SOTY 2015: Judge advises candidates to 'dream big, start small'

By Ariel Conant

Grand Prize judge urges candidates to make their goals and beliefs the priority, instead of focusing on the negatives

By Ariel Conant |

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Francis Ngai says Hong Kong needs more students with passion and determination.

Each year, candidates for the South China Morning Post Student of the Year (SOTY) Grand Prize impress the panel of judges with accolades, awards and academic achievements. But for a student to really stand out above the rest, it takes something special. And this year's nominees will have to pull out all the stops, as last year's candidates set the bar high.

SOTY Grand Prize judge, founder and CEO of Social Ventures Hong Kong, Francis Ngai Wah-sing, sat down with Young Post to share his views on what it takes for students to be truly unique, and what the judges are really looking for.

Ngai says last year's candidates were an especially impressive group. "Some of them showed great passion, which I would say is not very common now," he says. "I think overall in Hong Kong we need more students with passion, with determination."

It's that personal passion and drive that Ngai says really makes a difference when it comes to assessing the nominees.

Good grades and awards might get you through the door, but the Grand Prize is about more than what can be listed on paper.

Ngai says he's looking for the "outliers", the students who show special awareness of the world around them.

"No matter how bad the situation is, they try to fix it. That's what we want to see," he explains. "And how they can keep that enthusiasm, and be ready to get their hands dirty."

Ngai says the students who really get involved on the ground level are the ones that he sees as the most passionate. "It's not just that they believe in some kind of dream, superficially," he says. "It's how they can get the small stuff done, gradually."

Focusing on small objectives is what Ngai believes has the biggest impact in the long run, and it's what he hopes to see more students focus on. "You dream big, but you don't start big," he says. "The bigger success is to do something that you believe in."

Many students, Ngai says, try to do too much too quickly. But when it comes to showing the judges your passion, it's better to dedicate yourself to smaller, achievable goals that have a more direct impact - even if they might not seem as impressive on paper.

But Ngai admits that it can be difficult for students to show their passion and commitment to the judging panel. "[The judges] are aliens," he says. "They're from a different world."

Students need to understand the gap between their generation and the judges', and be able to create a bridge through communication. And Ngai says this is where some students trip up. The biggest mistake students often make is to focus on the negatives, he says. "I think maybe they have a lot of complaints and criticisms for society," Ngai adds. "I could understand that. But I think it's not necessary to put that as the first sentence."

For students who are passionate about issues and are intent on fixing the problems that are important to them, it can be tempting to vent or outline what they see as wrong. "I think instead, focus on what you believe," recommends Ngai. By making your goals and your beliefs the priority, candidates come off in a much better light to the judges.

Ngai knows the judges are demanding a lot from nominees. When asked if he thinks he could win SOTY if he were 16, he laughs and shakes his head. "No, no. I would not," he admits. "I was not doing quite well academically," he says about his life as a student.

But as a judge, he has seen many academically gifted students vying for the SOTY Grand Prize, and his advice to all candidates - past and present - is a simple one: "Don't give up on the big dream, start with baby steps."