How I ended up studying CS in Singapore
December 4, 2020
When I tell people I grew up in India but went to college in Singapore, the natural question that follows is why. People also ask why I chose to study computer science (CS) in college, especially if they know I was a physics nerd in high school. The answer to both questions is the same long story, and this is the unabridged version. I’ve also added reflections that the hindsight of 5 years has made possible. If nothing else, the story highlights how no matter how hard you try, important things in your life are out of your control, and that’s ok :)
Until 9th grade, I wasn’t particularly interested in academics. That changed when I discovered physics. I’d always been a curious person, and physics seemed like a subject dedicated to asking and answering questions. I loved how I could derive everything from first principles, and how I could see the results all around me. By the start of 11th grade, I’d decided that I’d study physics in college.
I was also interested in a wide variety of subjects. For instance, besides physics and math, I enjoyed history and literature, and was curious about economics and philosophy. I wanted to be able to take classes outside my major in college. However, the only place I knew1 that offered such flexibility was the US, and US colleges were prohibitively expensive. The only way I could go without taking on debt was with a scholarship/financial aid, and so that became my target.
Meanwhile, I’d decided that if I couldn’t study in the US, I’d study in India. I narrowed down the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) as places where I could study physics or engineering physics respectively. Both colleges had entrance examinations, which tested physics, chemistry, and mathematics at a level beyond what was taught in school. As a result, I joined a coaching institute2 in 11th grade, and spent my weekends for the next two years taking advanced classes. In addition to exam prep, I viewed the classes as a way of getting better at physics and math, and I figured that even if I ended up in the US, I’d have the badge of honour of acing what I thought were some of the hardest examinations in the country.
Fast forward two years, to March 31st 2015. In my hubris, I’d applied to a few top3 US colleges, with no safeties. I’d been rejected from one and waitlisted from another, and was to hear from the rest the following day. Furthermore, I’d messed up IISc’s entrance test,4 and the IIT exams were around the corner. It hit me that I might not get into any of the US colleges I’d applied to, which would mean an end to my dreams of a college experience where I could take classes outside my major. I was panicking.
That morning, my parents brought up an idea that they had, by that point, been floating for a few days: that of applying to colleges in Singapore. They’d heard good things about Singapore from my cousin who’d studied there, education there was significantly cheaper than in the US,5 and that day was the eve of the application deadline. I was opposed to the idea. I barely knew anyone who’d studied there, and for some inexplicable reason, the idea of studying in Singapore didn’t appeal to me. Nevertheless, I relented, noting that there was no harm in applying. I decided to apply to the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), both of which I’d heard good things about. I hastily filled up the application forms, and eventually found myself staring at a page where I had to pick a major.
In the five minutes I spent on that page, a lot went on in my head: Firstly, I hadn’t heard much about either college’s physics program, and so I decided (without any background research) that I wasn’t going to pick physics in that application. Funnily enough, I figured it didn’t matter since I probably wasn’t going there anyway. Secondly, in India, most boys study engineering in college, mostly due to a combination of societal pressure, herd mentality, and a lack of clarity about what they like. As a rebel, I didn’t want to conform to the stereotype,6 and was repulsed by the idea of studying something I knew nothing about. I crossed out anything with the word engineering. Thirdly, I wanted to do something STEM-y, but not chemistry or biology, and math was too abstract. Finally, I noticed a major called computer science, which was different from another major they had called computer engineering. I’d done a little programming in school, though I’d never developed much interest since it was poorly taught. I did however, recall one topic in 11th grade (Big O notation) that I’d enjoyed. I’d also heard that both NUS and NTU had good CS programs. CS it was.
The rest of the story is straightforward. I got into one US college (Cornell University), but to my immense disappointment, they didn’t offer me any financial aid/scholarship. I did well enough in the IIT exams to get in, but not well enough7 to get anything I wanted. On the other hand, I got into both NUS and NTU. I did consider going to IIT,8 but when I did my research about the colleges in Singapore, I was impressed. Finally, I learnt that I could take classes outside my major in Singapore, and that sealed the deal for me. I ended up picking NUS.
In the month long holiday before college that followed, I often considered switching my major to physics. I ultimately decided to try out CS, and to switch to physics if I didn’t like it. In my first semester, I took CS1101S, an introductory programming class based on SICP, after which I never looked back.
The first thing that stands out is how arbitrarily one of my most important life decisions was taken. I decided, on a whim, to study CS in the span of 5 minutes. Had I *heard good things*, or done my homework about NUS' physics program, I may have picked physics. Had I applied to some safeties in the US, I may have ended up in the US. I consider myself a (mostly) rational person, but I’m guilty of some bad decision making here.
The other thing that stands out is how much of a role chance played in all this. Had I not messed up the IISc entrance exam, I might have studied there. Had my parents not convinced me about applying to Singapore, I wouldn’t have applied. Had I gotten one more question correct in the IIT exam, I may have ended up at IIT.9 Had the 11th grade Indian CS curriculum not included Big O notation, I may not have picked CS. It’s humbling to think about how much of your life (and your success) boils down to luck.
There’s a saying that if you put your feet on two boats, you’ll sink. To prepare for US college admissions, I spent my time writing essays and participating in extracurricular competitions. To prepare for the entrance examinations I spent my time solving a lot of problems. In hindsight, I would’ve been better off if I’d picked one goal and focused solely on it. It’s a lesson I carried with me. On the bright side, the problem solving foundations I developed while preparing for the examinations served me well as a CS student in college.
Finally, the obvious question, how did it turn out? I’ll never know the counterfactuals, but it doesn’t matter. I enjoyed my time at NUS. CS turned out to be interesting (and financially lucrative), and the skills I’ve developed have opened the doors to a world of possibilities I had no idea about in high school. I also took classes in a wide variety of subjects.10 In addition, living in Singapore was an eye opener. As a child, I idealised the West and the US in particular, and I suspect this is why I wasn’t enthusiastic about Singapore. Going there changed that.11 Lastly, I have a much better understanding of South East and East Asian culture, something that has served me well even after moving to the US.
In short, I’d say it turned out well,12 and I probably shouldn’t have been as stressed as I was in high school. As a good friend once said, “things always work out, but until they do, good luck”.
Turns out I hadn’t done my homework well. ↩︎
Where *top* was an arbitrary critieria influenced by a mix of research and word of mouth. ↩︎
While my parents could comfortably afford it, it’s still unaffordable for the vast majority of Indians (there are scholarships though). ↩︎
The astute observer will note that in the grand scheme of things I ended up conforming to the stereotype. ↩︎
Every student who takes the exam gets a national rank. The rank determines the order in which you get to pick the subject you want, and the IIT you want (there are 23 of them, some are better than others). Your choices are restricted by your rank and demand and supply. With the rank I had, by the time my turn came to make a choice, all the places I wanted to study physics/engineering physics at had filled up for those subjects. ↩︎
You can switch majors after the first year if you have good grades and there are vacancies. Given how much prestige is attached to the IITs in India, a number of people suggested this option. ↩︎
My rank in the IIT exam was a meagre 2808, and I needed a rank of <= 2300 to study engineering physics at an IIT I wanted, and <= 2700 to study physics at an IIT I wanted. The exam is competitive. That year, about 1.3 million took the screening exam, and about 122,000 were eligible to take the IIT exam. At my rank range one question meant the difference between hundreds of ranks. I know for this certain because I had friends with similar scores. ↩︎
Philosophy, anthropology, economics, and biology, to name a few. ↩︎
Among other things, China, Japan, and the Asian tigers have left the West behind when it comes to infrastructural development. Singapore in particular has done many things well that the rest of the world can learn from. ↩︎