Did Well for the N-Levels? Is Sec 5 or Poly Better?

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If your teen has a ‘raw score’ of 12 points or better for the Normal (Academic) Level exams, they may be wondering what’s the best path ahead.

Typically, over three-quarters of the N(A) cohort can proceed to Secondary 5 to prepare for the O-Levels. 

Anecdotally, N-Level students are usually warned that the O-Levels will be challenging, and some are even told to mentally prepare for a dip of up to two grades, e.g. a student who scores a Grade 1 for the N-Levels may see a drop to B3 in the O-Levels. Despite this, some N-Level students prefer the Secondary 5 option, as they want to enter a junior college to take the A-Levels eventually.

The other option favoured by top N(A) students is the Polytechnic Foundation Programme, better known as PFP. Here’s what you need to know:

  • The PFP is a one-year programme taught by polytechnic lecturers, to better prepare N(A) students for their polytechnic studies. 
  • To stay in the PFP programme, students are required to pass all their modules. 
  • The PFP is offered by all five of our local polytechnics, and there are about 1,700 places available for each graduating cohort. 
  • Students will be able to gain entry to over 80% of polytechnic courses via the PFP route.

For more information, visit the official PFP website.

Choose Based on Eligibility, Interests, and Character

To decide between Secondary 5 and the PFP, you’ll first need to look at your teen’s ELMAB3 score — this refers to their score for English, Maths, and three other ‘best’ subjects. 

For teens with specific career interests such as mass communication or biotechnology, the PFP is the ideal route. However, entry can be competitive; in 2023, the cut-off score for Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s biomedical science PFP was 4 points. (Click here for a list of 2023 cut-off scores.)

Additionally, consider the long-term perspective: Is your teen aspiring to attend university? According to Ministry of Education figures, about four in five A-Level and International Baccalaureate graduates will proceed to local universities, compared to one in three polytechnic graduates. 

Last but not least, it’s important to evaluate your teen’s temperament and level of maturity. Unlike secondary schools, where the schedule is more structured and monitored, polytechnics offer a more flexible and self-directed learning environment. Polytechnic students are responsible for managing their own time, attending lectures and tutorials, completing assignments, and studying for exams. 

Teens who are self-motivated and can manage their time effectively might thrive in a polytechnic setting, whereas those who benefit from a guided academic environment may find continuing in Secondary 5 to be more suitable. 

Succeeding at the O-Levels in Secondary 5

To attain satisfactory O-Level results, it’s essential that your teen not only feels confident, but is also willing to put in extra efforts to accomplish academic goals. Talk to your teen’s teachers to find out how your teen is doing for each subject, and what O-Level grades they should be aiming for. To get a sense of junior college cut-off scores, you can refer to this unofficial guide

To better prepare your teen for the journey ahead, here’s what you can discuss:

  • Time Management: Is your teen currently able to prioritise tasks and manage their time effectively? Or are they prone to getting caught up in their digital and social lives?
  • Resilience: How does your teen deal with setbacks? Will your teen be able to bounce back from poor assessment grades, or even a less-than-ideal exam outcome?
  • Study Strategies: Does your teen have a customised approach for revision? What are your teen’s study methods? Have they proven effective in the past?
  • Support System: What resources can your teen use if they need help? Who can they turn to?

Apart from the above, it’s important to strike a balance between academic pursuits and personal interests. Encourage your teen to engage in activities that relax and rejuvenate them, as this can greatly enhance their productivity and focus. Regular discussions about their progress and challenges can help you stay attuned to their needs, and provide timely support. 

Above all, emphasise the value of perseverance and a positive attitude. Some Secondary 5 students have gone on to the Millennia Institute after the O-Levels, because the admission criteria is less stringent compared to junior colleges, and the preparation work for the A-Levels is spread out over three years. Other Secondary 5 students have chosen to retake their O-Levels after disappointing results. The lesson for your teen is that there are many ways to reach a destination, as long as they don’t give up.

Doing Well at the PFP

Not sure what to expect from the PFP? Begin by looking for stories from those who have gone through the programme:

Students who are interested in applying to the PFP should first progress to Secondary 5 on 2 January 2024. Upon the release of the O-Level results in January 2024, eligible N(A) students will receive a form through their schools, inviting them to apply for the PFP.

A common question is this: If students intend to apply for the PFP, why do they still need to attend Secondary 5 classes? This is because being eligible for the PFP does not guarantee placement into a PFP course. If your teen’s application is unsuccessful, they will remain in Secondary 5 to continue with their O-Level preparations. You can check with your teen’s school about whether you can delay the purchasing of textbooks and other school essentials until the posting results are released.

For questions on PFP applications, academic requirements, and progression after the programme, please refer to the official FAQs.

If your teen’s PFP application is successful, here’s how you can get them off to a good start:

  • Focus and Discipline: There may be a temptation to skip lectures or neglect the readings recommended by a lecturer, but these habits can affect one’s success in the programme. Discuss expectations with your teen, and check how they intend to stay on track.
  • Time Management: Talk to your teen about prioritising their academic responsibilities while balancing other activities. Encourage them to create a structured schedule that allocates specific times for lectures, study sessions, project work, and leisure activities. You can also remind them to set realistic goals and break down large tasks into smaller, manageable steps. 
  • Clarity: Polytechnic assignments can be more varied and complex than secondary school assignments, with more opportunities for teamwork. That’s why it’s essential to read the rubrics for each assignment or assessment, in order to understand how to perform well. 
  • Communication Skills: Discuss with your teen the importance of good communication skills for adapting to a new environment, which may involve interacting with a more diverse student body, and stepping out of their comfort zone to engage in class discussions. Use this time to prepare them for these challenges.

Do you have stories to share about the PFP vs the O-Levels? Join the conversation here!