Gary Guwe, managing director and lead trainer of Speak! Ventures, speaks about DSA-Sec programme

6 points about getting into the DSA-Sec programme

What is the DSA-Sec?
It’s the “code” for the Direct Schools Admission (Secondary) Exercise, and if your child qualifies, it fast-tracks them to one of the DSA schools.

Gary Guwe, managing director and lead trainer of Speak! Ventures, says, that it effective reduces the stress on the child for the dreaded PSLE. “Based on students’ past results, [you estimate] if they can pass PSLE relatively well… That’s the first basis. Secondly, DSA schools also look at other aspects of the child’s achievements — in sports, in arts, music, leadership, non-academic achievements.

“Some schools get their students to go through a written test. I haven’t seen the tests but it’s really just to see how the applicants wil fare against each other, so that is their equaliser assessment of sorts. Other schools may ask their students to write an essay, ‘Why you want to come to our school?’ or ‘What are your ambitions?’ It’s like a résumé of sorts. Some schools will have their students go through a selection; the Sports School does that —they have a 1,000 people trying out for a football team with 12 places. The entry requirements vary from school to school.

“More often than not there will be an interview; one to one or a panel interview. After you have applied for DSA, the school will contact you and let you know.”

Who can get into this scheme?

Says Guwe, “Usually the children that come to us are usually from the best or second-best classes; in the top 20th percentile of their cohort. They do well academically, mostly As, maybe 1 or 2 Bs. The only challenge they face is how do they articulate their thoughts, present their achievements, overcome and manage their nerves.

When should parents start thinking about DSA?

“I think you can start looking out from Primary 4 (P4) onwards,” says Guwe. “I think for a primary-school kid you can see whether they are going to fare pretty well from P3 onwards, whether they are academically inclined or inclined towards other areas.

“What we often observe is P6 parents want to send their child for DSA; they suddenly think ‘Oh, what are my options?” and “What kind of portfolio can my children can present?” But by P6, some of the events or camps that their children have gone for don’t have all the records of things they have participated in before so it’s not a complete portfolio. If they start from P4, they can send them for specific events and competitions and collect them.”

What are DSA schools looking for?

“For Sports School, for instance, you can still send your child to music classes because your child may have several different talents, right? But you want to send them to specific sports-related competitions, camps, you want to get testimonials from their coaches, you want to collect as much information as possible so when it comes to P6 you have a solid portfolio to send in,” explains Guwe, who has been dealing with DSA candidates since 2008. His tips are collected here.

“Other schools could be in the area of science, so you want to send your kids to science camps, competitions, get their instructors to write a simple testimonial or reference after the camp to highlight what are the kid’s abilities, their interests, so it becomes a consistent track that the target school can look at and see that the kid has performed consistently well in this area.

“Of course, a disclaimer would be not to force it. Kiasu parents might say ‘You must go into this area!’ and the kid may feel they don’t want to, ‘I can do this but I don’t want to!’ It’s not in your child’s long-term interest.”

When’s a good time to start coaching?

“End of P5 after exams. Your child has finished their exams, you know that they want to go for DSA in P6. I say spend some time to prepare in this area, so you have the luxury of time, you don’t have to rush, you’re relaxed. You can explore without feeling pressured. [That way, if you find] gaps that you haven’t really filled, it gives you another six months to try to plug that gap, answer certain questions,” says Guwe.

“There’s not much school/work left, not really CCAs, their tuition stands down. Not many enrichment classes, more time for coaching.”

What are kids’ top three problems to overcome?

Guwe sighs and explains: “1) They’re afraid or nervous speaking to people. 2) They don’t know what to say. 3) They don’t know how to say it. First, they have to come up with immediate answer; that pressure, that nervousness, that lack of self-esteem facing the uncertainty, facing time pressure also, all these things come together and paralyse the kid on the spot.

“Second, now that I have all this content in my head, what do I talk about? Is it relevant? Is it good enough? So again, it’s paralysis by analysis. How do we get relevant content out of the child, things that they care about, feel strongly about and communicate it to their interviewers in a way that is relevant to the questions and to their application?

“The third thing is, are they confident, are they passionate about, are they sincere. I’ve had students say, ‘I can just tell the interviewers what I think they want to hear right? Even though, I’ve never done it before’ Parents may say, ‘They can lie right?’

“We advise them against it because you have to show that you care about it. And, you are 12-years-old, speaking to people who are 30- to 50-years-old, they can easily see holes in your statements and subsequently ask you questions… Everything goes downhill from there.

“We try to get them to present the best of themselves, but it has to be themselves.”