Life@International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) – International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP)

ISKL Ampang

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I first entered the International School of Kuala Lumpur as a student in 6th grade (form 2 equivalent). Previously coming from a British School background, the transition was admittedly difficult. At first I had to come to terms with quintessential American terms like “tardy” (which means late, not a contraction of retarded…), “cafeteria” (instead of canteen), and parenthesis (meaning brackets). Little differences in mannerisms let me know that ISKL’s American culture is quite strong, almost think of Mean Girls. The benefits of attending such an institution is the simple fact of internationalism. I marvelled at how a South African girl in my class was not black (excuse my initial lack of awareness and political correctness) and that it seemed like all of the koreans were from South Korea (where were the North Koreans?). ISKL helped me, for the first time, consider these questions. Not only is the school an active supporter of intercultural mingling, but also that mixed groups of friends just naturally form. Growing up, I had friends spanning from Cameroonian, French, Indian, (South) Korean, and Taiwanese, and each of these people helped me understand their own cultural backgrounds. The feeling garnered from ISKL’s middle school program (grades 6-8) is one of friendliness. I got a genuine feeling of happiness and appreciation from each of my teachers—they actually care about you!. While they perhaps weren’t the most harsh in terms of academics (the push for competitive academics to achieve high grades needs to come from within the student or their family), they certainly provided me the opportunity to succeed. In middle school I scored straight A’s while participating in basketball, volleyball, softball, and badminton. Global Issues classes and Model United Nations (MUN) are also offered to Middle Schoolers. Those three years are noted with much happiness.

After completing 8th grade, the introduction to high school was quite hand held. ISKL formulates an encouraging environment where bullying is virtually nonexistent and students thrive within their own interests (be it sports, academics, or intellectual clubs like debate and MUN). Grades 9 and 10 offer some rigorous courses like Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH is one of ISKL’s most challenging classes), AP Calculus BC, AP Computer Science, and AP Statistics. Other classes of potential interest include an accolade of music classes (jazz band, 3 different choirs, piano and guitar), fine arts (technical drawing, ceramics, and visual arts) and drama. A prominent highlight of grade 9, 10, and 11 is the annual Global Action Program (GAP) where students simultaneously travel to corners of Asia from Tibet and Bhutan to Minado and Bali. On these trips, GAP focuses on community service and in 11th grade students complete their Group 4 project (a mandatory requirement for the IBDP).

Currently on my penultimate semester of the IB, I am enjoying the challenges that comes with it. Since starting ISKL, enrolling in the IB was always an assumption. However, it should be noted that only about 60% of upperclassman (grades 11 and 12) are full IBDP candidates. The nature of the IB makes it such that I don’t have enough free time to be bored. For those that enjoy dabbling in a spectrum of courses (where math, english, science, language, social science, the extended essay and of course theory of knowledge are all mandatory classes) it is the right curriculum. As a jack-of-all-trades and the sort of student that finds all subjects interesting, I’m pleased that I can study physics in tandem with literature. The combinations of Higher Level (HL) and Standard Level (SL) courses keeps doors for university open in allowing me to apply to the US and the UK. However, students of ISKL don’t generally apply to any one country a, s my friends have applied to places like Denmark, Holland, India and the usual suspects like Australia, the UK and US. During my application process my counsellor is extremely helpful in regularly notifying me and other students of upcoming deadlines and providing her expertise in crafting the application. However, if for whatever reason, there are ‘creative differences’ between a counselor and the student, there are other faculty who are just as accessible and available to help. If you’re not sure as to where you want to apply, I feel like the counselors are especially good at establishing the right ‘fit’ for you. As for myself, I am more reserved and am very creative. Yet I take my academics very seriously and wish to pursue Political Science. Because of this, my counselor pointed me in the direction of some of the US’s top liberal arts schools like Amherst, UChicago, and NYU. ISKL’s academics are what you make of it, really. The resources and faculty expertise are enough to see through students to Harvard, Oxford, Columbia and UPenn (as we do have recent alumni currently studying there). You just have to seek the challenge and be organized. If anything, the school has exposed me to a nurturing environment where I have to pursue the tough rigour myself. But once there, the knowledge is rewarding. If you’re interested in ISKL but the sticker price is a shocker, ISKL offers 2 full scholarships every year to enrol in the IBDP after sitting SPM.


Sonja Fei English

Sonja Fei English is a rising senior who is enrolled in the IBDP at the International School of Kuala Lumpur . She hopes to study Law in the UK or Political Science in the USA. She is a self-proclaimed Spotify addict and foodie—you will likely find her at a mamak stall over the weekends.

Pre-U Subject Choices for UK-Bound Students

Earlier this year, the Russell Group published their 2015/16 “Informed Choice” pamphlet, accompanied by a video, explaining the value and importance of taking facilitating subjects as a dominant part of a student’s Pre-U subject choices. These facilitating subjects, e.g. the sciences, history, maths, further maths, languages, English Literature and geography, as the lobbying group for the 24 research-intensive universities characterised, open up a wide range of options for university entries and career choices. Indeed, across the Russell Group universities and more specifically the top echelon of this group e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, facilitating subjects go far more than mere “opening up wide options”. Their “preferred subjects” reflect their umbrella group’s facilitating subjects, albeit with more restrictions and are seen as subjects to rigorously formulate the skills necessary for different courses at their universities. LSE and certain colleges of Oxford and Cambridge openly publish a list of preferred and non-preferred subjects. Generally, non-traditional ones such as accounting, business studies, sociology fall into the latter group. Indeed, reading the Russell Group’s “Informed Choice” pamphlet and watching their videos will immediately kick this question into your mind – “Why does this seem so aloof of the Malaysian context?” Very clearly, “Informed Choice” is meant for the British audience. Malaysian schools/colleges are shaped very differently, likewise the subjects they offer and the normative biases that parents, peers and teachers tend to have.

 

Where should I start?

Generally, you will have to consider three things – the prerequisite subjects that your preferred courses have, the preferences your universities/courses have and whether or not you will be able immerse yourself into the joyous journey of learning the subject. While the first two are technically important criteria that you should never forsake, the last one tend to be underrated. I cannot stress how important that is, given that you will be spending more than a year studying that subject, dedicating your soul to the devil just to go to university. You might as well just murder yourself over a subject that you will enjoy.

Let’s deal with the bits where you’re faced with a Hobson’s choice i.e. the first two criteria are relatively simple to fulfil. Go on to the websites of the courses that you are applying to and take note of the required and suggested subjects. For instance, Physics at Oxford requires applicants to have studied Maths and Physics at Pre-University level and likewise, Medicine at Edinburgh will require Chemistry and Biology. In the “Informed Choice” pamphlet, though insufficient and inadequate, there is a generalised list of prerequisites for commonly applied courses. These are essential subjects that you must take to be considered by your prospective universities.

Figuring out which subjects are not preferred by your course also follows a similar approach. Though most universities will not make it explicitly clear that they don’t prefer certain subjects, Cambridge and LSE definitely publishes their own non-exhaustive list. Nonetheless, their list generally applies to the other Russell Group universities, having all collectively expressed that they prefer at least 2 facilitative subjects before releasing their first series of “Informed Choice” guidelines. There are, however, caveats regarding this. The most competitive courses and universities tend to prefer applicants not to have any “soft” subjects e.g. media studies, accounting (even for accounting applicants), law (yes, for law applicants as well) at all. Keep in mind that while not all non-facilitative subjects are soft subjects, all soft subjects are non-facilitative. Indeed, there is hardly any strict definitions of what soft and hard subjects are but the generic implication is that hard subjects formulate the core skills that are useful in undergraduate study rather than specific skills that soft subjects tend to train. Another generalisation that you can take note of is that traditional subjects such as economics, the hard sciences, maths and the ones in the list of facilitative subjects are also considered to be hard subjects. Moreover, there are some statistical backing to this preference. In 2008, Durham University ran a study on the relative difficulty of different A-level subjects and there was an obvious trend that across all 5 statistical models used, “traditional” and facilitative subjects tend to be harder than otherwise. Though more than half a decade ago, deviations hardly were significant across years.

The last bit is fairly straightforward at face value, choose the subjects that you will actually enjoy. Of course, if you’re eyeing on the more competitive universities e.g. Oxbridge, LSE, Imperial, look only at the traditional/hard subjects. However, considering the different circumstances UK-bound Malaysians can be in – being enrolled in a college/school with limited, bundled subject choices, restricted by IBDP requirements or simply limited by the choices available via STPM/Matrikulasi, this is a tricky question to answer.

 

In the foreseeable future, accessible Malaysian schools/colleges are probably not going to teach subjects like Latin, politics, geography, history and classical studies. And you have just told me that I shouldn’t take accounting, business studies, law and a whole lot of subjects that are bundled together. Just what subjects should I take?

Indeed, unless you have the luck and privilege of being admitted to the more resourceful schools such as KTJ, KYUEM or ISKL, your choices of subjects will be restricted. For one, elite schools like these offer almost every traditional subjects there is, including A-level Geography, Music, History and IB French, German etc. If you are in schools of this sort, you don’t have any problems. Just choose the traditional subjects that you will enjoy and are related to the course that you want to further your studies in. Elsewhere across the board, the hard sciences and maths are often bundled together in for A-level, Matrikulasi colleges and STPM schools. The problem begins for students who wish to take on the social sciences/humanities in competitive universities. Often, traditional humanities/social sciences are bundled together with non-traditional ones e.g. “English Literature, Sociology, Law”, “Economics, Maths, Accounting, Business Studies” for A level, “General Studies, Accounting, Economics and Maths” for STPM.

Under these restrictions, it is important to recall that the social sciences and humanities often don’t require a stringent traditional social sciences/humanities subject combination at pre-university. History degrees don’t even need history as a prerequisite and would see English Literature as an indication of having the sufficient skills to cope with such a reading and writing-heavy subject. Likewise, economics only required maths. Given that, it is perfectly fine filling up the rest of your subject spots with the sciences or any other available traditional subject. Keep in mind that if you are not eyeing at the most difficult universities, it is alright to take the bare minimum of 2 traditional and/or facilitative subjects that the Russell Group universities collectively prefer. Given that, a subject combination such as “Economics, Maths, Further Math, Physics” will work for economics, accounting and similar subjects while “Maths, Chemistry, Biology, English Literature” seems adequate for law, history and accounting.  It is unlikely for IB students to face this problem, making it almost uniquely one for A-level, Matrikulasi and STPM students.

For the latter, where schools tend to be inflexible and under-resourced in terms of subject choices, it is perfectly fine writing to the universities themselves when applying, explaining the restrictive circumstances you are in. Of course, it is unreasonable to make someone who wants to apply for a history course to take a full “Sejarah, English Literature, Ekonomi” combination where that combination is unlikely to exist except in the more resourced urban schools. Likewise, expecting a Matrikulasi student to take that subject combination is also unreasonable given that it doesn’t exist. On top of explaining about the circumstances you are in to the universities, your UCAS personal statement should then be able to immensely display your academic potential in the course that you are applying. In that case, just take whatever that’s available to you e.g. “Science Stream” or “Accounting Stream”; it’s another Hobson’s choice.

 

Wait, just to be clear, you’re saying that even if I want to be a lawyer, accountant or business manager, I shouldn’t be taking law, accounting and/or business studies if possible? What about taking economics and business studies together?

The short and perhaps, grim, answers are yes and no respectively.

As explained earlier, the three subjects listed in the first question i.e. law, accounting and business studies are soft subjects. They should only be taken, at best, an additional subject. For applicants to the most competitive universities, just avoid them. Lawyers don’t need to do law at A-level (I doubt this subject is an option for other examinations). In fact, building the core analytical and writing skills via a mixture of essay subjects e.g. Literature, History, the social sciences and/or the hard sciences tend to be more preferable at university. Likewise, building up the quantitative, analytical and thinking skills via a mixture of traditional social sciences, mathematics and hard sciences would be more preferable and helpful.

For the second question, economics and business studies are considered to be overlapping subjects. However, economics is a traditional subject while business studies isn’t. Given that, you should either take economics and ditch business studies or take business studies as an additional subject and ditch economics. Generally, however, where economics is available as an option at your school/college, taking business studies isn’t a wise option. For instance, LSE explicitly has this preference.

 

Just what if I have no idea what do I want to study at university?

That then depends on the extent of uncertainty that you have. We will use a scale with 3 spectrums here – “I can’t decide between studying course A and B”, “I know that I want to study something in, per se, the humanities but I have yet to settle on a particular course” and “I have absolutely no idea”. Notice that this is a more in depth dilemma for A-level students given the immense options that they have. For IBDP, STPM and Matrikulasi students, choosing your subjects along these principles will do.

For the first one on the scale – “I can’t decide between studying course A and B”, it shouldn’t be highly difficult to take up subjects that fulfil the needs of both courses. Of course, this is under the assumption that there are some significant differences between them e.g. PPE and Medicine. Notice that these two are rather extreme but it is not impossible to take up, for instance, Biology, Chemistry, Maths and also History; of course, taking physics as well would be good and it is unlikely that your uncertainty will persist for more than 3 months, whereby thereafter you can drop the more unrelated subject. For more similar choices such as PPE and Economics or Chemical Engineering and Physics, incorporating the needs of both subjects won’t be difficult e.g. English Lit/History, Economics, Maths and Further Maths fulfil the former while a standard Physics, Chemistry, Maths, Further Maths combination works for the latter.

Moving up the scale and we find ourselves in a situation where a student only managed to narrow down to one particular field. The key idea then is to take up traditional and facilitating subjects within that particular field. It is perfectly fine going cross-disciplinary e.g. a mixture of social science, humanities and sciences as long as the field that you wish to be in is reflected in your subject choices. Applicants who might be set on the social sciences but unsure of which particular course to further their studies in might be interested in taking a quantitatively analytical subject e.g. maths and economics, coupled with another more qualitative one e.g. geography to cater for the less quantitative-centric social science courses. On the contrary, while it is generally normal alright to apply for the more maths intensive science subjects e.g. Physics, Engineering with a full natural science with maths combination, that is hardly optimal. The best solution is to decide as soon as possible, preferably within a 3-month period.

Lastly, for the “I have absolute no idea what I want to further my studies in” students who will have a seriously difficult time figuring out which subject combination will be best. The issue with most standardised qualifications is that your options are generally restricted. As per mentioned earlier, you should be deciding as soon as possible before finalising your subject choices, optimally within a 3-month period of starting your course, so that you will be able to catch up with the work done by your possibly new classmates. Generally, in terms of subjects, the idea is to have a mixture of subjects from different fields. Although conventional wisdom is that taking a pure natural science plus maths combination opens up all doors, that isn’t necessarily the case. Most of the humanities and some social science courses will want to see indication of academic writing and reading capability, from which subjects like English Literature, History and the Languages can indicate. Given that, start off with a mixture and then narrow down your course choices and Pre-U subject choices as soon as possible.

 

So is this the holy book that I must follow?

No, this article is entirely advisory and based on the team’s research, experience and access to various sources of information.


Written by: The CollegeLAH Team