The Curious Case of Alvin Wang’s NUS Appeal
Alvin Wang’s appeal to get into the Computer Science program at the National University of Singapore, available at http://www.helpalvingetintoschool.com/ is … strange. I was, at first, in support of him: I emailed the NUS Hackers mailing list, asking people to share his page on their social networks. I thought it was a rather ballsy move, and his page made it clear that he deserved to get into the school.
Then it came out that he wasn’t rejected from NUS. He had been accepted into the Information Systems programme, and his appeal was simply for a switch from IS to CS. Nowhere on his page had he written about this fact. Maybe this was an oversight, but I doubt it: ‘good student gets rejected from NUS’ is a more attractive story than ‘good student doesn’t want Information Systems, wants Computer Science instead’.
Worse, the Today article where this was revealed quoted him:
Mr Wang, who does not intend to enrol in university should he fail in this appeal, said: “To me, it is not so much about just grades or getting that paper qualification. If I simply enrol into any other course, I am not sure how that will benefit me.”
“I know what I want to do; which is to be involved in work related to programming and design. I believe that getting a degree is not all it takes to succeed. There are options out there,” he stressed.
This makes absolutely no sense.
- All School of Computing students are allowed to switch streams during the first few years of their degree. It may be harder now than it was before, but it’s certainly easier than appealing externally with a public web page.
- Alvin doesn’t want to enroll in University if his appeal is rejected. This doesn’t make sense: see (1) above. The logical thing to do would be to get in, spend a year sampling courses from both streams, and then make an internal appeal if he still believes in taking CS.
- “To me, it is not so much about just grades or getting that paper qualification. If I simply enrol into any other course, I am not sure how that will benefit me.” -
I’m sorry - I can’t - what? Paper qualifications and grades have nothing to do with picking streams. This reads as ‘I’m not happy with what I got, please give me a better course.’ Why? ‘Because taking a lousier course won’t benefit me’. In fact, Alvin’s response reads a little sheepish to me: he can’t reasonably justify his campaign, and so he strings sentences together about paper qualifications and grades and his passion, hoping to obfuscate the fact that he’s not happy with what he got, and wants a better course instead. Last, and least: Computer Science has little to do with ‘programming and designing’. Information Systems would serve Alvin just as well if his interests lie only in the two. Better reasons for taking Computer Science: ‘I want to learn about the algorithms changing our world today; I want to contribute to the building blocks of computing; I want to invent new solutions to our digital problems’.
[Correction, 23 April 2012]: Alvin has updated his page, saying that 1) he’s trying to apply for Communications and Media under the Computer Science course. 2) He feels most passionate about doing multimedia+games programming. This means that I was mistaken about his motivations for doing ‘Computer Science’. The paragraph in Today also makes more sense given this context: he doesn’t feel like Information Systems is his place; instead he wants to do that which he is most passionate about: namely - design, games and programming courses. (My point about his willful misrepresentation still stands, as does my point on switching courses easily. Assistant Professor Ben Leong, of SoC has verified the ability to switch courses too.)
The suckiest thing about this episode is that a whole bunch of people took on Alvin’s cause, despite the deception. Derrick Ko wrote a blog post arguing that Singapore’s startup scene needed more people like Alvin; VC James Chan, Impulse Flyer CTO Andy Croll and tenCube’s Darius Cheung all retweeted and liked and shared Alvin’s page. Many more bashed NUS’s shortsightedness.
But the premise for this support was mistaken: this campaign wasn’t about getting a talented kid into school. This campaign was about a kid who wasn’t happy with the course he was given, wanted another one, and then decided to run a campaign about it instead. And the worst bit of it was that he was dishonest about the nature of his complaint.
That left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
I hope Alvin’s a good person, and I hope he comes into NUS anyway. But let’s not make this into something it’s not. This is not about NUS being stupid in their admissions. This is not about the state of engineering talent in Singapore’s startup scene. This is about Alvin, what he wants, and no more than that.
 Here’s an interesting sidenote: Alvin has a design portfolio. But where is his Github account? The CS department would likely be more impressed if they could read some of the code he’s written.
Update: On the NUS Hackers mailing list, Cyrus points out that IS and CS are now different courses, unlike streams in my batch. So it is true that you would have to go through a more rigorous application process to switch to CS. But my point still stands: from experience, it makes more sense to enter the school and apply for a switch from within.