Links useful to me when studying as a Private A Level Candidate

(This post is incomplete but I just gotta put it out there)

Once you’ve picked your subjects, I think the most important thing you should do is to familiarize yourself with the syllabus. You want to know the syllabus inside out. You want to know exactly what you’re tested on, what the examiners are looking for, how to please them.

So head over to the SEAB website and save all the syllabuses of the subjects you’re doing. Print them out and look through them carefully.

Getting passionate about stuff:

Neil Tyson, on Issac Newton (2 mins)

Richard Feynman, on the inconceivable nature of nature (5 mins)

To Understand is to Perceive Patterns, by Jason Silva (1:45)

H2 Mathematics

A Level Syllabus (from the SEAB website)

Calculus in 20 minutes, by Edward Burger. This guy is amazing. He’s incredibly passionate about his subject matter, he knows his stuff inside out, and he’s an incredible educator, too. Here’s him describing how to do mathematics (2 mins). I’ve been checking him out outside of Mathematics, and he’s a phenomenal voice that needs to be shared. I recommend this video even to people who don’t do Calculus.

Richard Delaware from UKMC has an amazing video series on pre-Calculus and Calculus. He helped me understand functions better than I ever did in school.

IntegralCalc – the tutor is really pretty!

Statistics and Calculus on Wikipedia. I find it easier, more interesting and compelling to learn something when you know about the history of it, as well as its importance and relevance to humanity.

Introductory Statistics – on YouTube. 8 Videos. Watch everything once to get a rough idea of the whole subject.

Mastering Mathematics Smartly, by Wee Wen Shih. This is the guy that writes the Ten Year Series books for Dyna Publisher.

H2 Economics


H2 Literature

The first thing I did was to read the Wikipedia pages of my respective texts- Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, The Importance of Being Earnest. I did this to get familiar with the plot. I then torrented the respective movies- Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet. (I got a modern version of Wuthering Heights that was weird and hipster-ish.)

H2 English Language & Linguistics

Revolutionize Education, make learning fun

I’ve been watching more TED Talks recently- and I’ve stumbled upon a few gems. I’ve decided I’m going to write about my favourite ones and make a list of recommendations so you don’t have to trawl through all of them yourself.

The guy in the above video is a science teacher who demonstrates how our existing systems of education are NOT user-oriented. This has been a sore point for me for a long time- video games are forced to delight the user and make them happy, which is why people are so addicted to World of Warcraft and Candy Crush Saga. There’s merciless competition, and if you’re not constantly refining your game, you’re going to be left behind.

Well, schools have competition now when it comes to learning. Kids can learn from YouTube and other video-sharing resources. I used YouTube extensively myself when I was studying for my A Levels as a private candidate and it’s a total game-changer.

Instutitionalized academia is going to have to adapt and up its game. This excites me.

Taking your GCE ‘A’ Levels as a Private Candidate

Update: Every year I get people coming to this post either right before the A Levels, or right after they get their results. If you’d like to talk to me, you can email me at visakanv at gmail dot com, or tweet me at @visakanv.

Someone dropped by my Tumblr to ask me to write a post about my experience re-taking my A Levels as a private candidate.

Here we go.


If you want to re-take your A’s, the first thing you got to do is to register with the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board. (SEAB). Go to National Examinations -> GCE ‘A’ Levels -> Private Candidates -> Online Registration. You can just click that last link to save yourself the trouble. Registration for this year’s A’s are closed. I believe I registered for mine in late March.

Choosing Subjects

When choosing subjects, you’ll want to check out the Syllabuses. I picked Mathematics, Economics, English Literature, and English Language and Linguistics. All of them H2’s. (And H1 General Paper.)

In JC, I had taken H2 Mathematics, H2 Economics and H2 History, and H1 Literature. (And H1 General Paper.)

I got B’s for H2 Economics, H2 History and H1 Literature. I got an S for H2 Mathematics. (And an A for H1 General Paper.)

I didn’t really study at all. I just sort of skimmed through everything. It’s easy to pass Economics, History and Literature without much effort if you can think and write clearly. Actually, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d say that it’s the same for Mathematics- but you can’t improvise in Mathematics- you’ll have to have a thorough understanding of the language.

I’d say it’s the same for every subject, actually- every subject has its own language, in a way, and you’ll need to learn to speak it fluently if you want to score well. Maths is the most technical  or “different” of the languages… I’ll talk more about this in a later post.

I decided to do English Language and Linguistics instead of History because I didn’t really relish the idea of having to re-learn a whole bunch of history. I enjoyed learning it the first time around, but if I ever have a desire to learn history, I know where to look up the information.

I’ve always been passionate about language and linguistics to some degree, and so I thought it would be fun to try doing something I love. It’s a bit risky, though, because it’s a really young or new subject. The syllabus is vague, and I haven’t seen the specimen papers yet. Still, I imagine that in the worst case scenario I’m going to get a B. (The plan is still to get A’s.)

I specifically avoided taking any science subjects, despite my renewed passion for them. I would quite like to learn Physics, for instance, but it’s complicated- I’ll have to sign up for the practical paper and all that stuff. Messy. I’ll stick to writing, thanks!

Study Plan

I’m re-doing my A’s together with my friend and former band-mate, Adnin. It’s good to have someone else doing it with you, to keep yourself accountable.

I had sold off my graphing calculator after my A’s, so I’m borrowing one from my girlfriend.

I printed out all the syllabuses to remind myself of what I’m tested on.

I made a deal with a friend who still had his notes for Mathematics and Economics- I traded him some books for his notes, and more importantly, his old Prelim papers. I’ve been spending most of my time going through 2007 JC Prelim Papers for Economics.

I’ll be meeting up with a couple of younger friends who are doing their A’s this year, and I’ll be getting more recent prelim papers from them. I still need to get myself some ELL material.

I haven’t really started properly on Literature and ELL, because I’m fairly confident that I can get up to speed on those in a month if I have to. My strategy at the moment is to build my confidence by getting my Economics up to scratch, to practice my Mathematics at a foundation level (I’ve been watching Math lectures on YouTube and they are absolutely fantastic.) It’s already June, and soon it will be July. Throughout July and August I will be studying hardcore- it will dominate my time.

I have been deleting and removing distractions from my life. I have been decluttering my study space (this will get more dramatic as time goes by). I try to keep track of how much I study every day, and what I accomplished. (This will get more dramatic as time goes by.)

Feel free to ask questions- I don’t have the time to make this post perfect, so think of it as the start of a series of posts that will eventually be clear and useful as a collective. 🙂


Useful Stuff:

 Check the syllabuses of all the subjects you’re doing on  Print these out. Analyse them. Know them inside out. Tick everything you’re comfortable with and can answer easily. Focus your energy on everything you’re bad at.




I studied for Literature by…

  1. googling the books
  2. reading the summaries
  3. watching the movies (torrented them)
  4. looked up discussions and book reviews and forums
  5. THEN read the books and started answering questions.

Same for Linguistics. Borrowed a couple of library books, searched YouTube for videos. Immerse yourself.

Junior College sucked for me.

It occurs to me that there are quite a few JC students who read my blog. Someone linked to one my articles, writing “I wish my parents would read this.” Which makes me relize that there are some students in JCs every year who are going through what I went through.

As an entrepreneur, I know that one of the best ways to do things is to ask yourself what you wish you had, and then go provide it for others. I wasn’t satisfied with my own t-shirts, for instance, so I decided to come up with what I thought was a superior alternative. And sales have been good.

I’ve often said that I feel strongly about ‘saving Singapore’ in an abstract sense. Now that’s lunacy. Who’s to say Singapore needs saving? Who am I to say that? What does it mean, anyway, that a country needs saving? It’s like saying “Save the Planet.” It’s arrogant and presumptuous. But I believe that the fundamental intentions are good, that intuition suggests that something’s not quite right- but it takes a while to really figure out what needs to be done

JC sucked for me

I recall that my JC experience was a generally miserable one. There were some highlights, of course, and a few good moments- but these moments happen in all environments. The JC environment and experience, by itself, did very little for me.

Let’s get more specific. Every year, there are going to be a few students in JC who struggle to cope, and simply can’t perform.

More specific. I believe that there are students who get into JC just by coasting along- these students are intelligent. They are intelligent enough to get somewhat existential. Their critical skills are developed beyond what the system expects of them.

Self-sabotage: When your brain doesn’t buy the bullshit

Good artists will tell you- your creativity doesn’t exist to serve you, you exist to serve your art. The art comes first. If it’s going to create something destructive, vengeful and ugly, then that’s what it’s going to do. You can’t force it. Similarly, highly intelligent JC students- we’re using MY personal definition of intelligence here (which isn’t fixed by any means) will naturally find that their minds turn on themselves, and on the system that they’re in. The result can be severe apathy, listlessness, frustration and existentialism.

Now, true practical, holistic intelligence knows how to manage this. How to manage the emotions. How to manage your time. How to structure the challenge in front of you in a way that is meaningful, interesting and exciting. The JC experience isn’t particularly interesting or meaningful on its own. You have to figure out how to make it interesting or meaningful for yourself. And nobody really teaches you how to do that. I suspect that few people really know how to, either.

Different people live different narratives

Why study? Some people do it because it’s the only thing they know. They studied hard all their lives, and they keep at it. They find a certain pleasure in working hard at things. Anything. These guys typically end up on the honour rolls. They’re also quite rare. Some study hard because of parental pressure. They listen to their parents. The kind of students I’m describing don’t really buy into that. They know that their parents don’t really know very much. They know that their parents’ advice could very well be obsolete in a few years. The world is changing. They know that.

Some people were brought up in a culture of excellence and achievement. Their parents have degrees, perhaps, or are highly accomplished in some way. They look around and they see success stories. Perhaps they have goals that they want to achieve.

One of the girls in my JC went on to get stupendous results despite her humble background. Her family was poor. She read broadly, and I imagine that she burned with passion. She really, really wanted to get somewhere in life. She wanted to go to study something amazing, somewhere fantastic. I imagine that she set her sights on that goal, and as such she saw the JC experience as means to an end- and so she studied relentlessly, worked incredibly hard, and got her straight A’s. I’m fantastically proud of her, and I wish I were like her.

Apathy is a rational response to narratives that don’t make sense

Unfortunately, I never had such specific goals. I didn’t know what I want. In fact, all I knew was that I wasn’t going to know what I want, at least not anytime soon. How can you trust a 16 or 17 year old to know what he wants to do with his future? I wouldn’t trust anybody else, why should I trust myself? It seemed delusional.

On hindsight, a lot of this sounds kind of silly- but I’m speaking with several years of life experience under my belt now. I have perspectives that I simply couldn’t have had then.

As I write this, I realize that this is why parents and teachers simply cannot and will never truly be able to relate to angsty students- because they have the Curse of Knowledge. They have life experience. And life experience teaches you things that nobody else can teach you. Otherwise, we’d all be incredibly wise by the age of 18- just from all the wisdom that other people share with us.

But we’re naturally equipped to defend ourselves against the words of others- after all, how do you know that your parents and elders aren’t fanatics? You have to insure yourself- and as such, you can’t truly trust anybody but yourself. Unless you really, really respect and admire them.

My parents are admirable in the way that all parents are- they’ve stuck it out together and raised a bunch of kids. That’s never easy. But I never thought of them as admirable in a deeper sense than that. I look at my parents and I see people who are somewhat unfulfilled. [1]

My parents run their own business, but they aren’t very good at managing their finances. They aren’t perfect. (Nobody is.) Life is a bit of a struggle. Just getting by. There’s no room for contributing beyond the household very much. They don’t have the time, energy or money to make a real difference to the world. Of course, you could see me as their investment- and perhaps that’s what they’ve been doing all along. You put your hopes and dreams in your kids. Funnily enough though, if I’m to make a dent in the universe, it can only be through pursuing what sets me on fire from within. And this is a part of it. Talking about this. Writing.

So I never really had any immediate role models. I looked around me and I didn’t see anybody that I wanted to emulate. I didn’t want to be my parents, as much as I owe them for giving me Life and all I have today. [2]

The JC students I’m talking about now- these are the guys who don’t trust the system, but don’t really trust themselves either. They don’t really see any role models that they want to emulate- nobody’s quite good enough, nobody has everything that they want. They’ve read broadly enough to develop an awareness of what they don’t want, but they’re too young to have any good idea of what they actually do want- and they live in a world that isn’t quite okay with that yet. This disconnect, I think, is the chief source of a lot of frustration.


[1] I realize that it’s a rather cruel, judgemental thing thing to say, and it’s not something you should share with people, but I think sometimes as a writer you have to talk about things that make you (or other people) uncomfortable. An observation is subjective, but it is what it is.

[2] Fifty years from now, I imagine that the greatest thing my parents gave me might have been a love for reading. Both my parents read a lot, which you wouldn’t really expect from looking at either of them. My dad’s into politics and science-ish stuff, while my mum’s more into literature and narratives. They always, always encouraged my passion for reading. My mum used to buy me books for my birthdays, and I looked forward to them immensely. Once in a while I’d ask for a book- I remember asking for rather expensive books at time- HTML, Javascript, the Mahabaratha and other epic things- and they’d always support me. While my parents might have been a little bit conservative, somewhat, they nourished in me something that has now become an independent mind. For this I will be eternally grateful.

Singaporean students lack drive because our culture sucks it out of them

The Education Minister is concerned about the number of employers who have said that Singaporean students lack drive and the confidence to venture out of their comfort zone.

When he asked what personal qualities are necessary to succeed, many of them said: Drive. ‘They said, ‘We think this is going to be critical (but) we are not seeing enough of this’,’ said Mr Heng, who was surprised at the number of CEOs who mentioned it. ‘I said, how can that be? Our students work very hard,’ he added. He had a long discussion with them, which did not throw up any solutions.

Students are unwilling to leave their comfort zones and try something new, says Heng. In Europe, when the CEO told workers he wanted to try them out in a new role with different responsibilities, the staff asked, what sort of training will I get, how will you help me succeed, what will I do, and so on.” But when the CEO approached Singaporeans, he was ‘shocked’ by the response: “What if I fail? Do I still have a job? Is there a support system, and do I get retrenchment benefits?” – Lack of drive in Singaporean students a worry

This is upsetting. We’ve spent the past 30 years breeding Singaporeans to be head-nodding wage-slaves, only to find that there are billions of other people out there who will do the same jobs for far less.

Singaporean students lack drive because our culture sucks it right out of them.

  • From day one, we tell our kids what they can or cannot think, what sort of dreams they ought to have.
  • We discourage them from studying what they’re passionate about if it’s not easy to score in.
  • We impose on them an obsession with grades, grades, grades. Anything you do outside of school is all about the CCA points.
  • We censor our valedictorians when they have something authentic and sincere to say.
  • Our teachers are forced to spend all their time (and then some!) covering the syllabus, which leaves them with scarce opportunity to set their kids’ hearts and minds on fire, to inspire and provoke them.

Of course we’re afraid of failure and leaving our comfort zones– it’s the Singaporean way! (Never mind that our founding fathers essentially stared failure in the face and said NOT TODAY.)

A big part of being Singaporean entails being a mindless drone, having no opinion. (“But what about the dissident netizens?” Oh, they’re narcissists who hide behind their pseudonyms and use heterodoxy as a poor substitute for genuine thought.)

We were bred by the system to be unquestioning, obedient wage-slaves to our lords and masters. We will bend over and let you fuck us in the ass if you promise to take care of us. We don’t have enough arts and culture. We hardly support our local bands and football teams.

Not all Singaporeans are afraid of leaving our comfort zones- many have already packed up and left.

They are no longer interested our uninspiring be-a-wage-slave culture. It’s the Singaporeans that are left behind that are meek and risk-averse. Awesome.

How much money must we spend, how many dreams must we crush, how much must we oppress each other, only for our Minister to go “How can that be? Our students work very hard!”. Well, NEWSFLASH: North Koreans also work very hard. African children in the diamond mines also work very hard. It doesn’t mean shit, okay?

Heng’s long discussion with the CEOs did not throw up any solutions. Let’s turn to some literature.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Our teachers need to be given the freedom to share their passion and joy with students. Parents need to do that for their kids, too. We need parents to stop going to schools demanding that we stuff their kids brains with knowledge as if it were a commodity, and teach people to think for themselves- REALLY think for themselves, and have opinions, and fight for them. We need broad, bottom-up cultural change. And that has to come from all of us standing up together and choosing, together, that that’s what we want.

The title of the Straits Times article reads “Lack of drive in Singaporeans students a worry.” That’s really nice of the journalist, or the editors. I would have phrased it differently. The truth is, it’s not surprising that our students lack drive. We’re all responsible for it. Bastards, all of us. Every child is born with curiosity and inquisitiveness. Fear of failure is taught, and frankly, that’s what we teach our kids every day.

You want to know why Singaporean kids have no drive, put yourselves in their shoes lah. What is there to be driven about?

The question now is- how are we going to move forward? How are we going to transcend our obsolete cultural mindsets?

Updated on May 14th, 2014.

Work hard? Me? But I’m Gifted!

2014 summary: Used to be a minimum-effort student who was proud of how little effort I needed to get by. Now wish I had learnt to work hard instead.

I got full marks for pretty much everything before I got into the GEP, and I spent the first 20 years of my life with absolutely no sense of the value of hard work. I went to my exams and got by without studying, I played in a band that got by without practicing, I somehow managed to sustained a relationship and multiple friendships without any real conscious effort. I didn’t study for my O levels- I spent the time leading up to my O’s watching Friends. (On retrospect, I think spent the time leading up to my PSLEs playing basketball!) I retained a year in JC- (I wonder how many GEP students went on to retain in JC?). Throughout my entire JC life I only submitted about 5 to 10% of my tutorials, half of which were copied. I used to be proud of that. Really.

In a sense, then, I’ve been mediocre all this while because I never really saw a reason to be anything more, when I already received all the validation that I wanted without any effort. Even when I did below-average in JC, simply hearing my teachers go “you’re so smart, you’re able to grasp ideas and concepts before anyone else, if you only-” was good enough for me. “I’m awesome,” I thought. “I don’t need to jump through anybody’s hoops to feel good about myself.”

I often couldn’t be bothered to do anything because I’d always felt like I’d transcended the need to. I honestly didn’t feel like I needed a prestigious education or qualifications to validate my existence. I knew that I had worth, and immense unrealised potential, and that was good enough for me. I was and still am cerebrally quicker than most people I know- not the absolute quickest, but good enough to get me by. I’m expressive with my words, I can communicate my thoughts and ideas fairly effectively, I’m comfortable in all sorts of environments- especially new ones, where everyone starts from scratch. I have a fertile, flexible and agile mind. That is the source of my confidence. I am unfazed by mistakes and failures. From one perspective I could be described as stubbornly arrogant, but from another you could say that I’m a big picture kind of person, and my picture’s a lot bigger than most people’s.

I don’t believe or care for the idea of natural genius or talent. If it exists, it does, but it’s rare and unlikely and shouldn’t affect most of us. If you asked me ten years ago, “Visa, why are you so smart?” I’d shrug and smile and say, “I don’t know.” If you ask me now, I’d say “Me, smart? I don’t really think so! Perhaps I’m just more well-read, and spend more time and energy thinking in general. I’ve had lots of practice, that’s all. You would be just as “smart” if not “smarter” if you made a conscious and sustained effort, I’m sure!” And I would be completely sincere about it.

My mind is always wandering- and I think it might even have been inevitable that it eventually turned on itself, perhaps out of pure intellectual curiosity, but more likely as a response to a growing accumulation of ideas and knowledge- about self-knowledge, success, self-worth, discipline, self-deceit, philosophy and other fun stuff. I had to turn my criticism on myself eventually. What followed wasn’t very pretty, but it was empowering. What I ultimately distilled from it was something simple, but true- potential counts for nothing, and accomplishment counts for (almost) everything. The difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is often simply that successful people Do things, and get things Done. On hindsight, I never really got much done with my life at all. And I realised, intuitively, that that didn’t satisfy me. I didn’t want to be remembered by posterity as “the really intelligent and witty and fun guy who never accomplished much.” That’s not enough for me anymore.

My life’s work lies ahead of me, and I intend to pursue it with intense drive and determination. I am consciously choosing not to define it just yet, but I have a clear vague idea. (There are such things as clear vague ideas.) I am going to work hard, harder than I’ve ever worked before, and push myself to my limits- if they even exist, because I’ve never encountered them before.