Hello again, happy parents! In this installment of my series on applying to primary schools in Hong Kong I'll pass along some tips parents might find helpful in getting their children prepared for the actual interviews their children will be dragged to and suffer through -- uh, I mean, will accompany their smiling parents to, and participate in joyfully!
This is part of a series on how to choose and apply to a Primary School in Hong Kong. You can see the full list of articles on the left.
If you've reached this page via a search engine, you'll probably want to read the introduction first.
If you're coming to this story first, I suggest reading at least the article setting out the basics; the next stories in the series comprise an application timeline and some characteristics to look for in schools; plus last year I wrote at some length about the process of preparing application packages.
Since most Hong Kong schools don’t have much time to interview their hundreds (often thousands) of applicants, and since the kids themselves are so young, there’s a limit to the questions that can be asked, and the responses that might be expected. You’re not going to explore the competing historical interpretations of the Suez Crisis with five year olds.
Schools have therefore come up with quite a range of tricks and techniques to get through their interviews. I’ll survey a few of them below, but keep in mind that the Family Tall’s experience is limited to the schools we applied to, or heard about at first hand from friends.
The first major distinction we can draw is between schools that have just one round of interviews, and those that have two. The latter typically invite a huge mass of kids on a Saturday afternoon, assign each budding scholar to a group, then take them off for a 'group interview' in which the kids are asked to interact with a teacher and other children, and usually to perform some tasks or complete little worksheets that I suppose are a very basic form of entrance exam. These schools then narrow down the pool of applicants and have a second round that is more likely to involve an individual interview with each kid.
Other schools jump right in and interview kids just once, whether in a small group or individually.
In either case, it certainly helps to have at least a basic idea in advance of what might happen. The following list sets out some of the most common practices in Hong Kong primary school interviews; I hope readers will contribute more in the comments
Group interviews -- Since many schools hold a first round of group interviews, as I mentioned, group interviews are common. It's hard for moms and dads to know exactly what goes on in these, but according to Daughter Tall's reports, they often resemble a mini-class, i.e. students are given worksheets or little tasks to complete, and they may engage in group activities/games/etc. Some schools interview small groups of kids much as marketers handle focus groups, i.e. they toss a question out there, and see what they get. In this situation, of course, some kids will be quiet, while others will be jumping up and down in their seats with their hands up trying to get the first word in. Since some Hong Kong schools are reputed to prefer ‘quiet’ kids, while others look for the more outgoing, it’s not necessarily a huge problem if your child is a bit reticent. In the end, though, if she never says anything, it’s probably not going to help.
Describing a picture -- this is a standby for some schools. The child being interviewed is handed a simple picture or illustration, and is asked to describe what she sees. We practiced this one quite a few times with Daughter Tall; I don't think it paid off, as ironically she was never actually asked to do this, but it's definitely something kids can be prepared for. Daughter Tall's initial attempts at this were quite halting and would no doubt have been total lead balloons in an actual interview, but with a little practice she was having fun with it and sounding quite fluent and 'creative'. In a variation on this theme, in one interview Daughter Tall was shown a series of simple illustrations and was asked to describe what would happen next. We quickly realized why this particular interview method is so common in Hong Kong: you can get your kid to practice the general skill, but you can't do any really specific coaching or prepping; each picture is different, so a child will have to approach it ‘cold’.
Making a Lego man -- this activity featured prominently in the interview at the DSS school we really wanted, and which subsequently rejected Daughter Tall outright. This activity might have had something to do with that. Daughter Tall reported that she'd been given several pieces of Lego, then asked to make a human figure out of them. She then recounted, cheerfully, how she'd failed utterly to do so. She's never been that interested in Lego, and we'd never worried about it. If your child is similar, you might want to think about encouraging at least some very basic Lego skills before your darling hits the interview circuit!
Listening to a story, then answering comprehension questions about it. I don't think this one is all that common, but I've heard tell of it . . . .
‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ -- Interviewees are given a set of two pictures that look almost the same, and must spot the differences, or are shown a single picture in which there are some things that are 'wrong', e.g. frogs in the flowerpots, or a spaceship in the fridge, or things along those lines. This again is an activity that can be practiced in general, but not ‘crammed’ for specifically.
Finding the Snoopy -- a certain well-known boys' school (not 'Famous Boys School’, but one at a similar level of reputation) employed this one; we were apprised of it via Daughter Tall's little boyfriend, who did indeed gain admittance to that school. As the boys are admitted to their interview room, they are told that some Snoopy dolls are hiding in that room, and that they need to find them. It's as simple as that; I'm not sure what skills this is meant to demonstrate, precisely, but there you go.
Individual interviews – I guess this is what most people think of when they hear ‘school interview’, i.e. a teacher or headmaster sitting down with one youngster and asking questions such as ‘What is your name?’ ‘Who are your major influences?’ ‘Which bridges are the Luftwaffe targeting?’, and so on. No, seriously, of course kids may be asked their names, about their family members, where they live (knowing their own address and phone number was rumored to be a common area for questions) and so on. Yet in practice, perhaps surprisingly, Daughter Tall didn't report being asked these kinds of general questions very often.
What won’t happen
If you’re applying to local schools, your child’s English/Putonghua aren’t likely to be tested at any great depth. That surprised me a bit; I thought at least some schools might at least throw in a few questions/activities conducted in English or Putonghua, but Daughter Tall reported only very basic attempts to recognize a few English words at a couple of interviews. Otherwise, the medium was solidly Cantonese. Truth be told, this disappointed Mrs Tall and me a bit, because Daughter Tall has a distinct linguistic advantage over most Hong Kong kids. Fair’s fair, however, and objectively this mother-tongue consistency is really a point in favor of the schools we applied to, i.e. they could have tried to cherry-pick kids with better language skills, but there’s little or no evidence they did this. Or maybe because Daughter Tall is visibly a 'mix' they didn't bother, instead concentrating on testing her Chinese? That's possible, too.
Daughter Tall was also not asked to demonstrate skills/knowledge beyond her developmental stage/schooling progress. That is, since her interviews took place while she was a K2 student, she wasn’t asked to read, to try to do any arithmetic beyond the very basic problems K2 students here in HK typically handle, and so on. Again, this seems to me quite fair – you can try to coach your kid to ‘get ahead’ of her peers to gain advantage in interviews, but we didn’t see much evidence this would pay off.
On the other hand, let’s stop and consider that preparation question just a bit more carefully . . . .
Preparing your child for school interviews
The idealists among us will argue that the best preparation for school interviews is no preparation at all. That way, the child’s personality, talents and temperament will shine through in their purest forms, to be apprehended accurately by the sensitive, dedicated educators conducting the interviews. This will lead to the most perfect possible match between child and school.
The idealists among us are pretty dense. This is in fact no time to just let things slide and hope for the best. I’m not advocating sending your child to interview boot camp, but I do think a bit of low-key preparation may help at least a bit, and possibly quite a lot. Mrs Tall and I ended up wishing we’d done more.
Again, however, we parents are faced with a choice. Do we conduct our own preparatory sessions with Junior, or do we pay for the professionals?
Since many of the techniques employed in Hong Kong primary school interviews are relatively predictable, an entire industry has arisen in Hong Kong, i.e. coaching kids to handle ‘typical’ interview situations. And since Hong Kong parents are famous for pushing their kids at early ages, this had led to a kind of interview-preparation arms race. Parents routinely send their children to prep classes in which the tykes are drilled in how to act politely toward the interviewer, and to master some of the little tests and games I’ve exemplified above.
We didn’t send Daughter Tall to these classes, but in retrospect it might not have been the worst idea. She clearly didn’t do well at some of the interviews she attended, especially the group ones. Although she’s a chatty, outgoing child, we’ve noticed that when she meets groups of new children (e.g. just like a group interview) she actually is quite withdrawn at first, preferring to sit back and scout things out before participating. In a ten-minute group interview there’s no time for this. And it’s hard to prepare a kid for group interview scenarios on your own – at home most of us lack spare groups of strange children, and even in school the other children and the teachers are familiar, too. Would an interview class or two mimicking this setup have helped Daughter Tall? Very possibly.
Also, there’s the ‘etiquette’ of school interviews in Hong Kong. That is, children are expected to formally greet the interviewer, thank the interviewer at the end of the interview, say ‘Bye-bye’ while looking the interviewer in the eye, etc., etc. Daughter Tall was not a success at this aspect of interviewing. Whether her failure to consistently observe these niceties actually hurt her chances in any given interview, well, who knows? But the conventional wisdom says that at least some Hong Kong schools take this social aspect of the interview quite seriously. Again, this is not an easy thing to practice at home. We certainly tried, but Daughter Tall really never took seriously our imploring to ‘make nice’. Would a couple classes run by a seasoned stranger have helped? Very possibly . . . .
I don’t really know any more about these interview-prep classes, so I’d love to hear more from readers. In fact, preparing for interviews really depends on word of mouth, so any contributions at all are very welcome indeed!
In the next installment, I'll tell you how things really went for the Tall family as we experienced the ups and downs of the application process ourselves.