Please Mind the Platform Gap – Changing Your Subject Combination

By Valerie Tan (20A01E)

Maybe you haven’t thought much of your matriculation form since the day you submitted it. Or maybe there’s been a persistent nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach since you confirmed your subject combination as a JAE student. Either way, you’re presented with a shiny new timetable and class one day in February, and are informed that you’ll have to stick with them for the next month or so.

You go to your Physics lecture for the first time and zone out to the lecturer’s rambling on measurements, wondering what on earth you’re doing here. You think back to that form you submitted during JIP, or filled in during your JAE exercise. H2 Physics, you’d written, thinking that all would be well. What a fool you were! For now the only connection you feel to Physics is that it makes you physically ill, and you want out.

Sounds like you? You’ll be glad to know not all hope’s lost just yet, with the help of an appeal form that’ll appear on the student’s portal towards the end of February. You’ll then be free to change your subject combination—subject (haha) to the timetable committee’s ability to fit you in somewhere, of course.

But of course, decisions should never be made rashly. Changing your subject combination has the potential for regret, too. There are a few things to consider before you decide to do so.

Interest

Your decision is fairly easy if you know that you absolutely detest the subject you’re taking at the moment. If opening your Economics notes makes you want to cry, or if Chemistry makes you sick, there’s almost no doubt that a change in subject combination will be right for you. Whatever you take up in replacement, it’ll definitely be a much more pleasant experience.

A similar situation would be about being deeply passionate about another subject that you, for some reason or another, didn’t end up taking at first. This may go along with the previous situation, but not always. In this case, the subjects you’re taking right now are fine; you might even be enjoying them. But you miss learning about Biology, or Literature, or whatever else your heart is dreaming of right now. Taking up this subject would necessitate dropping another subject, of course, even if it’s one you still like. But if it’s worth it, why not?

Ability to do well

This is easy enough to think about, and tends to go along with interest. A deep passion for a subject is likely to motivate you to work harder, while hating something is likely to send your grade for it spiraling down. This is especially when your interest in it is so low that there’s no hope of trying to discipline yourself into studying for it. With the end goal of A levels in sight, it’s natural to want to pick subjects that you’re able to do well in, rather than ones that leave you floundering in the dark. If what you’re taking at the moment doesn’t match up with what you’re able to score in, a subject combination change may feel appropriate—and especially so for the most pragmatic among us, for whom A levels is the be all and end all of things.

For the above two points of consideration, it’s always wise to do your research first. A subject that seemed tame and manageable in Upper Secondary may end up being unexpectedly different, and thus boring and hard to tackle, at JC level. Perhaps Literature was fun previously, but will it feel the same when you’re faced with Andrew Marvell? Or how will Chemistry be like with the endless number of calculations you have to do now? To gauge how the subject will be like at the A levels, you should consult friends currently taking the subject you’re eyeing (borrowing their notes to study is always a good idea), ask your seniors for help, check the syllabus handily put up online by SEAB, or seek advice from a teacher—JC or upper secondary.

Take the example of Nadine Lee (20A01C), who excelled in Chemistry in upper secondary, and considered changing her subject combination to include it, but chose not to in the end. “I talked to my friends who are taking Chem,” she shared, “and they said it was a lot of number crunching. I’m really bad at working with numbers, so that made me reconsider. I also took someone’s Chem stuff to read through and got really put off. The number crunching would’ve shredded me and made me very stressed, so I’m glad that I didn’t take Chem. I appreciate it as a discipline deeply, but I’m not cut out for the numbers in it.”

After consulting those around you, if you’re sure that you like the subject you’re considering and will be able to do well in it, taking it up in place of another seems like a natural choice.

Unless…

Recall our first sentence in this section; the ability to do well “tends” to go along with interest. But of course, there are limits to this statement. Sometimes you fall in love with a subject, but don’t do well in it, especially under duress in an exam setting. And there are some you excel in, but could actually care less about. Your ability to score and your interest in a subject clash, leaving you at a loss. And unfortunately, the desire to do well is pretty much unavoidable at the A levels.

In such cases, what do you do?

Unfortunately, there is no solid answer to this, and is ultimately based on what you value more—your A level grades, or the content that you learn in school.

Sophia He (20S03H) gave some insight into her subject combination choice: despite being deeply interested in the humanities and even securing a spot in the Humanities Programme (HP), she chose to take BCME instead. “I really like the humanities,” she admitted, “but I realised that I panic a lot when I study them, because […] there are technically an infinite amount of materials to consider, which lowkey freaks me out in an exam setting as compared to the more rigid structure and curriculum of sciences. And so I thought, with the stress of A levels and all, that I should probably just choose something I’m more comfortable with, even though I may not be that interested in the subject matter.” Instead, Sophia chose to take on CCAs that allowed her to continue to “explore the arts in a more leisurely setting”, balancing between pragmatism and passion.

“I think it’s good to think deeply about your own learning style […] and ensure that it suits your subjects, sometimes in spite of your interests.”

“Just because you don’t take a subject in the ‘formal’ aspect doesn’t mean that you can’t explore it in your free time,” Nadine also added. If you’re passionate about a subject, but don’t perform well in it in school, it’s still available for you to pursue at leisure: “Even now, in my own time, I read up on Chem-related stuff just for my own pleasure.”

Practical value

The third point of consideration can come in useful in such a dilemma as well. Something to think about might be your university course. If the course you’re gunning for doesn’t require a very high UAS, taking something you’re interested in but might not do well in might still be a fairly safe option. On the other hand, if you’re looking to read something like NUS Law or Medicine, both of which consistently boast IGPs of AAA/A, you’re better off taking whatever you’re better at. After all, the odds are that you don’t hate whatever you’re taking; it’s probably more a sense of indifference you’re experiencing, which is likely to give way once you remember what you’re taking this subject for.

Generally, if you’re sure that the subject you’re considering dropping will not have any bearing on the pool of careers that’s available and appealing to you, the answer is fairly simple: drop it! Personally, this writer was faring decently in Chemistry, but decided to swap it out for History once she realised she wouldn’t ever go into a field that required it. On the other hand, Nicole Lim (20S03I) chose to forgo her HP offer in favour of BCME to keep her options open: “Being an active runner in the school team, sports science and physiotherapy were two career paths I was seriously considering and was not ready to rule out. Accepting the HP offer would mean closing my window to them and limiting my options. […] Eventually, I decided that even though the sciences felt a lot more painful to learn in such great detail, two years of discomfort would be better than being on a road of no return if I were to realise that the humanities was not something I wanted to pursue at the end of my A levels.”

In the above two cases, despite the different thought processes and outcomes, the practical value of the subjects taken was definitely a consideration.

“If you’re undecided, like me, especially with careers which seem to be at opposite ends of the science-art spectrum, I suggest you take the combination that gives you the most options. JC, after all, is still a time to explore and learn more about your interests.”

Class environment

Sometimes you’re comfortable with your subject combination. You go about Orientation without a sliver of doubt or regret in your heart. Then you receive your class allocation, trot off to your Civics classroom, and boom—it’s a disaster. Such a disaster, in fact, that you’re willing to change your subject combination to get out of it.

A poor class environment is definitely a valid reason to change your subject combination, and shouldn’t be disregarded—because JC is not all about the A levels, but also about the friendships you make along the way. One could love the subjects they’re taking, but have a miserable two years because of their classmates. In the worst scenarios, the class environment could even take a toll on their mental health, impinging on their performance in school and CCA as well. If you’re struggling to go to school every day because of your classmates, and are willing to do anything to leave, changing your subject combination to one that belongs in another class might be a way out.

Cheryl Chan (20S06P) faced this experience with her previous class: “It was really stressful being in a class where everyone was good at everything. I felt very inferior, and insecure, and just unhappy.” Together with stress arising from the fear of being unable to cope with her studies, this prompted her to leave her class by changing her subject combination, where she opted to drop Chemistry RA entirely (though one must acknowledge that her situation was fairly unique, as her minor change didn’t require her to take up an additional subject in replacement). Fortunately, this turned out to be a good decision; things got better for her, and she is now “happier in [her] new class”.

These are usually the main four points to take into account when deciding whether or not to change your subject combination. There are a few things that you shouldn’t consider, too, at least not as much as the above:

External pressure

“Ah girl, you should do medicine, then earn a lot of money! Got future one.”
“Eh, do HELM with me, then we same class!”
“You know, I think you’re doing really well in Chemistry, you should continue taking it…”

Parents, friends, and teachers alike are bound to have their thoughts on what you should take. They’re not wrong to have their own opinions; they all (or at least, mostly) want the best for you. But you’re not wrong for rejecting them either, for wanting to make your own choice. Having the possibility of better life prospects or being in the same class as your friend won’t be worth it in the long run if you don’t do well in the subjects, or don’t need them for your university course in the end. While you can take their thoughts into account, you should ultimately still pick the subjects that are more relevant to your life as you see it. If Chemistry is rapidly melting your brain, and the only thing keeping you from dropping it is your parents’ wish for you to be a world-famous doctor, replacing it with a different subject is likely to be better for you.

These sentiments were shared by Celine Tan (20S06A), who dropped Economics for Literature instead: “Don’t pick a subject combi just because your parents want you to take those certain subjects. It’ll most likely suck any joy you had for learning.”

Another form of external pressure is one that is less direct and obvious in nature, but that can be equally harmful to those struggling with a subject they’re taking now: the pressure of convention. With so many students taking the ubiquitous combinations of BCME and PCME, it can be easy to believe that that’s a path that you should follow too, even if you don’t truly want to. This was the case for Minnal Dhayalan (20S06A), who swapped out Economics for History: “I had chosen Econs to try and take more of a typical combi, and since most of the school took Econs, it had to be the right choice, right?” Unfortunately, the answer to this turned out to be a solid “nope” for her, as Econs “just wasn’t [her] thing”, contrary to the trend that the rest of the student population presented. Indeed, though some subjects are taken by a huge majority of students, the truth remains that not everybody is cut out for them. What’s the point of following the crowd if the journey isn’t going to be as fulfilling for you?

Steep learning curve

It can be hard to tell the difference between thinking, I can’t and don’t want to do this right now, but I’ll get better at it eventually, and thinking, no amount of effort till A levels is going to save my grade here. A steep learning curve must always be taken into account, especially for the sciences. Dropping a subject on impulse because of the huge jump in content, or an unwillingness to start studying again after the joy of three months of freedom, isn’t really a great idea.

This is the most subjective point to consider, but such a dilemma can be fixed to some extent by looking at your experience with the subject last year (though this tip is sadly inapplicable to new subjects in JC). Even if the journey wasn’t a breeze, if a fairly normal amount of work was enough to score you an A, you’re likely to be able to eventually cope with it in JC. On the other hand, if multiple all-nighters cramming formulas in your head never paid off, it’s probably fine to change your subject combination in favour of something else that you’ll be better at. It’s worth noting, of course, that “no combi is an easy way out,” as one Year 5 who wished to remain anonymous remarked. There will always be hardships with any subject you take, old or new; what you should take note of is whether you’ll be able to continue coping with it.

Fairly certain that you want a change, but still afraid of regretting it? Take the leap of faith! A number of people have done it, and are mostly satisfied. In a small survey conducted with 10 students who changed their subject combination, there was an overall increase in the level of satisfaction with their subject combination after the change: the average score was bumped up from 2.2 to 3.3, with the minimum score of 1 being “very unsatisfied” and the maximum score of 4 being “very satisfied”. This increase is even more pronounced if we disregard the anomaly of one student who, upon changing her combination, regretted it and returned to her previous combination (which, yes, you can do if you submit your appeal form early enough!): the average level of satisfaction would then have increased from 1.7 to 3.5. Evidently, this decision turned out to be a positive one for most, if not all, of those who chose to change their subject combination; many reported feeling “much better” and “very happy”, with one going so far as to call it the “best decision of [their] life”.

Of course, there will always be some students for whom this change did not yield much happiness. One Year 5 student, who opted to remain anonymous, said: “After you change your combi, you might start questioning your choice a lot, especially if it was a tough decision for you. But all you can really do is make the most of it. I wasted a lot of time just lamenting my decision, when I could have just sucked it up, which would have been a lot better.” Nevertheless, this group of students forms but a small minority, and if your heart is pulling you towards the change, it is perhaps best to run with it.

By now, maybe you’re leaning towards changing your subject combination, but are afraid that you’ll be rejected. You’ll be glad to know, then, that the odds of your desired combination being accepted are, thankfully, usually pretty high. Unless it’s a rare combination, of course, because the school might not be able to accommodate it, or if you need to take an entrance test for it, as in the cases of special subjects such as ELL or Art. But this writer recommends that you go for it anyway; there’s no harm in trying, even if the school ends up rejecting your application.

(Here’s a tip: if you’re trying to change to a rare combination and are 100% sure that you don’t want to end up stuck with your current combination, it’s best to apply early. Even if you get rejected, you can swiftly follow up with a backup that you don’t mind switching to either.)

And maybe you’re wondering now: what class will I end up in after my change is approved? The answer is that it really depends on how common your subject combination is. Changing your combination to PCME leaves you with a grand total of about 20 possible classes to end up in, so you’ll usually be randomly slotted into anywhere with vacancies. (Or if there’s a pattern, it hasn’t been figured out yet.) On the other hand, if you’re changing to a fairly uncommon combination, asking around should do the trick. For instance, the first two or three S03 and S06 classes are usually for those who don’t take Economics, and doing H1 Mother Tongue or Math with a common combination like BCME will also greatly narrow down your list of potential classes.

Overall, whether or not you end up changing your subject combination or not, what’s most important is that you make a choice that you are most comfortable with, and that will benefit you in the long run. Natalie Leong’s (20A01B) comment seems to be the most fitting way to close this article:

“It can be helpful to consider others’ views and opinions but ultimately, the choice is your own! Really cheesy, but the best piece of advice is to just follow what your gut is telling you to do.”

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