The DSA tests can consist of many parts and vary from school to school. Typically you will have MCQs and short structured questions on English, Math and Science. The hardest section of these MCQs would be on Abstract Reasoning (AR), because students are not prepared for it. (Thus I intend to conduct a holiday workshop for AR in Mar and June 2014. For this year, I may conduct an AR course in Sep, Nov or Dec for those who want to be exposed to it early).
Another difficult section of the DSA tests is the short essay part, where you will be asked to write, in about 300 words, about something you are passionate about, or why you want to enrol in the school, or about your personal characteristics. I believe Singaporean students find difficulty in writing such essays, probably because (i) their passion in something non-academic has never been encouraged or groomed, (ii), they are applying to the schools only because their parents ask them to and (iii), they are not sure about their own strengths and weaknesses in non-academic areas.
Since some parents have asked me to give advice on the matter, I shall write about my suggestions on how to write the essays in a manner that might catch the assessors’ attention (but if everyone of you were to follow my suggestions, then you WON’T get the assessors’ attention, so you’d still have to innovate and add the flesh of the essay yourself).
Let’s examine a typical essay question that you might get:
Q1. In not more than 300 words, describe something you are passionate about or something that is important to you, as it helps us to understand you better.
(1) DO NOT WRITE MORE THAN 300 WORDS (or whatever they specify, such as ‘Do not use more than the space given’), not even 301. You must at least show that you understand English, that you can count, and that you can take serious instructions seriously. I’m serious. Ignore me at your own risk.
(2) If they ask you to write and not type, then they are studying your handwriting as well. Please check up the internet on what your handwriting tells others about yourself. But it’s hard to change your handwriting, and many horrible hand writers become doctors anyway.
(3) You should not be writing about what you USED to be interested in (because if you are passionate about it, why did you stop doing it?) or what you would like to explore in future (because if you are passionate about it, why haven’t you started on it?). What you are passionate about is something which you have started some time ago, which you are currently doing, and which you intend to bring to greater heights in the future. It can be anything from a musical instrument to a sport or even a CCA. It should NOT be something academic; imagine writing that your passion is to attend lessons in school, or having tuition, or doing lots of assessment books or reading textbooks ( do you realise that most applicants to top schools are already doing all these intensely?) So let’s say your passion is badminton (I hope you realise that LIKING to play badminton is different from being PASSIONATE about IT). You should be describing about how and when you got introduced to it, why you liked it, how often you play it and where, the big brands and the big names in the sport, the major tournaments, your discoveries about the sport, your efforts to improve your performance in the sport etc.
Q2. In the space given, write down the reasons why you would want to be enrolled in our school.
Here, you have to praise the school. You’d need to do a quick research on the school’s history, motto, emphasis, strengths and niche areas, and why the school would be able to allow you to reach your full potential, and if you can, why only this school would be able to accomplish that.
Q3. Describe some characteristics about yourself that might differentiate you from other applicants.
Here, you have to praise yourself a bit, in a confident way without sounding arrogant. Besides personal traits such as diligence, persistence and resourcefulness, the school would also be interested in your leadership and inter-personal skills. You can’t just say that you are a team player; do you have evidence to prove it to some extent?
Q4. Write about your academic interests or your reflections on your studies.
Here, you can’t be writing about how you love reading books, doing homework and completing assessment papers. It’s about how deep your interest is in certain subjects and what you do to nurture that interest. As for reflecting on your studies, you’d need to be metacognitive in your approach; what your academic strengths and weaknesses are and your learning styles.
Q5. Write about your future plans.
Here, it is not just about what your ambition is. It should be more about how the school you are applying to will facilitate your entry to the next stage. For example, if you ultimately want to be in a certain college, course or university in the future, how would the secondary school you are applying to prepare you to succeed at these future stages. But for the short term, you can still write about how you can contribute to the success of the school, for eg., in CCA and so on.