Making the Right Start in Tertiary Education

Knowing one's strengths, a definition of success and being intentional about learning will help guide one on the course to pursue at tertiary level.

For students who have just completed the SPM or STPM public examinations, the world is their oyster, given the limitless possibilities and opportunities to explore. However, the plethora of courses to choose from in public universities and colleges can be a confusing affair especially for students who are unsure what field of study to pursue.

Making the wrong decision could cost time and money, as one would have to change courses midway through the programme to another and take a longer time to graduate, compared with peers who are continuing with their courses. Then there are students who successfully graduate from their courses but end up regretting their chosen field of study later on.

Citing a survey of Malaysian youths by The Asia Foundation in 2012, Taylor's College president Lim Tou Boon says 73% of Malaysian youths said: "The problem is not in getting a job, but a job that you like".

Why is it so difficult to choose the right course?
Quoting from Prof Richard Shell of Wharton Business School and author of Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success, Lim says the main reason why people regret their career choices boils down to five reasons — failure to discover one's purpose, being unaware of their strengths, inability to focus one's mind, and failure to define what's meaningful in life and what success means.

Role of parents in career guidance
In some cases, students do not have a say on their choice of tertiary education, as their parents call the shots.

Instead of deciding on behalf of their children, Lim says parents should allow their children to speak for themselves when they meet with college student placement counsellors, as it is important that students are passionate about their field of study.

Career guidance should start at a young age, not when they are about to enter college, he says, adding that in the US, career guidance is introduced at the secondary school level, with students sitting for career profiling tests at the age of 13. "When asked about their strengths, students often replied with subjects — Mathematics or Physics. It always goes back to academic measures but they don't know that their strengths are — the sum total of their passion and abilities," he says.

The challenge is when parents have not created an avenue or platform for their children to discover their strengths from a young age. When students grow up unaware of their strengths, parents end up dictating their course of study, out of worry and concern, says Lim.

While many parents are concerned about their childrens' choice of study because of the significant amount of money invested into college education, most parents, at the end of the day, just want their children to be happy, says Lim.

What are your strengths?
Having passion and ability is crucial in deciding one's course of study and future career, says Lim. One way of examining a person's passions is to look at his current involvements and engagements during his free time.

"When students tell me that they are passionate about becoming doctors, I ask them to produce evidence that they are actively helping people in need or reaching out to the community to do something — how their passion is demonstrated. Otherwise, it may just be on their wish list to become a doctor but nothing more," he quips.

To become a doctor, one needs to master medical knowledge, Lim says, adding that this requires stringent academic requirements such as straight A results.

"Some fresh medical graduates find working in hospitals too taxing but if it is your passion, seeing the outcome of your work will make the long hours worthwhile," he says.

Lim advises students to talk to people in the industry about their careers to get a clearer picture of their chosen field of study.

"We once asked students who wanted to study medicine to go and interview doctors in the clinics in SS15 near our Subang Jaya campus, to find out the pros and cons of the profession. Career talks can be boring but when students were learning from a point of need, learning became more meaningful, authentic and experiential. Students, who have a more inquisitive mind, have a clearer idea about career choices," he says.

Define the meaning of success
Students need to be provoked to think about their life purpose and what success means to them; otherwise, dreams remain dreams. The ability to self-reflect is rare these days, not just among students but working adults too, says Lim. "

Holistic Learning
At the end of the day, they want to see where it all leads to — their studies, their work. What does it all mean? We ask students to do the 'walk of life' where they envision their lives from the age of 18 to 40. What are the milestones they need to achieve to realise their aspirations? They soon realise what is important to them and their choice of career becomes a lot more intentional. If you want to impact lives, then your choice of career has to be intentional," he says.

Lim cites EPIC Homes founder Johnson Ooi as an example of someone who finds his work meaningful. "He was a Canadian Pre-U student at Taylor's College and he was very passionate about the needs of the Orang Asli community. Using his strength in communications, he teamed up with engineering friends to design the systems and processes of a house construction kit," he explains.

With Taylor's College's recently launched Pre-Registration Programme (PReP), Lim says the college hopes to challenge students to achieve better self-awareness and to be intentional about their choice of study and future career. PReP is a four-day/ three-night programme designed to help students transition from school to college and develop skills in learning, life and leadership.

Lim says it is part of the college's overall mission of providing holistic learning to students. "Students are more likely to succeed and enjoy what they are doing in work and study if they are passionate about it. Many students — even the top scorers — grapple with self-acceptance and meeting up to the expectations of others. Your time on earth is limited so you don't want to be living someone else's life but you need to be prepared to live a life that is true to yourself," he says.

PReP is for secondary students thinking about the prospects of higher education. They should ideally be in Form 3 or Form 5. The dates for the next intake are March 9 to 16, to be held at Taylor's college Subang Jaya. The programme involves a series of workshops, classes, activities and camps to gauge students' life skills and to determine their choice of pre-U programme in line with personal goals.