Published: 00:47, August 17, 2022 | Updated: 00:47, August 17, 2022
Academic success depends on more than high entrance exam scores
By Naubahar Sharif

In the news this week, it was reported that some 40 percent of students taking part in this year’s Joint University Programmes Admission System (JUPAS) received offers from nine local universities. This was an all-time high admission rate, but the number of applicants was an all-time low. 

There were 39,523 students vying for offers this year — the lowest number since 2012 — down from more than 40,600 a year ago. Official data indicated that 15,857 applicants will receive places on either publicly funded or self-financing bachelor’s-degree courses or higher diploma programs at the Education University of Hong Kong.

What was less widely reported was that 3,465 applicants have been accepted by undergraduate programs under the government’s Study Subsidy Scheme for Designated Professions, a plan designed to nurture talent to support the development of specific industries, such as architecture and engineering, computer science, creative professions, and financial technology. These programs are offered predominantly by the Hong Kong Metropolitan University, HKU SPACE, Po Leung Kuk Stanley Ho Community College, the Caritas Institute of Higher Education, and the Vocational Training Council.

It is on the latter, broader non-university pathway that I would like to indirectly focus. In Hong Kong, an obsession with scoring high in formal exams and thereafter securing a place at a university (which the numbers above suggest is itself becoming easier) has gripped our population.

While it is common for high-scoring students to be showcased, lauded and held up as an inspiration to others — rightly so, given their impressive achievements — there are far fewer reports that track how these students do five, 10, 15, 20 or even 30 years later in their lives. To wit, does their early success continue with the passage of time?

While not in any way attempting to downplay or diminish the noteworthy achievements of these high scorers and university entrants, there are two humble points worth mentioning that students and their parents alike should bear in mind.

First, success — or failure for that matter — at age 17 is not a precondition for later success in life. Second, not everyone blossoms at the same time in life: suboptimal success as a young adult does not prevent success from being achieved later in life.

For this reason, while I would never advocate not working hard, hard work should be accepted as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end. Hard work — applied in the right directions — is desirable and a worthy pursuit in and of itself. Whether that hard work yields immediate results, or maximum scores on school-leaving exams, is incidental.

By applying oneself through dedication and hard work, it is more likely than not that as an adult, one can achieve success along some path, even if it is not manifested in the immediate term (six months, one year, two years) or on an academic transcript (be it a school or university transcript).

Furthermore, not all individuals are cut from the same cloth or pursue the same interests, harbor the same predispositions, or develop the same mental aptitudes. As a quote commonly attributed to Albert Einstein states: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

More commonly than not, it takes time for one’s genius to blossom and shine through. Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and many a challenge arises during a long marathon, most of which one would not face in a quick sprint. These include losing loved ones, difficulties handling familial and other intimate relationships, retaining a sense of balance and direction when dismaying events intervene, and sustaining the motivation to continue pursuing a given path.

It is the canvas of life that allows these challenges to arise and to be overcome. The individual who is best able to overcome these challenges is often judged to be the most successful (long after the scores they achieved as young adults have been forgotten).

Therefore, while we are all focused on exam results around this time of the year, we must not forget that every individual has the capacity to contribute meaningfully so long as they are offered the opportunity to build their own skill profiles and fulfill their potential. There is certainly more than one path to success.

As our youngsters enter the “marathon of life”, they would do well to appreciate that, in addition to success in exams, they will likely — over the course of their lives — be required to demonstrate success by overcoming adversity, amicably resolving conflicts, recovering from failure, and demonstrating gratitude. These traits can be as important as, and sometimes even outweigh, formal academic examinations in achieving success.

The author is a professor of public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.