Primary school application time!

Here's an update on Daughter Tall's primary school application process. Now that the ticking clock counting down the seconds until she'll be a P1 student has become a virtual tympani in our brains -- after all, there's only a year and two months to go -- it's just about all we've been thinking about anyway.

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.

In all seriousness, the first phase in the application process for the 2008 school year really has begun, and we've already submitted a couple of applications to 'DSS', i.e. Direct Subsidy Scheme, schools near our home. They're both relatively new schools that are given the normal amount of government funding, but then are allowed to charge a limited amount of monthly tuition; they're therefore much cheaper than international schools or truly private schools, but not free. DSS schools also have significant autonomy in how they set their curricula, organize their staff -- and handle their admissions. So these two schools have decided the way to get the best batch of new students is to try to cherry-pick them by setting their admissions applications deadlines as early as possible.

This isn't a bad development for Mrs Tall and me, as it's forced us to get Daughter Tall's application packet in order. For the uninitiated among you readers, this isn't a joke. Parents of applicants to 'selective' primary schools in Hong Kong must prepare what seems to me a preposterously elaborate set of documents to attach to each school's application form. I don't know if Hong Kong schools would automatically throw out any application forms that arrived sans this 'student profile', but everyone certainly assumes they would.

The first element in the package is a cover letter, much like the cover letter you'd put on a job application/CV.

Now let me give you an example of what's suggested you write in your cover letter. The following excerpt is taken from a locally-published book that's all about how to apply to Hong Kong primary schools:

Dear XXX,

It gives me great honour to write to you. We met last month to your school Opening Day, and at the time, my daughter, XXX and I were impressed by the virtues your pupils presented and the academic excellence they maintained. I also agree with your adoption of the cross-curriculum methodology to broaden pupils' horizon and the mission to empower pupils with teachers of very high calibre. Such nourishing environment has confirmed our decision to apply to your school.

XXX shares the same view with full enthusiasm. She actively joins an array of enlightening courses that can equip her with essential knowledge, thus building up her confidence. I believe this initiative is the main reason that your pupils are always outstanding. More encouragingly, my husband and I discover that XXX has potent language ability, especially in reading English literatures. This trait is exceptionally suited to your school's emphasis on language training. Therefore, given the opportunity to unleash her potentials, XXX can garner glories for your school in years to come.

XXX transcends the ordinary childhood with her exceptional skill in musical pursuit. She plays piano always, with her toes when her fingers are too bloody from constant practice. She sings bass in the Hong Kong youth choir, and soloed in several singing competition (see certificates). She is accomplished in art, and recreates scenes from The Journey to the West in toothpicks and M&M candy. She is a plumber, and keeps our sewerage pipes shiny and clear. She can levitate for several minutes. She cannot yet walk on water, but I am sure she would acquire this crucial skill quickly from you and your school's highly esteemed staff and students.

All right, all right, I added that last paragraph myself -- it's quoted from my own cover letter in support of Daughter Tall's application -- no, no, I made it up in a fit of pique. Seriously, though, the first two paragraphs really are quoted verbatim from the book. And, interestingly, they're also quoted almost as exactly in a completely different book on school admission Mrs Tall bought to supplement the first! No point reinventing the wheel, is there? As for Daughter Tall's real cover letter, let's just say I chose to come up with my own template and wording.

In addition to the letter, we had to prepare a sort of curriculum vitae. This presented Daughter Tall's personal details, and perhaps more critically, Mrs Tall's and my own. Then it had a section listing out all the classes and courses Daughter Tall has taken, and then another one that described her developmental/academic milestones.

The next section featured scanned images of several of Daughter Tall's certificates. As Saikungmama has warned us, you denigrate the importance of certificates at your peril. Mrs Tall and I had a brief worrying session before we started on the school applications because Daughter Tall had so few certificates; most of the classes and lessons she's taking hadn't led to any, e.g. piano, swimming and drawing. But then Mrs Tall realized we could just ask for them, and sure enough, all of her teachers ponied up extremely official-looking certs that seem fine to us.

The final section was a page of more scans, this time of family photos and examples of Daughter Tall's writing.

It's a surprisingly big relief to have a working version of this application profile in hand. Now we can just tweak it to fit the requirements of each application we make, just as you would for job apps.

The main source of remaining trouble is filling in the schools' applications forms, which Mrs Tall is going to have to handle, since they're mainly in Chinese. The form for the first school we applied to was simple, but the second certainly wasn't. Mrs Tall, who is a normally a very composed sort of person, was ranting about questions in this applications such as 'Tell us what it is about our teaching staff that you find so attractive'. Aaaaaaaaahhhh.

The big lesson I learned -- or re-learned, I guess, since it's obvious enough even I'd picked up on it -- is that these applications are just as much -- or more -- about Mrs Tall and me as they are about Daughter Tall. In many ways, the forms and 'suggested' elements of these portfolios are aimed at revealing how committed Mom and Dad are to educating Junior on their own. In the photo spread, for example, it's suggested that you include photos of you and the Mrs taking your kid to museums, engaging in healthy outdoor activities, and taking trips that 'broaden horizons'.

Applications also force parents to include their job titles and employers -- for purely demographic, research-based purposes, no doubt. And the whole process of preparing such an elaborate set of supporting documents reveals quite a lot about parents' educations levels, competence in using English, and again commitment to actually going to the amount of trouble it entails.

Daughter Tall's first group interview is coming up soon, so that's the next phase, and I'm sure I'll have more to report then. In the meantime, we'd love to hear more application stories from readers!


Play the game?

As always, we've got that extra year before MissB Sr. faces this. I'm not looking forward to it.

The form letter you quote above is scary. Well, not scary in itself, but scary that any school head could read it and believe it. They are smart people, so I can't believe they would. It seems more about checking that the parents and child will fit in, and not be 'difficult'. So if you've bought the right books, sent your children along to the right pre-interview tutors, and written a letter that conforms to the normal standards, you're demonstrating you know the rules, and will slot right in.

I'm with you in hoping that a genuine, if slightly different, application letter will stand out from the cookie-cutter applications and be well received. Or are we just being naive?


Play the game?

Mr Tall,

Go on, I dare you to submit the 3rd paragraph!!!

This school application business is something with which I have absolutely no experience but that won't stop me from having an opinion!

Some of our staff take leave during this time of year just to make sure their little ones are admitted into the right primary/secondary schools. You can quite often see desparate and exasperated parents dragging their offspring from school to school. Taxi drivers have a field day.

Mr B hit the nail on the head - in HK the culture is all about fitting in and what advantage you can offer.  I did find the form letter scary - all the right things were noted in creepingly obsequious terms.  It makes a mockery of education and the values we would hope schools to help instill into future generations.

I'm sure that an original letter written in good english and honest terms would find favour. If it didn't, then why on earth would you want MissT to attend such a school?


Interesting reading Mr

Interesting reading Mr Tall!


I wonder if you can provide the name of that book on primary school applications. Would like to research the matter myself to 'know' what's expected on the local scene.


The iwfe has just asked me to put a portfolio together for our daughter. Your information has been most helpful. I knew I took all those digital photos for a reason. But how many picutres are required?

Laugh out loud!

I just loved your last paragraph.  Its the funniest thing you've put on your website yet!  I think you certainly need to add the fact that you run this website in your CV!

I'm just not so sure that there is a highly developed sense of humour in the head's or admissions officers of these schools, otherwise they couldn't help but see the irony in what is going on?

I must say I sighed a great sigh of relief when HK Academy accepted my son.  After his 'interview' (it was just an open session in the class room with the class teacher, some playing areas, and we could sit in) my conclusion was that only a teacher who was looking for a challege would accept him....

 An off-beat suggestion.  I seem to recall reading in "what color is your parachute" (a book about job seeking), that having an innovative approach to your CV can work.  How about taking all those digial photos and certificates and home videos and creating a DVD which presents your child and you in the best possible light!  (memories on TV is a program I use for this type of thing).  It would certainly let you stand out (assuming of course they bother to watch it)...

Good luck! 

Application guidebooks

Hi Flickserve;

Sorry not to reply sooner -- I missed your post for a bit.

We've actually got three books like that; they're all in Chinese, so I'm afraid I can't put in the Chinese names, but I'll try to give you some info you can use.

One is put out by the Eugene Group; it's just their guide to primary schools.

The next one is published by an outfit that's called something like 'Siu Ngau Seh', i.e. 'Little Cow Committee', according to Mrs Tall.

The final one is published by Ming Pao; again it's just their primary schools guide. 

I think they're all widely available.

As for the photos, we included about five or so; but I know other people put in more.

Hope this helps!


Thank You

Dear MrTall,


Thankyou for the information. Some of your information is quite curious. Especially this one -

"The main source of remaining trouble is filling in the schools' applications forms, which Mrs Tall is going to have to handle, since they're mainly in Chinese. The form for the first school we applied to was simple, but the second certainly wasn't. Mrs Tall, who is a normally a very composed sort of person, was ranting about questions in this applications such as 'Tell us what it is about our teaching staff that you find so attractive'. Aaaaaaaaahhhh."

Isn't there the option of using english for the application? Or, are you applying to schools which are using chinese medium of instruction?

And that 2nd italicised comment - that is in jest, right?



guides to primary schools

Here are the Chinese titles for some of the common guides to primary schools (and they are also available for kindergartens and middle schools). You can find them in the 親子教育 [family and education / parenting] sections of Chinese bookstores. They come out every year and cost around $110-120.

The bulk of these is information about schools, either in the form of a standard chart of basic facts or a 1-2 page essay (with many color photos). But there is also some information about the nature of the school application process, the types of schools available, and advice  (e.g. "A principal teaches you how to prepare for the interview"; do's and don't for raising an outstanding child; the minimum number of points needed in the POA to have a hope of gaining entrance to popular aided schools, etc.). Alas, my current crop of guidebooks lacks the amusing model application letter, but I did see it in an earlier year and can attest that he did not exaggerate at all....

全港小學選校指南 [All Hong-Kong guide to choosing a primary school], published by 荷花 (Eugene Group).

Organized geographically by school net; provides a chart for each school with information such as address and contact details, year of founding, principal's name, religious or organizational affiliation, costs, co-ed or single sex, total number of students, number of classes per grade, teacher-student ratio, teacher qualifications, number of years teachers have taught at school, number of foreign/Mandarin/special subject teachers, number of places to be allocated by POA and total number of places, square footage of school, gifted classes or not (and if so, how many or for which grades), bus service (school bus, nanny bus), affiliated secondary school, percentage for which it was first choice, PTA, names of two or three middle schools most graduates attend, number of quizzes and tests on which grades are based (this is not the number of quizzes given in class, but the ones which count formally towards grades, especially important for middle school applications), other forms of assessment, extra-curricular activities, remedial or other support available to students, activities for parents (such as seminars on how to apply to middle school, volunteer opportunities, etc.), areas where the school has won prizes.

Note that the information provided is minimal (available/not available) and some items may say "information not provided." Also, this information can be obtained from the edb website and / or school home pages. Interestingly the kindergarten guide tells you language of instruction, but the primary school one doesn't.

Still, I found this to be the most useful, at least for getting a sense of what is available, because it is comprehensive for local schools and the standard form made it easy to compare. It's small (few pictures and practically no ads, hooray!) so easy to carry around, and for me it's more convenient to flip through a book than to click back and forth through webpages.

全港小學入學天書小學精選 [Selected primary schools -- the all-Hong Kong primary school admissions guide], also published by 荷花 (Eugene Group).

The first 30 pages are advisory; the rest of the book are profiles of 35 individual schools Eugene has selected as particularly worthy. This year it is 15 aided school (5 each from HK, Kowloon, and NT); 10 private schools; and 10 DSS schools. Besides an essay detailing the special characteristics and approach of each school, there is a picture of the outside of each school; various shots of students in the happy throes of learning, achieving, lunching; blurbs from the principal, 1 or more students, and sometimes a parent. Here's an example from a few years ago for PLK Castar

小一入學家長天書 [The parents' guide to primary one admission], published by 星島日報 (Sing Tao Daily)

A two-volume set (at least this year). The main volume covers private and aided schools with a chart approach (but the charts are less comprehensive, although larger, than the first Eugene one); within each type, schools are arranged by educational net or geographic location (since private schools aren't technically in nets). The supplement provides profiles, with chart and pictures of building and students, of 21 DDS schools throughout Hong Kong. For many, but not all, there is some information on the likely nature of the interview (separate or with parents; group activity or individual) and any special points to more emphasis on English skills in the entrance interview).

全港優質小學大檢閱 [All Hong Kong review of outstanding primary schools], published by 小牛出版社

I haven't found a picture of the cover online and I don't own one myself, so the link here is to a rather illegible table of contents. Here is a much clearer example of their review of  PLK Castor (2009-10). A number of schools seem to provide links to reviews by Little Cow, so it seems like people take it seriously. They appear to take a combined chart/essay approach; and you can see that they do note language of instruction here.