Mr Tan Jun Xiang, 22, is not your typical medical student who aced all his school examinations.
In fact, he scored only 181 points in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and had to go into the longer five-year Normal stream in secondary school.
The polytechnic graduate, who made it to the prestigious medicine faculty at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is among the rare few who do not fit the mold.
When he was younger, he never thought he would go to university – much less the highly competitive Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at NUS, where only about one in seven applicants get in.
So what sparked his stunning academic turnaround?
A few things: seeing how disappointed his parents were with his results, getting into the secondary school of his choice after an appeal and discovering that he could indeed do well if he put his mind to it.
The eldest of three children, Mr Tan was a lacklustre student at Anderson Primary School. He was more interested in playing on his Game Boy, a hand-held video gaming device.
“I’m a very playful person and studying was not my thing,” he said. “I only flipped through my textbooks a day before my PSLE exam.”
He was unmoved by his poor score until he saw how much they disappointed his parents, a sales manager and an aviation security officer.
He was also posted to a school that was not of his choice. But Ang Mo Kio Secondary School gave him a chance after his parents appealed for a place.
It was a school he had wanted to go to and that acceptance marked the start of his path to academic success.
“I did not want to waste the chance I had been given. It was precious, ” he said.
So the Normal (Academic) student started to pay attention in class. He was diligent about homework and asked his teachers about material he did not understand.
He tried hard because he wanted to get into the school’s through train programme, which allowed him to take the O levels in Secondary Five, instead of the N levels first in Secondary 4 and the O levels a year later.
Mr Tan said: “My teachers did not treat us like lousy Normal (Academic) students, but pushed us to do our best.”
He graduated at the top of his school cohort, scoring nine points for his O levels.
That gained him a place in the “highly competitive” biomedical science course at Singapore Polytechnic (SP). An SP spokesman said biomedical science is one of its more popular courses.
While pursuing his diploma, he realised through an internship at a hospital that he was fascinated by the human body and intrigued by the multitude of diseases.
He enjoyed talking to people and also wanted to understand patients’ concerns and fears.
He realised that he wanted to be a doctor.
It was a lofty goal, considering that about 2,000 top students fight for 300 places at the NUS medical school each year. But he applied anyway and was accepted last year.
“It was beyond my wildest dreams to get in,” he said. “My father booked two tables at a restaurant and invited my relatives to celebrate.”
Mr Tan, who is in the second year of a five-year-degree, was initially apprehensive he would have nothing in common with the other students, who were from top schools or more privileged backgrounds.
His father’s highest qualification is O levels, while his mum has N levels.
But he need not have worried, for he found he was able to make friends.
Associate Professor S.T. Dheen, the school’s head of the department of anatomy, taught Mr Tan and praised his academic performance as “very good”.
Prof Dheen said: “He was respectful, attentive and showed a positive attitude in his studies. I’m sure he will continue to excel in his studies and become a role model for the aspiring younger generation.”
Mr Tan said: “Everyone was very surprised that my PSLE score was only 181 points and they were intrigued by how I made it to medicine.
“I tell others: Don’t give up, just aim high and don’t compare yourself to others. You will never know what may happen.”
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times.
(Photo and video: The Straits Times)