this didn’t work in JC (I did really badly for bio, like actually horrible) and I couldn't figure out how to improve.


To be fair, I did tell her specifically to not write notes when she told me she was going to after our Math tuition - Yao Le.

Until after J2 blocks (and after reading Yao Le's amazing blog articles).


Everything clicked too late. While studying for prelims, I was like "I can’t believe I got through the whole of J1 without understanding what the fuck this is" the whole time. So please, take my advice, make an effort (a large one) to get your foundation in J1 right, or you will suffer and cry yourself to sleep every night. lol haha.


So how did I manage to make things click, albeit it being pretty late in the year?


(By reading my blog religiously.)


Practice papers, one after another, day after day and week after week. This includes your school’s and other JC’s prelim papers. Reading things passively from your notes and trying to understand it from there probably will not work in the long run, unless you’re insanely smart, which I am not.

I wonder where she got all this advice from... Oh right. - Yao Le

Mark schemes were my best friend. It’s literally everything handed to you on a plate, from keywords to answering techniques and marking points. Going through mark schemes will help you pick out the important parts in your notes, which will only add up to a few pages and it’ll cut the content that you have to memorise from your notes down by a shit ton. While reviewing the papers, compile a list of common questions and answers. This document will become your cheat sheet which includes everything you need to know, a true lifesaver in my opinion. (This advice sounds incredibly familiar too...)



"I will upload my cheat sheet if mummy haven't thrown it away already." - Clarisse


That’s how I improved 4 grades from J2 blocks to prelims! Application is a huge thing in A level bio and from my observation, the questions are starting to include a lot more novel situations and diagrams you have never seen in your 18 years of life. Route memorisation is no longer the way to go. This is also the case for every other subject really. Hence, doing practice papers will be of paramount importance to brush up on your application skills.


Biology is fun and learnable, kids. Pick bio, choose bio, love bio (tiktok reference sorry)



The king of contrasting subject - ECONOMICS


I remember how my introductory lecture for Economics went. It was conducted by Ms Tan who is now teaching at Dunman High School.


"Allow me to start with telling you what economics is not"


"It does not teach you how to invest."


"It does not teach you entrepreneurship."


"It does not teach you how to trade options on meme stocks / crypto / NFT and send you to the moon!"


Okay, fine, I added in that last line. But you get my drift.



"TO THE MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON!"


Most students misunderstand economics because in their mind, it concerns money. Yes and no.

Economics when stripped down to its bare bones actually concerns the management of finite resources. In other words, the science behind demand and supply of goods and services. It studies how demand and supply of good interacts in a given predicament, thereby giving rise to a price level. In other words, price and loosely put, money, is a result of how demand and supply interacts.


In economics, we study factors that affect supply or demand. We study how we can manipulate demand and supply curves in order to manage prices. We also study how, in theory, a free market should be able to regulate itself back to equilibrium level and if we require intervention from the invisible hand.


At this point, some of you might think. It’s so common sense! I can basically reason it out like how any other issues in the world revolves around perspectives and argument. That is also another pit fall for most students.


"Simple as that!"


Unlike General Paper and argumentative essays in general, phenomenon in economics is to be explained using economic terms and assumptions. Your arguments and points may be valid in any other essay setting, but it scores you 0 marks in an economics essay.


Then there's students who think this is just an alternative form of Geography and History. Memorize the notes from back to front, front to back 20214 times and it will be the easiest A of your life. Personally, it worked for JC1 promos exam but it started to go downhill quick in JC2.


Why else do you think I scored 12% for my H2 econs exam?


Why else would your seniors have failed economics before?


"Do you lack common sense, or is it because economics is not as "common sense" and easy to score as you've mistakenly thought?" - Ms Tan, My H2 Econs teacher.

"Why chu got to do us like that, Ms Tan."

At the JC level, economics revolves around graph drawing and explaining occurrences observed in the market through economic theory. Economics, at higher level, is actually math. Friends of mine who graduated with a degree in economics often find themselves in the computer lab plotting graphs. Plot, not sketch.


I think the most important thing Ms Tan said during the lecture that struck me was this:

Economics is not a prerequisite for enrolment into Business courses.

Interest vs Aptitude


Personally, I took pCME. (H2 Math, Chem, Econs & H1 physics)


I always share with my students that I half regretted my decision. Much like many of you, my decision was based on a mix of my preceding subject combination in secondary school and also the typical "route" recommended.


I was a typical triple science and double math student. I had an amazing Math teacher and tutor but I learnt nothing for all 3 sciences throughout my upper secondary school years. For me, apart from H2 Math, I was selecting subjects on the basis of lesser evils.

I picked Economics because I hated Geography.


I picked Chemistry because I wanted to be in the science stream.


I picked H1 physics because I was a coward and didn’t dare to dip my toes in literature, where my interest lies albeit with no experience.


Many would guess my regret was despite having my distinctions, I wouldn’t be eligible for Medicine, Dentistry and Pharmacy due to lack of double H2 science. But that wasn’t where my regret lies. My regret lies in not following my gut even more than I already have. I should have taken H1 Lit instead of Physics. (Shit was incredibly awful to learn for me).


"But my future is decided by my subject combination!"


Some would recommend you to pick your subject combination based on your future prospects. While others would advise you to pick subjects based on your aptitude. For me, it was a mix of both. You’re not going to enter Medicine just because you picked a combination eligible for enrolment. You have been a student for at least 10 years and you know how interest plays a part in your performance. You will need to have some form of interest to excel in it.


Beyond that, there are also interviews. There are several external factors that could cause you to drift from your ideal course, apart from grades and subject combination. You can maximize it but there is no guarantee. So why put yourself through potentially 2 years of mental torture learning a subject in hopes of getting into a course? I wouldn’t.


The 3 most common subject combination.


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