Please Mind the Platform Gap: Subject Combinations

by Chua Jun Yan (13A01A)

This article does not necessarily reflect the views of RI’s academic management and should not be used as a substitute for formal academic counselling.

The impending reality of JC smacks you in the face when you are confronted with matriculation – the registration exercise in which you select your subject combination. It can be an intimidating experience, given that you may not know what you are in for. Not to mention a potentially life-changing one. In this installment of Please Mind the Platform Gap, we help you navigate the various subject options in JC.

#1 Which subject is the easiest to score in?

The unfortunate truth is that no A-level subject is easy to score in: every discipline requires its fair share of graft and hard work. In Year 5, the Arts subjects are probably easier to pass, but harder to do well in. By contrast, the Science subjects are more difficult to pass (it is widely understood that 40% of the current Year 5 cohort failed their first Common Test in Chemistry!). But if you get the hang of it, they tend to be easier to excel in (in the same Common Test, 26% of the cohort scored an A in Mathematics). Nonetheless, the pass and distinction rates are reasonably level by the time you reach the A-levels. In most of the common H2 subjects, the percentage of students scoring an A hovers around 70-80%. For the record, the top-performing H2 subject (with a candidature of at least 50) in the 2011 A-levels was History, in which 81.8% of candidates achieved an A.

Nonetheless, you should be warned: unconventional subjects tend to produce a mixed bag of results. Amongst the 43 candidates who offered English Language & Linguistics (ELL) in 2011, just 32.6% of candidates scored an A, marginally below the national average of 35.2%. Similarly, only 27.9% of candidates achieved an A in China Studies in English, slightly below the national average of 29.8%. Having said that, of 13 the candidates who took H2 Art, 11 achieved a Distinction. If you are genuinely passionate about the subject, you will be motivated to work hard, so it’s probably worth the gamble.

Despite this, there is one thing that is for sure: students who offer subjects they are good at and are interested in tend to perform better than those who take what they think is the “safe route”. Having said that, the same subject may appear in different incarnations  in secondary school as compared in JC. For instance, A-level Literature focuses a lot more on close textual analysis, rather than themes on genres. The best bet is to check with a senior before reaching a hasty conclusion.

#2 How will the subject I take affect my university & career options?

It’s tempting to rely on intuition for this one, but our advice is that there is no replacement for solid research. For example, one would assume that “A”-level Biology is a pre-requisite for studying Medicine in the National University of Singapore. As it turns out, the requirement is actually Chemistry! And if you plan to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University, guess what? The recommended subject is not Economics, Knowledge and Inquiry, or even History, but Mathematics! To be dead certain, consider poring through the websites of your dream colleges before you click the “Submit” button on the matriculation form.

A further note of caution about non-traditional subjects: rumour has it that they are frowned upon by top universities. In a 2010 Guardian article, it was alleged that the Russell Group of universities (which includes Oxford and Cambridge) “reject outright pupils who take A-level subjects that appear on unpublished lists [of banned subjects]”. The list is said to include subjects like “art and design” and “drama and theatre studies” (which was mysteriously discontinued in RI, with the last cohort taking their A-levels this year). As with any rumour, there are denials, but it is probably a risk which you want to take into account.

Nevertheless, history remembers the brave: if you are like one of the 9 students in 2011 who genuinely enjoy H2 Music, it may well be worth a shot.

#3 Which subject combination gives me the slackest timetable?

What time you go home each day depends on how homogenous your class is in terms of subject combinations. If your classmates take roughly the same subjects, your timetable is likely to be more compact, and you can expect to leave school by around 2 p.m. each day. On the other hand, if you are in a “rojak” class with multiple subject combinations, it is not unheard of to end at 5 p.m. on an almost daily basis. Of course, this will be compounded if you take H1 Mother Tongue (this adds 4 hours of curriculum time each week), or if you opt to take 4 H2s instead of 3 H2s and 1 H1.

Taking exotic subjects probably lengthens your school day. For instance, Knowledge & Inquiry lessons tend to be held in the afternoons. Similarly, if you are the only student in a cohort of 1259 offering Tamil Language and Literature (like one current Year 5), you probably won’t be surprised to find that many of your one-to-one tutorials are held late in the day.

#4 How will my subject combination affect the number of guys and girls in my class?

Would you like to be in a class like this?
Or this?
(photo credits: RI Yearbook 2012)

Class allocation in JC is a bit like the way students get sorted into Houses at Hogwarts: we all have a vague idea of how it’s done, but no one can pinpoint an exact formula. From a combination of inference and hearsay, here are the main considerations (in order of priority):

  • Subject combination (students who take the same subjects are likely to be in the same class)
  • Mother Tongue (students who take H1 Mother Tongue are likely to be grouped together)
  • Grade Point Average of relevant subjects in Year 4

In truth, it is probably likely that a large part of the class allocations are random, given the huge number of students in each cohort. According to the 2011 report which RI submitted in support of its Singapore Quality Award application, a key performance indicator for the school is the number of days it takes to form classes from the reporting date for O-level students. The benchmark is 14 days (this was actually not met in 2009), so administrators are likely to be under pressure to simply shaft students into classes quickly.

Having said that, the usual gender stereotypes provide a good gauge of the gender composition in your class. If you take the vanilla combination, PCME (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Economics), you are likely to have more boys in your class. In fact, one current Year 6 class has 23 boys – out of a total of 24 students! The ratio is less skewed if you take PCME’s close cousin, BCME (Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Economics). On the other end of the spectrum, one of this year’s Arts classes has a boy to girl ratio of 1 to 8, due in part to the small number of Arts classes. In general, a significantly higher number of girls take Geography than History. Depending on your inclinations, this might swing your options either way.

The statistics on past-year A-level results were taken from the 2012 Institution Report.

Do you have a question about matriculation or subject combinations? Leave a note in the Comments section and we will try to get back to you! 

13 thoughts on “Please Mind the Platform Gap: Subject Combinations”

  1. I want to ask why is it that nobody has uncovered the formula of sorting classes?

    RI is supposedly the premier school in Singapore with lots of students scoring well for their mathematics.
    Surely this kind of problem-solving does not require more than 184 years to work out the answers. Can the MathRA seniors come together and solve the mystery formula? Taking from a Chinese quote: 前人种树,后人乘凉。所谓,尽道隋亡为此河,至今千里赖通波。这可是,功在当代,利在千秋!

    Thank you!

    Yours sincerely,
    Just a student :D

    1. Firstly, i am sure that sorting algorithm changes from year to year. Anyone who thinks that the same algorithm is used for 184 is clearly… I shall not go into that. So whatever formula will not be applicable after just a couple of year. Big waste of effort.

      Secondly, data collection is very troublesome as you need to know the combinations of subjects of a large number of students to do any sort of guessing. At the same time, past grades might need to be known, but they are sensitive in general.

      Thirdly, since the seniors are already in their fixed class, not much reason to be bothered with this. So just stick to your class and get to know them.

      Lastly, if you really want to be in the same class as someone, get that someone to take a special combination (eg. RA/arts) with you.

  2. i think you should know that that photo is outdated(and unflattering), we now only have one boy and 15 HOT girls. Oh and the Korean(aka boy) is tan now.

  3. One advice for juniors would be that don’t choose your combi just because your friends did, or because your parents wanted that. Trust me, you will suffer; you won’t be happy. You may think this sounds silly, but do consider what you truly like before making your decision. You may be good at a certain subject in sec school, scoring GPA 4.0, but you may just suck at that despite hard work in jc.

  4. I heard speculation that the TSD teacher left last year, and the school couldn’t find an adequate replacement – thus, no TSD. You might want to ask the TSD J2s to find out whether that’s really true, since it’s all rumour (don’t take my word for it).

  5. Actually, only 15/24 of us study PCME. Common sense just happened to desert the administrators at the unfortunate moment.

    1. Actually its more like the “one-girl-class” is the class with the people taking physics ra but NOT math ra. So it just happened that only one girl had that combination….

      The non-physics ra classes have a less skewed boy:girl ratio. Roughly equal. It’s just that it seems that fewer girls take physics ra for some reason… so the ratio for physics ra becomes quite … well. You know what I mean…

  6. I’m interested in taking H2 KI. I’ve looked at the syllabus, obtained some KI materials from the KI Options, and done some light reading on the subject. I know H2 KI is not recognized as a H2 subject in UK universities, what about USA? Also, what are somethings I could do with a A Level degree in KI after JC? I’d love to hear from a senior currently taking KI! Thank you!

    1. Hi Freshman, I’m a senior from the 2010 batch who took KI. It is not entirely true that UK universities do not recognise KI; I matriculated into a UK university with KI and three other H2 subjects, and I know of friends who took KI and secured places in universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

      As for what you can do with KI after JC, I think that the value of taking the subject lies in the honing of your critical thinking and skills of analysis that will develop through the curriculum. Unlike the sciences, for example, KI is a subject that trains intellectual rigour rather than mastery of content knowledge (as can be seen from the scoring of its papers – critical thinking is a larger component, by percentage, than content knowledge). As such, a student who obtains a distinction in KI is likely to have developed mental faculties that allows him or her to deal with various issues, intellectual or practical, in a logical and coherent manner. This is something that will not be reflected on your CV, but will be of immense value at university and at work.

      I thoroughly enjoyed the two years spent with my KI class; we had a lot of fun debating conflicting viewpoints and learning together. If you do take KI, be sure to go in with an open mind, because there is NO correct answer. You are scored based on how you support your argument, not on which argument you make (though of course some arguments are far more tenable than others).

      Finally, I shall run the risk of being accused for personal bias by saying that KI is far more rewarding than GP will ever be. No one I know has ever professed his love for the General Paper, but many of my friends who took KI loved it.

      I hope this clarifies some of your doubts on the subject.

  7. I just want to ask how is the curriculum for H2 Geo like in JC? I have heard from various discussions and talks that H2 Geo can be quite demanding and it’s one of the ‘heavier’ humanities. Any advice on this?

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