Acclaimed counsellor and the former head counsellor of Raffles Institution in Singapore decodes how to obtain admission to some of the prestigious universities in the world
Kevin Sim (right) with Palestinian painter Suleiman Mansour – Supplied photo
Kevin Sim holds the world record for most admissions to Oxford University, Cambridge University and the Ivy League colleges. He is the former head counsellor of Raffles Institution, which is the highest performing school in Singapore. Sim has been counseling for over two decades.
Sim spoke to Khaleej Times about counseling trends and Singapore’s benchmark education system.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
What is S1G? How is it unique to Singapore and a project headed by you?
S1G was created when I left the school system after two decades and wanted to continue to push for access for a specific demographic — for kids who are the first generation to head to university. Our counseling is holistic, not only in understanding the various opportunities available locally and abroad, but also about careers, academic planning as well as how to access the various financial aid systems across different institutions both at home and abroad.
My access work started years ago with a development program in the Maldives, which involved schools and community. There is a Cambodian project where we work with extremely motivated students to apply for foreign universities as well as financial aid.
Since leaving the Singapore school system, I have also worked on several significant education projects promoting access and equity for marginalized communities.
Will S1G be open for international students as well?
S1G is restricted to Singaporeans as it is a project helmed by myself and a few ex-counsellors. But often, some compelling individuals have reached out to us and we have tried our best to support these individuals.
You are the former Head Counsellor of the College Admissions Counselling Office at Raffles Institution. Take us through the glorious history of the city state’s oldest institution that was founded in 1823.
Raffles Institution, like many other great schools in Singapore, are incredible institutions of learning. If I have to speak about a few superlative things about it, they would be:
Whether you are a first-generation college student or a humanities-loving student, there is a space for you to aspire, and like-minded individuals who become your fellow journey mates on your educational journey. A school is an aggregation of students; A school doesn’t make a student, but rather it is the students who make the school. The same can be said about the country.
Of course, with the environment comes also the great support the government gives to local schools, in making them accessible and affordable.
In my time, people talk about the record numbers of students going to world renowned institutions, but it is good to observe that the numbers are just natural manifestations of the students’ aspirations. In any given year, we have students who apply to a wide number of institutions across the world. We also have students who chose to take non-traditional pathways and choices. We celebrate the diversity of choices and visions. More importantly, we are doubly joyous for the kid who had to climb a steeper road to get where he/she is today, regardless of the eventual outcome.
What are the discernible trends in counseling for college admission that you have come across in your illustrious career?
Admissions these days, especially to popular destinations and institutions, literally make me wonder why things have gotten so complicated. How many milestones do we expect an individual to cross before they can be admitted? But I do believe it is unfair to level criticism at the universities.
Think about these two factors:
In the world we live in today, people are so much more mobile, people are more willing to invest in a foreign education and have the means to do so. International student application numbers, from all levels of schooling, have skyrocketed.
Society has not become more sophisticated, if complicated. Look at what college students have to do these days just to get an internship and how much earlier they have to work on this process.
In many ways, admissions complexity is simply a reflection of many of the changes that have gone on over the past 20-odd years I have been a counsellor.
How have students evolved through the years as far as counseling for college admission is concerned?
Having been around for so long, I would be fairly obtuse to not recognise that each generation of students are innately different. But this is also a circumstance of how the times have changed. As societies and societies evolve, naturally, the children who are the inheritors of the world to come are consequently and necessarily different.
Can counseling make a difference in a student’s approach towards a course?
Good counseling enriches students’ understanding of the choices, academic, institutional, personal, etc., available to them.
In a world of too much information available online, too many YouTube videos giving all kinds of advice, a counsellor seeks to give objective advice and also help students focus on relevant information.
The college application process is probably the most formal ‘adult’ thing a student has encountered. It is a process of learning about how the real world works as well as an interesting opportunity to discover the self as well as the future.
Admissions systems across different systems are hard to navigate and time consuming, counseling attempts to facilitate this process while the student also has to deal with academic, extra-curricular and many other demands.
What are the primary qualifications that make a good counsellor?
A willingness to listen; as every student is different.
A willingness to constantly learn and release the changing education landscape. Education has to evolve to meet the constantly evolving demands of society, so a counsellor has to stay on top of all these changes.
To be willing to give truthful advice; sometimes even when the advice might be hard for the listener.
Lastly, how would you rate Singapore’s education system?
Singapore’s education system is an ecosystem of many different offerings, from preschool to university. This is ably supported by an incredibly safe society and environment for students to learn, which is one of the concerns of many parents sending their children abroad. I still believe that there is no ‘best’ system. Every student has different needs, learning habits, desires. With the diversity of options available to them today, from the staple diet of destinations to more interesting options such as Japan, Denmark and many more, the global education system is a network of incredibly diverse choices. I remember one of the most sagely advice I received as a young and overeager counsellor: There is one best school, but there is always a school for you.
Education, especially today, isn’t only about academics. It doesn’t only seek to prepare for a job. But in a changing world, for a generation who has to inherit an complex world, education prepares the students for the world that exists in the future, the challenges that they will face in more complex and job markets amid an at social complex landscape.