Reconciling NS with your overseas university applications

Reconciling NS with your overseas university applications

Most students find the transition from high school to university exciting because of the promise of new freedoms it offers: new subjects to study, in greater depth than you could in high school; new extracurricular and professional opportunities to take advantage of; a new campus — and, for some, a new country — to explore.

Such are the daydreams of many high school students approaching graduation day. 

For most male Singaporeans, though, these daydreams are realized only after a couple of years spent leading a somewhat more regimented lifestyle.

Singapore law requires that all male citizens and second-generation permanent residents complete two years of full-time National Service (NS) after turning 18 and completing their secondary education.

In most cases, male Singaporeans must complete their NS obligations before commencing their university studies. 

How, then, should NSFs — and soon-to-be NSFs — approach their overseas university applications, given their NS commitments?

When to apply

Most NSFs and soon-to-be NSFs applying to overseas universities can take advantage of three potential application windows:

Window #1: In your last year of high school (JC2 or Grade 12) (2-year deferral required)

Window #2: In your first year of NS (1-year deferral required)

Window #3: In your final year of NS (no deferral required)

Having multiple application windows to choose from affords you the ability to think strategically about when and how you apply to schools you are keen on. There are a couple of key considerations to keep in mind as you do so.

Deferral policies

Students applying during Windows #1 and #2 will typically need to rely on a deferral in order to secure their place in an overseas university, since most will not be able to interrupt their NS to begin their studies.

The key question for NSFs and soon-to-be NSFs to answer as they do their university research is whether the schools they are interested in offer

  1. one-year deferrals
  2. two-year deferrals
  3. both, or
  4. neither

Deferral policies vary from university to university, making advance research particularly important.

Understanding these policies ahead of time is essential to avoiding unfortunate outcomes and potential heartbreak. Imagine getting into your dream university, only to find out that, since they don’t offer deferrals, you will need to turn down your acceptance.

You might be able to apply again in a later window and get your spot back, but do keep in mind that some universities look negatively on applicants who re-apply after rejecting a previous offer of admission. It’s far better to know ahead of time what your options are and then act accordingly.

Keeping deferral policies in mind is especially important for NSFs and soon-to-be NSFs applying to UK universities via UCAS.

This is because UCAS requires students who wish to reapply to turn down any offers they received in a previous application cycle.

Say you apply to Cambridge, Warwick, and King’s College in Window #2. Cambridge is your first choice, but you are accepted only to Warwick and King’s.

If you wish to take another shot at applying Cambridge in Window #3, you will need to turn down your offers from Warwick and King’s — without a guarantee that you will be accepted again the next time you apply. This is an important risk calculation to think through ahead of time.


Putting together a competitive application to an overseas university requires a substantial investment of time and effort.

Beyond doing well in your courses and extracurricular activities while you are still in high school, you need to set aside sufficient time to study for standardized exams, to research the particular universities and courses you wish to apply to, and, of course, to prepare a compelling application. 

Many students find it challenging to balance these demands against the academic and other commitments required of them as they finish high school.

These students may choose to plan their application cycle(s) around when they will have more time to study for standardized exams and prepare high-quality applications — that is, during the first or second year of NS. 

On the other hand, some students prefer to complete an application cycle while they are still in the “academic mode.”

Especially when it comes to studying for standardized exams, some find it difficult to get back into the swing of things after trading in their textbooks for a field pack. 

When making this determination for yourself, it can be useful to consider the particular exam(s) you need to prepare for.

Some, like the SAT and ACT, are valid for five years, and tend to be more skills-based, meaning that you have more flexibility about when exactly you take them.

Others, like the BMAT and UCAT, can be taken only once, in the year of application, and are more content-based, meaning that they may be more challenging for students who are feeling rusty on the concepts they learned in school. 

Other considerations

Although NS can be a challenging experience, many NSFs find that it also offers them a chance to pause and reflect on their academic interests and professional goals more deeply than they did while still in school.

For NSFs who are considering applying to overseas universities, this type of reflection can be particularly valuable. 

How certain are you about your academic direction?

NS can be a good time to determine this for yourself by researching further into the disciplines and careers you might be interested in.

Your relative level of certainty will likely shape your approach to your applications:
If you are more certain, the UK university system, in which students stick with one subject all the way through, would be a good option.

By contrast, if you want to explore a bit more, the US system, which offers students greater flexibility, may be a better fit. 

To determine your level of certainty, it can also be useful to explore subjects and activities that you didn’t have a chance to engage with as deeply while in high school.

For NSFs, free time can be limited and precious, but many do find ways to explore their nascent interests — or to further develop existing ones — in their off-hours, whether that’s through an independent research project, a part-time internship, or involvement in another kind of activity.

Beyond helping with your own process of self-reflection, these side projects can also function as useful additions to your profile when it comes time to put together your university applications.

♦ ♦ ♦

It can be easy to see NS as little more than an obligation: something that you simply must get through before moving on to the next stage of life.

With a bit of perspective, though, it’s also possible to see it as an opportunity, particularly for students considering overseas options for their higher education.

Approached the right way, NS can be a chance to reflect critically on your long-term goals, and to act and apply strategically to boost your chances of achieving them.