Primary schools interviews: tips and techniques

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.


Who is being interviewed?

Mr Tall,

I've started wondering if the application and interview process you've described is more about selecting the right type of parent, rather than the child.

I've heard several times how the local schools most famous for strong academic results can in fact have a very laid-back teaching style. That's been mentioned here, and in conversation with other parents. At first that seems an unlikely combination, until the other piece of the puzzle is explained. That the schools require children to do a lot of homework and take frequent exams, and parents are expected to provide a lot of input to both.

It also explained another mystery. When I started working in Hong Kong, I was surprised to find that when women were away from the office, it often wasn't for sick leave or vacation, but because their children were taking exams in the next day or so. Mum was at home marshalling the study and revision.

So if you are running a famous school, and your fame is a result of your strong academic results, and those strong results come from having pupils with competitive parents who will dedicate significant time and energy to teaching and revision ... then if you want to stay famous you need to find more of those parents.

So is that what the application/interview process is really about? Finding the right type of parent?

eg how about the "If you want an application form, you must collect it from the school in person. They will only be avaliable during the following short period on this one day".

Now that seems daft. Why not put it up on the school's website where parents can download and print it at their leisure. But of course if you can pass the the "in-person, inconvenient time" collection test, you've immediately demonstrated your ability to take time off work to take part in your child's education. ie you've demonstrated you are just the right type of parent to help maintain the school's reputation in later years.

If this is true,... well, I'm not sure what really. In some ways it's a bit depressing, in that it suggests the best schools stay that way largely as a result of their reputation and the drive of the parents - not from any superior performance of the teaching staff. And yet if you want your child to do well at school, is there anyother choice than to play the game?


cat out of the bag

oops, Mr. B you've let the cat out of the bag.

I think that's true for at least one famous name school I'm familiar with ...

I think the answer may be to go to a good but cheap school (you need the name on your CV) who's school hours are not too onerous and then you can spend your time and money on all the extra tutoring required.

Or am I a cynic? 

are the good schools' interviews real or just a sham ?

Hi Mr Tall,

Thanks for the articles which are very informative.  I am not from HK but have lived here for a long time.  During my living here, I have been told from time to time by my colleagues (some are overseas Chinese and some are local HK people but educated overseas) that it is a mission impossible to get into a good local HK school.  I was told that you have to have the right connections (knowing the principal, people sitting on the school board or have some legco member, famous barrister or the chief executive write your son/daughter a recommendation letter).   One of my colleagues told me that the time her daughter walked into the room till the time she was sent out was no more than 5 minutes and she agreed that all the interviews are totally sham. How smart or well your child did during the interview is irrelevant as the vacancies have been filled with all those with connections before interviews even take place.

I just want to ask you whether this is truly the case?  I do want my child to attend a reputable local school to learn Chinese, however if what I was told is true, it seems that we will not have any chance given that I do not have any such connection in HK (I do meet some big shots from time to time at work, probably I should just ask them to do me a big favor if these letters do count?!)

sham interviews?

It's a good question.

I don't think the interviews can be completely a sham, because Mrs Tall and I are not important people, and we have no connections whatsoever, yet our daughter did get into a reputable local school. Also, as we've gotten to know some of the other parents of my daughter's classmates, they seem pretty much middle-class types on the whole. Quite a few live out in the big housing estates in the New Territories near where we live, and that's a sign that they're certainly not from 'big money' or important families.

We also didn't have any of the kind of recommendation letters you describe. The only one we had, really, was the one from the headmistress of Daughter Tall's kindergarten.

But I think having attended a local and 'reputable' kindergarten is pretty important. If your kid doesn't have the preparation these kinds of kindergartens provide, my guess is your chances are pretty low.

And unfortunately the chances are pretty low in general -- from what I've heard, the big-name schools here generally take only 5-10% of applicants, so it's not something you can bank on.

re: are the good schools' interviews real

Good point - actually good points:

1. It is mission impossible to get into a good school unless you have the right connections (knowing the principal, people sitting on the school board or have some legco member, famous barrister or the chief executive write your son/daughter a recommendation letter).

Mr Tall has answered this clearly - children do get into famous-name schools without the connections you list.

2. How smart or well your child did during the interview is irrelevant as the vacancies have been filled.

In spite of point 1, I'm not 100% clear on the answer to point #2. Our daughter only interviewed at one famous-name school. Most applicants get an interview, and it certainly seemed to be taken seriously by the school, but we didn't get an offer of a place.

Later we met a mum whose son had been accepted, and mum was obviously very proud of the fact. In her view, most of the school's decision had been made before the interview, based on the portfolio everyone had to submit. Then if you were on the shortlist you were interviewed by the principal, and if you weren't you were interviewed by one of the vice-principals.

The friend who introduced that mum later told us the portfolio had been a work of art, under construction for several years. (Chinese astronauts in town? Son visits, and 'click' there's another photo for the portfolio. etc, etc). He was interviewed by the princopal.

We just submitted a very plain photo collage, together with a covering letter that said what we wanted from a school. Naive? Probably, but I'd do it that way again if I had a second chance. MissB was interviewed by the VP.

There's not enough data to make a firm deduction, but it's not the first time I've heard people say the decision is largely made before the interview.

3. Without the connections listed in point #1, I will not have any chance for my child to attend a reputable local school to learn Chinese.

Excuse the paraphrasing, but if I've captured the intent it seems a bit dramatic - are your options really so limited?

Our short-list of schools had five schools on it. 3 x government-aided, 1 x DSS (the famous-name), and 1 x private.

Yes the DSS school had a beautiful campus, and would have given us serious bragging rights. But all five are reputable schools, and at any of them our daughter will get an education at least as good as mine (local primary school, small-town UK).

We didn't get an offer from the DSS school, but we did get offers from our first-choice government-aided school, and from the private school. I don't expect you'll do any worse, so there are other options if the famous-name schools turn you away.

Good luck with your applications,


The portfolio

Yes, MrB makes an extremely pertinent distinction: HK has lots of 'reputable' schools, but just a few 'famous-name' ones. I conflated the two in my response, and that might have been a bit confusing.

In other words, what I mean is that it's indeed hard (but not impossible!) to get into a 'big-name' school, but it's certainly feasible to get into a good, 'reputable' one where your child can learn Chinese.

The portfolio is indeed an artform here, although ours was also very modest, with just the one recommendation letter I mentioned, plus a few certificates and family photos. But note that some of the 'famous-name' schools actually limit what you can submit as a portfolio, i.e. they stipulate very clearly that they'll only look at a few pages. Others don't, meaning parents submit huge folders with dozens of pages of stuff.

I think it's impossible to know how important the actual interviews are. It'd be foolish to assume that all kids are interviewed identically -- no doubt HK's principals/headmasters/etc. already have some students in mind as they begin the interviewing process. We got the sense that the interview may be more of a 'confirmation' exercise, i.e. just enough to make sure the kid you think looks good on paper doesn't throw a tantrum or cry uncontrollably for mommy or whatever. One other thing to consider is if the school in question interviews all applicants (some really do), or if they've already shortlisted the kids who are seeing the headmaster/mistress for the 'real' interview, either by sorting through the portfolios, or by having a round of group interviews first.

And indeed, good luck -- I sympathize, as the memories of going through the whole process are still pretty fresh.

application fee

We applied to one top name school and secured an interview for our daughter. What struck me was the length of time (10 mins) and the fact that it cost us $100 to go through this process.

In hindsight (no sour grapes, honest!) it seems to me as though the school has a bit of a racket going on with the fee. I suspect that some of the interviews are predetermined (come on, only 10 mins!!) but the school knows it can extort money out of parents in the vain hope that it may make a difference.

It's certainly a good way to reap the rewards of being well-known.


portfolios and interviews

On the application portfolios: someone we know who works in advertising/marketing in HK told us that at her firm, the staff often prepare the school application portfolios for management's children. It really makes you wonder how much time you want to put into it yourself - can you compete with the professionals?

Our son only applied to the local private school whose kindergarten he was currently attending, so we just did a basic written application without any accompanying documents as far as I remember. It may be that applicants from outside the kindergarten did do a portfolio for this school; I just don't know.

Interviews: these are a worry for us, because our son is not a reliable performer - or perhaps that's the wrong word. Sliding under the table during a kindergarten interview and refusing to come out was quite a performance. We are absolutely certain that he got into the kindergarten primarily on the strength of a recommendation from the Chinese teacher at another kindie he had attended; and perhaps because our family has some qualities the school is rumoured to value (an international profile, parents graduates of well-known schools, etc.). It was not his demonstrated language competency; he was reluctant to answer simple questions about himself and his family, would not read the simple story or recognize the characters the teacher pointed to - all of which he knew. When I stopped by the kindergarten a few days after he'd started to drop something off, his new K3 teacher commented with pleasure and evident surprise at his proficiency in spoken and written Chinese. It was clearly NOT AT ALL what she had been led to expect by the evaluation at his interview.

Ironically, he had been very cooperative just a few months before at a similar interview at a different local kindergarten to enter late for the second semester of K2. Both interviews were conducted in Mandarin, since he didn't know Cantonese, so it was not a language issue. Maybe the fact that the first kindergarten looked like a kindergarten--a Thomas train in the lobby, lots of bright colors, other small children--put him at his ease, whereas the second one was located in a primary school, the other kids he saw wandering around were much older, and the interview itself was in a big formal room. Or maybe the moon was in the seventh house.  In both cases, we were applying very late, so we didn't take part in the regular application and interview rounds.

Primary school interview: The year we applied for Primary 1 was the first year that this school has required interviews for its kindergarten students. This is presumably because its kindergarten has grown a lot and its popularity as a primary school has also increased in recent years.

Imagine our panic.

Fortunately for us, the kindergarten students still get some preference; their applications and interviews are done first, if I remember correctly, before admissions are opened to others. The K3 teacher also told me that in case of doubt she could vouch for our son.

The interview process was divided into two parts:

1. First we waited in a classroom with a bunch of other students and parents, a couple of whom we recognized; then the children were called in small groups to another room for about 20 minutes where they did mysterious interview things about which my son refused to provide any information, but he seemed happy enough when he came out. This must have been the part at which they tested reading/math/writing, since that didn't happen elsewhere.

2. The second part was a joint parent-student interview in a large room. Teachers were stationed at desks around the room and each dealt with one family while the other families hovered around the edges, so it was pretty noisy. By this time, our son was tired - we had to drag him over to the table when our turn came, and he slumped in the chair refusing to be polite or look at the teacher. Answers came reluctantly; teacher frustration and parental embarrassment mounted accordingly. I remember her asking once or twice, "Do you like school in HK or school in the US better?" Blank stare. Then she rephrased, "What are the differences between school in HK and in the US?" (we suspect she'd been teaching the upper grades recently). Deciding it must be a language problem, she then switched into English to pose these questions. By this point, our son was only giving yes/no answers by nodding or shaking his head. To make matters worse, we had our 16-month-old with us (shortly after this, I caved to pressure and hired a helper), and she decided to start screaming (perhaps giving voice to the collective pain around her).

We got notification of acceptance in early October and decided to go with it, partially because the thought of doing this again was too daunting. I have no idea whether his K3 teacher's opinion was solicited, or if he did well enough in part 1 of the interview to outweigh part 2, or if it was all just a formality (as far as I know, all the kids from his kindergarten class who applied were admitted).

At least child number 2, we thought, is an outgoing, social sort - what a relief! Yet at her K1 interview (at yet another school, a very ordinary local kindergarten near where we live), she hid behind my legs and refused to come out, as teachers bobbed around her speaking Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, all in an attempt to coax some response out of her....Fortunately, they didn't seem to be looking for much more than eye contact and an ability to play, so we got through. And we may never leave....