Junior college versus polytechnic: What works best for your child?

Don't wait until your child finishes secondary school to start thinking about tertiary education. Arm yourself with knowledge so that you can start helping them to consider their options and working towards what they want.

The JC versus polytechnic debate will never end. When it concerns tertiary education, many students and parents alike, find it difficult to decide between the two options.

In the past, it was pretty simple. You finish your O levels, you do your A levels and then you go to a university. Many Singaporean parents didn’t welcome the JC versus polytechnic discussion.

That’s because there was a stigma associated with polytechnic education. To put it bluntly, those graduating from the college of old school parenting viewed polytechnic as where you go when you don’t get into a JC.

Well that concept has changed. Tremendously. Welcome to 2017 where getting into a course of your choice in a polytechnic may be way harder than getting a place in a JC. In case you didn’t already know.

So it’s not about JC versus polytechnic in terms of which is better. It is about understanding the differences and making an informed choice. It’s about finding the right fit.

Let’s look at some of the common misconceptions surrounding this JC versus polytechnic debate before we go into the pros and cons.

Common Misconceptions

1. Poly is for JC Rejects

If this is what you think, then boy are you mistaken! We will leave it to the schools to explain the detailed grading and L1R4, L1R5 system. But in a nutshell, if you’re thinking about JC versus polytechnic in terms of which is easier to get into, the comparison isn’t all that simple.

There is pretty much a fixed cut off point system to get into a JC. Polytechnics have a wide range of courses and the entry requirements differ greatly. Some of the most sought after courses require you to score straight As to even stand a chance of getting selected.

JC versus polytechnic Students waiting for the release of their O level results which determines their next step.

In addition, some courses such as Mass Communication have a rigorous selection process. Students may need to submit a portfolio, sit for a written test and have an interview.

2. The fight for university seats

Many parents have the misconception that polytechnic students compete against JC students for university seats. And because of the sheer number of JC students, parents fear that their children are fighting a losing battle if they go to a polytechnic.


Polytechnic and JC students apply under different categories. There are a fixed number of seats allocated for each category of application. As such, the competition is not across the two and this should not form the basis of the JC versus polytechnic argument.

However, it is true that the percentages of students that go in from junior colleges are higher.

3. Polytechnic life is relaxed 

This is almost the number 1 myth surrounding polytechnic education. Many students find JC life daunting as it's rumoured to be highly stressful. People describe it as a pressure-cooker environment.

The term commonly associated with poly life is - slack.

Not at all. Surely you would have heard of the barrage of projects that keep the students busy all day and burning the midnight oil, no?

There is also 'peer evaluation' for all the projects. So if your child doesn't do his fair share, or if for some reason his teammates conspire against him and collectively give him poor feedback, he could potentially fail that assignment.

Pretty stressful really. 

Pros and Cons         

1. What next?

Of course, primarily, everyone is concerned about the value of the tertiary education. The first question is always, where do I go from here?

If your child is 100% sure that he or she wants to go to a university, particularly the local universities, then junior college might be a better option. Why?

70 to 75% of each JC cohort secures places in our local universities. This is in comparison to the 20% of the polytechnic cohort that secures places. That’s quite a sharp difference.

The numbers have risen though. A few years ago, only 15% of the polytechnic cohort secured places in local universities.

On the other hand, the A level cert is commonly termed as a passport to enter university. When it comes to the workforce, the A level cert pales in comparison to a diploma. 

JC versus polytechnic It's easier to get a job with a diploma than an A level certificate.

Diplomas can go a long way in the job market. Many polytechnic grads secure jobs across the industries. The best part is that many companies eventually sponsor their employees to pursue a degree.

2. Freedom, yay or nay?

The transition from secondary school to JC isn’t as shocking. JC is pretty much an extension of secondary school life, albeit more challenging and stressful. Life doesn’t change much, the system and structure remain largely the same.

You can still expect to get a call from your child’s teacher; you can still expect parent-teacher conferences, consent forms, compulsory CCA’s, community involvement projects and such.

You still play an active and important role in your child’s life if they go to a junior college. This works well for children who need handholding and ‘looking after’.

Polytechnic life however, may be rather shocking for you especially if you are the micro-managing, helicopter type of parent. Be prepared to be largely, or even completely clueless about the happenings of your child’s school life.

You won’t see report cards with a paragraph of praises (or complaints) about your child’s attitude in class!

One important point to note is that your child needs a lot of self-discipline and focus to handle the sudden freedom and autonomy.

There is a 75 – 80% attendance policy, depending on the polytechnic. Students have to meet this attendance policy, failing which they will be debarred from examinations and eventually fail the module. A warning will be issued when they are close to falling below the minimum attendance required.

Parents do not necessarily hear or know about this, often until it is too late. Many polytechnic students end up repeating their first semester due to fully exploiting the sudden increase in freedom.

It’s easy to get carried away when your infamous Discipline Master doesn’t hunt you down for detention for persistent late coming!

3. Cost

When it comes to JC vs polytechnic in terms of cost, the difference is steep. The fee for most JCs is below $10 a month. There are exceptions though. The independent JCs such as the highly celebrated Raffles Junior College cost about $300 a month.

JC versus polytechnic You might be able to save quite a bit if your child goes to a junior college.

Polytechnic fees are approximately between $200-$300 a month depending on the course.

There are also hidden costs. Transportation costs much less for JC students who are under concession just like secondary school students. The school canteen sells much cheaper food than the swanky cafes lining the polytechnic atriums. Did we mention Starbucks and MacDonald’s?

Polytechnics also present students with an endless stream of projects that can cost quite a bit. Printout costs for a graphic design project for example, can go by the hundreds.

Moreover, when they have the added challenge of appearing in school without repeating outfits every other day, and attempting to look like they vaguely have a fashion sense – I’m sure you can guess what it means for the parents’ bank account!

Continue reading to learn more about the differences between JC and polytechnic education. 

4. Curriculum and Subjects

When it comes to JC versus polytechnic in terms of curriculum, it gets tricky. Multifaceted. Let’s break it down.

The JC curriculum is broader. Junior colleges offer a wide range of subjects and students can mix and match subjects across disciplines. Students can use their time in JC to explore and find out where their interest lies.

This works perfectly for the vast majority of students who graduate from secondary school still largely clueless about what they want to do with their lives.

The added benefit is that the content-heavy A level curriculum focuses largely on the scholastic aspects. This gives students an edge when they go on to university, which is known for its academic rigour. This is in sharp contrast to the hands-on, applied learning approach in the polytechnics.

Polytechnics also offer a wide range of courses. Mechanical engineering, accountancy, early childhood, there’s something for everyone. But students must have a pretty good idea of what they want to do in future before deciding on the course. They also have to meet the entry requirements.

The polytechnic curriculum emphasises on project work and collaborative learning. In their final year, students must either do an Industry Based Project or Final Year Project. This gives them a sense of how things work in the real world.

JC versus polytechnic The JC syllabus is well-known for its academic rigour.

Project work and interning inevitably gives polytechnic grads an edge over JC grads in the working world.

If your child is used to working in silos, or has difficulty socialising, junior college might be a better fit. Or you could look at it differently and consider polytechnic to force your child out of his comfort zone now rather then when in university or the working world.

5. Grading System

Similar to secondary school, the JC syllabus largely prepares students for the big examinations – A levels. There is of course the ongoing project work but the bread and butter of JC students is still that big national examination.

Polytechnics, just like universities, have a cumulative Grade Point Average (GPA). The good news is that if students mess up one examination, they still have hopes of graduating with a decent score.

The bad news is that every time that they mess up, it has an impact on their final score. And if for some reason they are debarred from an examination and have to repeat a module, the best grade they can attain is a C. And this affects their final GPA.


  • Uniforms. The JC versus polytechnic debate also extends to issues like uniforms. Polytechnic students do not have to wear a uniform, which also means that they can colour their hair and have strange piercings that might send you into cardiac arrest. Brace yourselves mums!

JC versus polytechnic Don't be surprised if your child goes to the salon more often!

  • Long hours. The school hours for polytechnics are generally longer than in JC. In addition to regular school hours, don’t immediately get skeptical and live in a climate of distrust if you find your child staying out late often. They have a multitude of group projects to work on.
  • Numbers. If you’re looking at numbers for JC versus polytechnics, there are 5 polytechnics and almost 20 JCs in Singapore.
  • Years of study. The duration of study is of course shorter for JC. Unless you take the three year A level programme, you save an entire year by going to JC as polytechnic courses stretch over 3 years.


Now that you have the whole JC versus polytechnic argument outlined, you have to work closely with your child and help him to make an informed decision.

Don’t think that this is something you only think about after they complete their secondary school education. It is important that your child has some sense of what they want to do so that they can use their secondary school years to better prepare them for their future path.

Students in the Normal Academic stream can choose to take up the Poly Foundation Program (PFP) if they do well in their N levels. This means that they skip taking their O levels and go straight into doing a foundation year in a polytechnic.

Many parents are conflicted or even frown upon this, as they don’t feel secure if their child doesn’t have an O level cert.

However, let me remind you that this is probably a better choice because many N level students who stay on for their O levels don’t necessarily perform as well. This is due to the huge difference in the N and O level syllabus. Many are not able to cope and end up not doing well and not being able to go anywhere after their O levels.

This information summarises the JC versus polytechnic argument. Do pick up some of the salient points and discuss them with your child.

Do remember mums, that when in doubt, do not hesitate to approach your child’s teachers. It’s a good idea to start talking to the teachers and gathering feedback as early as when your child is in lower secondary.

Most of the time, your child’s teacher will be the best person to provide advice on what would work best based on your child's learning style and abilities. Work hand in hand with them.

Last but not least, always remember to give your child the space and autonomy to decide what he wants to do. Guiding them is fine, but please don’t impose yourself on them or force them into doing something that they don’t actually want to do. It may be counter-productive and your child may end up dropping out halfway!

Have faith that whatever choice your child makes. As long as he sees it through, the future is bright. Singapore has a world-class education system!