Which is more important — getting into the preferred course or a certain university regardless of the programme?

I HAVE been following the recent furore on social media regarding the recent Unit Pengurusan Universiti (UPU) results, specifically how those unhappy with the outcome have been tagging ministers on the online platform to appeal the decision and plead their case.

My UPU story is a strange one. I was a top Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) scorer and one of the top students in my home state. I was a national debating champion, a national Spell-It-Right champion, national Tokoh Nilam award recipient, head prefect and president of clubs and societies.

Now I am not blowing my own horn here, but to say that I was a well-rounded and very qualified applicant is not an overstatement. Regardless, I failed to get a single placement through UPU. I applied for the foundation in science course at four local universities and failed to gain admission into any.

I was stunned. I could not comprehend why, nor could my parents. But I received a scholarship offer from the Public Service Department, so I disregarded the UPU anomaly and moved on. I did not bother finding out why a student, who ticked all the right boxes, failed to get even one placement.

Reading all the posts and comments on social media about students in apparently similar circumstances failing to make the cut resonated with me. I was lucky enough to have found another path to the degree I wanted. For many Malaysians who are not well-off, UPU and public universities are their only hopes for a degree. However, some aspects of how they are making their appeal do not sit well with me.

It is important to follow procedure when appealing an official result. As future civil servants, corporate workers and responsible adults, students should learn that society runs on sets of rules, and we navigate bureaucracy through designated channels.

To try to get attention through social media and making things “viral” is unprofessional and shows a lack of understanding of the system. It is more productive to contact the university, write a letter of appeal, appeal to the Education Ministry or online via e-Rayuan UPU on its website. This is how to make an official request and how the government works. If you have exhausted professional and conventional avenues, go to social media as a last resort. Without even finding out about these channels and complaining on social media, how will you deal with future setbacks in your education or career? Book smarts and a good co-curricular profile do not make a good student. Learning to deal with obstacles in a mature way is a measure of character.

Understand the application system and keep the bigger picture in mind. The UPU system is based on meritocracy, with the exception of Universiti Teknologi MARA and certain courses are open to Bumiputera students only. Playing the racial card is not applicable here.

Every year, thousands of applicants with straight As and impressive co-curricular profiles opt for the popular universities and courses. Of course, prized courses such as medicine, law, engineering and accounting are extremely competitive and applicants tend to be from the crËme de la crËme of SPM and Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia students. Many hope to get into more prestigious universities such as University of Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, so it is inevitable that applicants will outnumber the number of places available.

My advice for future applicants is to keep the bigger picture in mind: how competitive is the course or university? Which is more important - getting into the preferred course or a certain university regardless of the programme?

Consider smaller, lesser known universities or courses that are in a similar field but may have slightly different focus. If you have a career in mind, are there other courses that will still allow you to pursue it? For example, medicine and law are non-negotiable in terms of the requisite qualification to enter those careers, but that is not the case for many other jobs. If you want to be in healthcare but not sure you will like to be a doctor, you can pursue studies in nutrition, physiotherapy, occupational health, psychology, nursing and public health etc. There are many who end up in careers unrelated to their degrees.

So not getting your dream degree is not the end of the road. There are options, as long as you persevere and keep looking for ways to get to your destination. I can tell stories of people who pursued one degree and ended up doing another one later, or took a year out and reapplied, and even those who skipped university and worked their way up to their dream job. These stories abound, so go look for that inspiration and do not lose hope. If it is meant to be, even if the road is longer, you will still reach exactly where you are destined to be.

The writer is a doctor at Hospital Enche Besar Hajjah Khalsom, Kluang in Johor. The secondary school national champion of the inaugural Spell-it-Right competition in 2008 is passionate about education and sharing her journey in medicine. Email her at education@nst.com.my

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