Students face intense challenges to be crowned Royal Thai Scholars

Forget extracurricular activities and good grades – imagine if the fate of your future rested entirely on one test. While it may seem unfathomable to U.S. students, for students in Thailand, the college application process is not simply the culmination of four years of monotonous classes and grueling all-nighters. Instead, Thai students prepare for a single examination and, if they excel on their tests, they receive paid tuition and expenses for a complete education abroad.

“There are a lot of different tests that students can take,” said Wasin Vipismakul ’08, one of the scholars at Williams. “I took a very specialized test for math and sciences. Everything depended on [how well I did in] math, so I had to study math a lot for [the test].”

For over 100 years, the best and the brightest of Thailand have competed in various tests and competitions to earn the honor of being a Royal Thai Scholar. Students are required to take demanding subject examinations, and then to interview with scholarship committees and complete challenging analytical aptitude tests.

The entire process occurs in three rounds, with students facing different challenges that test various aspects of their intelligence.

“In the first round, we take different subject tests depending on the field that we have chosen to pursue,” Wisa Kitichaiwat ’10 said. “Then there is an interview where they look at you and test your personality and the way you act. And then in the third round there are these assessment tests where committees will watch you in a stressful problem solving situation.”

Though the process seems straightforward, the challenges the tests present are far from conventional. “In the third round I had to do this aptitude test where I was told to fold rabbits according to the instructions they gave me,” Kitichaiwat said. “But the instructions were in Japanese and I didn’t speak Japanese, so I had to do everything according to the pictures that came with the instructions. And after five minutes I had to go and give the committee my rabbits and they judged how well they were made. They were very picky; they’d say things like, ‘oh this rabbit’s tail is too small,’ or ‘you forgot the eyes here.’ Every detail mattered.”

Each year 50 to 60 students from around Thailand complete the progress and earn the honor of being a Royal Thai Scholar. But every student’s process toward this ultimate goal varies depending on their chosen area of interest and the organization sponsoring them. Natee Pitiwan ’09, another Royal Thai Scholar, had a very different, yet equally demanding experience to earn his scholarship.

“For my scholarship, I had to take part in the math Olympiad,” Pitiwan said. “At first everyone took exams and then the top 80 students qualify to take another exam. There were a lot of tests, but eventually only six students remain in the final round, and these people receive the scholarship.”

Once students have overcome the challenge of securing a scholarship, they have to face a completely new and demanding test – adjusting to a dramatically different country. Luckily students are sent to a summer session where they are slowly introduced to English and the American culture.

“We had a class to help us adjust to American culture where they would teach us how to react in class,” Vipismakul said. “We had to learn to step up and say things in class because in our country classes had 50 people, so we never had an opportunity to say things. It was very new to us, and sometimes we would have to stand on top of tables and say things [to practice].”

As soon as the summer session was over, the scholars were thrust into an entirely different setting: an American prep school. “It was hard at first because I was not so good at English and the language was a big problem,” Pitiwan said. “In prep school I was all by myself – I was the only Thai student there – so it was hard to learn everything at first.”

As if adjusting to a new country and language wasn’t bad enough, Royal Thai Scholars also had to complete the whole college application process. In three short months, Vipismakul, Kitichaiwat and Pitiwan had to take the panoply of standardized tests and struggle through the dreaded college essay that defines every American student’s senior year.

“From September to December, it was very hard for me,” Kitichaiwat said. “I remember taking a [standardized] test every single week. It was especially difficult because I was still getting used to the language, so I had to take the tests multiple times.”

Now the Royal Thai Scholars have finished their year in prep school and have begun their undergraduate years at Williams. But the terms of their scholarships don’t just extend to the completion of their education; many are required to return to Thailand and work for the organizations that sponsored their study abroad.

“For my scholarship, I have to go back to Thailand and work for the government for 10 years,” Pitiwan said. “Since I am studying math, I think I will mostly be teaching math at a university or something like that.”

Despite the restrictions his scholarship puts on him, Pitiwan is pleased to have become a Royal Thai Scholar. “Though it was difficult at first when I first came to the U.S., after three years everything is fine. I am glad I am here.”

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