I got into a top university with the highest entrance score, then I quit

By Nguyen Ngoc Tu   September 23, 2020 | 04:00 pm PT
I was once famous for getting the highest score in the entrance exam to get into the Hanoi University of Pharmacy, a prestigious institution.
Nguyen Ngoc Tu

Nguyen Ngoc Tu

Little did I know about the dire consequences it would bring me.

In the early 2000s my family was poor. My mother was a primary school teacher and my father was an accountant for the commune office, and with their meager salaries they struggled to run a family with two school-age children.

As my university entrance exam drew close, they found it hard to make a decision about my future. After watching some television news that showed pharmaceutical students getting jobs in big companies, I was to become a pharmacist.

My family’s goal for me was ambitious since pharmaceutical schools routinely required top scores in the entrance exam.

My parents thought we had the right to aim high because of my excellent performance in school. I was the only one in the family to study in a school for gifted students or major in math, which Vietnamese consider the most prestigious subject.

In the end my parents were very satisfied with my performance. I ended up scoring 30 out of 30 for math, physics and chemistry to get into the Hanoi University of Pharmacy, and 29 out of 30 for mathematics, chemistry and biology tests for the Hanoi Medical School.

Soon journalists made a beeline to my house to get the story of the poor student with the amazing results, and I became one of the most famous students in the country that year.

On August 25 that year I traveled to Hanoi for the admission with great excitement and anticipation. Already I was hoping to top my class and get a scholarship to study abroad as my grandfather did many years ago in the Soviet Union.

In the first week of college orientation activities were cheerful but went by in a flash. Soon life began to revolve around theoretical learning and lab work. After days like that, I realized I am not a drug research guy.

The pride in being the top scorer had evaporated even before I could wrap my head around what university life meant.

Depressed, I packed my luggage and returned home to my parents.

They were baffled, unable to comprehend my desire to quit school. The confusion soon turned into agitation, and they took a day off work to take me back to university.

But I still could not force myself to attend classes, and 15 members of my extended family from my hometown descended on me to try and change my mind.

"No exam top scorer can quit school like this," one uncle said sternly. "What will our neighbors think about our family?"

But I could not be persuaded despite university and high school classmates and many other friends taking turns to try and convince me.

After a month of staying at the dorm we all returned home, my family sadly reconciled to my dropping out.

People in my neighborhood were flabbergasted at my return, and all kinds off gossip began to circulate. There were even rumors about my mental health.

After a month at home I told my parents I wanted to go to Hanoi to learn English, and they immediately consented, just so they did not have to see me every day.

In Hanoi, I visited a friend who was soon leaving for Australia to study. He suggested I should study abroad, and this interested me. I then spent six months learning English and applying to American universities.

I got admission to the prestigious Yale University in the U.S. with a 50 percent scholarship. While I was overjoyed, after a month’s consideration I realized I could not manage the remaining fees.

I decided to take the university entrance exam again, in Vietnam. This time my target was an economic university. I did the test well and got admitted among the university’s top 50.

As the oldest student, I was elected the class president. After four years I graduated.

I went on to complete a PhD and now work as a senior manager at a large organization. Now, after almost 20 years, my family still sometimes questioned with disbelief how my life could have turned out fine.

Looking back I realize my dropout story was not unique. Knowing about many other students who quit top universities, I could only associate this with inadequate career guidance in our education system.

12th graders study to prepare for their high school graduation exam in Khanh Hoa Province, central Vietnam, June 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Xuan Ngoc.

12th graders study to prepare for their high school graduation exam in Khanh Hoa Province, central Vietnam, June 16, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Xuan Ngoc.

At a time when they have to make one of the most important decisions in their life, students have no clue about their next step. Instead, they meekly submit to decisions made by parents, relatives and anyone else if they sound convincing.

These students end up making decisions based on employment rates, salaries and current social trends, whereas these factors should be just one of many considerations in addition to personal preferences.

Now, as an employer myself, I clearly understand that lack of thorough career guidance at school is one of the reasons why Vietnamese employees so lack motivation to improve themselves, resulting in a low-quality workforce.

In many developed nations, every high school has dedicated staff for career counseling, who use questionnaires and interviews to find out students’ preferences and guide them toward making decisions about future by themselves.

This is further supported by schoolwork to build students' confidence in deciding their future. In my view, this is an important reason why workers in developed nations have greater discipline, higher motivation and dedication to work.

I hope education managers in Vietnam consider the role of career orientation for youngsters. It starts with adopting new mindset about career guidance for students, and next with investing time and dedication in youngsters, listening to them and helping them based on their needs.

Looking back I feel blessed about the two lost years in my life. Though I did not actually achieve anything in that period the two years helped me figure out the most suitable direction for my life.

Even though I lost two years I know I am more fortunate than most others who struggle their whole life without finding out what is right for them.

*Nguyen Ngoc Tu holds a PhD in economics. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
go to top