Anya Malik, 24, Associate at a New York-based investment bank
"In retrospect, I am actually really glad that I worked as hard as I did while in school," says Anya Malik. I definitely think it’s important to make time to follow your hobbies and socialise, but the key is prioritising what will benefit you not just today, but years from now.
Top cohort of her high school graduating class, Anya remembers loving atheltics, cooking and playing the drums while she was growing up. "I still enjoy all of that but unfortunately haven’t played the drums in a few years," says Anya, who has just come back to Dubai on a holiday to be with her family.
That Anya was an extremely hard-working student was clear when she found that her academic success at her A Levels resulted in she being accepted into five Ivy League institutions – Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn and Dartmouth. She chose Yale University in Connecticut and completed joint majors in Math and Economics while simultaneously taking classes in the sciences, arts and languages during her undergrad years.
The pleasantly-spoken Anya who never paused to put in her 100 per cent at any task she was given, admits that while a student she was not completely sure which career to puruse, but enjoyed studying Physics and dreamt excitedly of exploring space. "More realistically, I hoped to integrate my interests in Math and Economics to pursue something quantitative in the field of Business. My current job is definitely aligned with what I had in mind in terms of skillset," says the banker.
When it comes to scoring high grades in school and learning essential life skills "neither is worth much without the other", says Anya, who believes the most valuable skill students develop during their school days is the ability to "proactively go beyond" what is being asked of them on a daily consistent basis.
"At work, you meet people from all backgrounds and with different experiences, but sometimes those who haven’t worked as hard throughout school and college might have more trouble adapting to the demands of work.
"At the end of the day, hard work is what matters, whether you are in a classroom or a boardroom."
So, does she think studying hard and scoring high was what helped her achieve her dreams?
"Yes – 100 per cent," says Anya. "I think it’s not only about studying hard, but also about setting clear goals and milestones – it helps provide direction and a purpose for all the studying, as well as a sense of accomplishment when you do achieve them."
In her experience the holistic academic education she received, which was a combination of stellar classroom teaching, team-based extracurricular activities and teachers’ mentorship helped her develop the creativity, critical thinking, leadership and interpersonal skills have given her the confidence to face any challenge with a solution-focused mindset.
Nikhil Thakur, 32, Director Corporate Treasury, Master Card
"Grades may not be everything, but they surely help you to get to the top of the pile," says Dubai-based Nikhil Thakur.
"It helps you get a foot in the door. But if you need to enter and get a seat at the table there are a lot more of things that come into play apart from grades."
Passionate about cricket, Nikhil would have considered making it his career but shifted focus to study Commerce instead because he consistently got good grades in school. "I was [good] at academics and the chances of me making it in Indian cricket in a population of 1.5 billion was obviously not hedging my bets, which is what I do for a career now," says Nikhil.
With a penchant for math, for the former Dubai student it’s always been about the numbers. "I was always in the top three in my class," he says.
That briefly changed in high school when he slid to being in the top five of his class.
Despite what he says is the pressure of the Central Board of Secondary Education examinations- what with the huge volumes of academic load to contend with- the young man fondly remembers how he got back in the game and came second in his school at his final board exams.
"I stopped focussing on whether the chapters of economics that were being taught made sense or not. Yes, they did at some level but some of the stuff I knew I would never use in the real world."
However, one of the biggest lessons he remembers learning while in school was having a good work ethic. "That was important and I think that was the skill I developed."
In retrospect Nikhil believes this ‘drill’ of putting in hard work to complete the enormous portions for the board exams is what has given him the ability to handle pressure in a corporate setting and not think twice of having to put in long hours at work.
With the instinct of a sportsman, he decided to buck the popular trend of moving to the West for higher studies and headed to India. "Early in life I realised that while academics is important, life skills too are as valuable if not more. You can be great at academics but having people skills is [what can set you apart]. When life throws curve balls at you, you need to know how to deal with them, which is why I went to India to pursue my undergrad. Within six months, I was a different man," he says, proudly.
The experience which Nikhil says was "not a struggle but a challenge" toughened him up. Among the crucial life lessons he learnt was recognising the value of money and "most importantly, the confidence to know that I could look after myself independently". This specific skill proved extremely useful when he moved to London to do his Masters in International Business. "After my first year in London, I got a job at Royal Bank of Scotland and while continuing with my Masters, I also did a professional qualification called CIMA – Chartered Management Accounting. It was hard work, but I knew I could do it and I did," he says.
So, did getting good grades in school help him achieve the professional success he is experiencing now?
While I think grades are important, they are not everything, he says. "What matters more are life skills and attitude." Nikhil believes scoring high academically can put you in the running when there is a lot of competition.
"I know this because I’m in a position now where you get thousands of applications for one position. When you’re going through CVs, [you look at ways on how to rank the applicants]. So, if someone’s gone to a good university, ‘Tick’; someone’s done really well in class, ‘Tick’; someone’s done some good volunteer work. ‘Tick’; a good internship, ‘Tick’… So, having good grades is one factor that could help put you above the others," says Nikhil.
Mohammed Farsakh, 26, Former Assistant Project Manager, AECOM, now pursuing a Master’s degree in Environmental Architecture
Academic excellence, says Mohammed Farsakh, is not the only factor that dictates how your life will be. Admitting that he and a few of his friends were not among the toppers in school, he is proud that "we are doing well for ourselves now".
According to him, a key factor for success "is how badly the individual wants to succeed; that is the biggest driver."
Ever since he was a child, Mohammed enjoyed being in the outdoors. "Camping, hiking, scuba diving... my hobbies have always centred around nature," says the young man who recently quit as Assistant Project Manager, AECOM, to pursue a Master’s degree in Environmental Architecture at the University of Glasgow.
Born and raised in Dubai, the Jordanian chose to study a combination of disciplines from both, the Arts and Science streams during High School to qualify himself to do his undergrad program in Architecture. "My family has an architecture business and I have grown up around architects all my life," he says.
After completing his International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma with an above average score of 33 points, Farsakh headed off to the University of Melbourne in Australia, clear on where he wanted to work after completing his graduation. "I only wanted to work in one particular company after my graduation, AECOM (an American multinational engineering firm), as I felt it would best help me grow my career in the direction I wanted. I spent nine months preparing for the interview and waiting to get this position."
So, what helped him secure his dream job? "Not academics completely; it was the social skills, preparing for interviews and my persistence to land this specific job. At the end of the day, an individual will significantly have higher chances of being hired if they are likable, a good communicator, are willing to learn and show overall good character. My line of work, like many others, requires working closely with their team, so having life skills and social skills is extremely important," he says.
Mohammed believes the stress and rigour of studying an academically challenging curriculum such as the IB prepared him to work under pressure and produce quality results at the same time. That said, he insists that living independently in Melbourne had the single most positive impact on who he is today as a person.
"Working hard early in your life helps set the foundations for your future and instils the ethics of hard work in everything you do. But just because I worked hard doesn’t mean I didn’t have time to socialise and continue with my hobbies. Nothing good came easy but I managed my time to make sure I could do both."