Applying to primary schools in Hong Kong: a Tall tale

Up to this point, my series of articles on choosing a primary school in Hong Kong has remained quite impersonal. I've alluded to some of the things we Talls encountered in our own school search, but avoided saying how that search turned out. Well, in this article, here we go with the details . . . .

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.

Mrs Tall and I never seriously questioned the need to get into the full-scale application process for choosing one of Hong Kong's local schools. Yes, you can avoid it all by simply allowing the Education Bureau to assign your child to a school, but for most middle class Hong Kong people this is unthinkable. We are not exceptions.

As we began thinking about what schools we'd apply to, we weren't fanatical about any one school, but we did have a general plan of attack in mind.

Since we live in a 'new town' (i.e. Tseung Kwan O), we're not near any of Hong Kong's famous old schools. But Tseung Kwan O is home to several well-known Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools. So as Mrs Tall and I compiled our list of schools to apply to, we put some on, and took others off, but there was one constant: the three best-known DSS schools in Tseung Kwan O were always near the top. We liked the combination of their commitment to teaching kids the basics with their freedom to loosen up a bit on the regimented approach most local schools here take. (If you are getting confused by the jargon at this point, reading the article on 'the basics' would really help!)

Two of these schools are within five minutes' walk of our home; the other's slightly farther away, but we can look out from our housing estate's podium and see it, glimmering, right out across a stretch of reclaimed land . . . . The choice couldn't be better, really. I caught myself now and then totting up the pluses and minuses of each school, assuming deep down that -- given Daughter Tall's success in school so far, and her outgoing, cheery, interview-friendly personality -- we'd likely have to make a choice between at least a couple of these schools. In fact, even four or five years ago, when Daughter Tall was just a baby, I'd be out jogging, and would pass a couple of these schools on one of my favorite routes. I'd think, yep, that one would be fine . . . and so would that one! No problem . . . .

We kicked off the application process in good humor, way back in June of last year, accompanying Daughter Tall to a group interview at a DSS school that was perhaps our second overall choice. All seemed to go well; she reported having had fun, but since Mrs Tall and I weren't invited into the interview itself, we really didn't know how she had done. We then sat back to wait; this school promised there would be a round a second interviews, but didn't specify when.

Next, in early September, it was time for the DSS school we really wanted. This school has a serious Christian background and teaching philosophy, it teaches most of its classes in English, and it occupies a spectacular new campus. It's through-train, and its initial word of mouth was excellent.

Again, Daughter Tall was interviewed in a group, but this time Mrs Tall and I were also invited for an interview with one of the school's teachers. We knew this was coming, and had prepared ourselves thoroughly. We gave what we thought were comprehensive, reasonable responses to the questions we were asked. The teacher laughed as we finished off our final answer, remarking that we'd might as well apply to be teachers there too, so well had our answers fit in with the school's ethos. Daughter Tall also said her interview was good, so there were high spirits all around. And since this school promised to make its choices quickly, we wouldn't have long to wait. We'd be getting our letter in just a couple of weeks.

And so we did, right on the day it was promised. Mrs Tall and I were jumpy-but-positive when we rather ceremoniously opened our mailbox that day. And sure enough, there the envelope was. But when we opened it -- well, let's just say that wasn't the most cheerful evening we had last year.

This first rejection was the worst. We had heard that there were going to be lots of applicants, and the the huge crowd of bright-faced children and nervous parents at the interview day had of course brought home the reality of how much disappointment there was certain to be. But Mrs Tall and I still could hardly believe the terse paragraph turning our daughter down.

As the autumn went on, we interviewed at the last of the three Tseung Kwan O DSS schools we'd initially shortlisted. Again, things seemed to go well, but at this one Daughter Tall was relegated to a vague offer of a place on a waiting list that might be looked at next summer.

And what of that very first DSS school we interviewed at, way back in June? Well, at the point of writing (now almost nine months later) we're still waiting to hear about that second interview. We've never received an official rejection, but I think we can safely assume Daughter Tall is not on the school's shortlist.

As our chances of Daughter Tall being admitted to one of our three DSS favorites diminished, Mrs Tall and I scrambled into action and quickly applied to several schools that we'd only half-considered previously -- assuming we'd probably not need to bother. This was perhaps a disproportionate reaction, but I admit to feeling an increasing sense of -- well, not panic, exactly, but let's say dis-ease. I mentioned in one of my articles on kindergarten choice how uptight I got about the whole process. This situation was much worse. Not only were the stakes far higher -- 12 years of real schooling, not three years of coloring and paste -- but now, our first -- and second, and third -- school choices were no more. Yes, of course there were other interviews and, we hoped, some acceptances, still to come, but I must admit I went into quite a funk for a few weeks. I felt a new sense of empathy for, and indeed psychic unity with, the many Hong Kong parents who seem mildly crazed by the school application process here.

The low point for us came in late October. Like a great many other parents of five-year-old girls in Hong Kong, we'd applied to what our frequent commenter SKMama calls 'Famous Girls' School'. As Daughter Tall's obligatory interview there approached, we'd done our best to coach her to be polite, to greet the Headmistress, to show all the evidence of good breeding and right-raising that were no doubt expected. Well, it turns out that maybe these things can't be coached in a couple of weeks! When Daughter Tall came out of her interview (we were sitting outside the door of the interview room) we dragged her out of earshot as fast as we could, and started grilling her: Did you greet the Headmistress? Did you say good morning? Did you say thank you at the end? Her responses at least had the benefit of consistency: no, no and no.

Mrs Tall and I were beside ourselves for the rest of that morning, then just agreed to say to hell with the whole thing.

The series of rejections we received dragged Mrs Tall and me out onto another kind of psychological testing ground. That is, we learned just where to find the not-very-fine line between applicant and supplicant -- and we learned if -- when! -- we would cross it. What do I mean by this?

Well, lots of kids who get rejected in the initial round of admissions to Hong Kong schools still end up getting in later on. Some of these late admissions are no mystery: the school has places open up as some of the kids it's accepted end up enrolling at other schools; children on a waiting list then move up.

But I suspect -- as surely most Hong Kong parents do -- that many schools' 'waiting lists' are highly notional. Some schools may really prepare master lists of 'just missed' applicants, prioritized from 1 to who-knows-how-many, who are then called up in perfect order as admitted applicants fail to register. But there are too many completely credible stories floating around Hong Kong about people who demonstrate their willingness to go beyond normal application procedures -- that is, who beg the school/headmaster/principal for a preferential admission after receiving an initial rejection -- who in fact succeed.

This willingness to surrender your personal dignity and show zealous 'sincerity' is explicitly encouraged, in fact, at some schools. One school's headmaster, in a pre-interview information session Mrs Tall attended, told a story about a mother whose child his school had initially rejected, but who kept writing letters pleading with this headmaster to reconsider and give her kid a 'waiting list' place, and who hand-delivered these letters by cornering this very same headmaster in the school parking lot each morning as he got out of his car. Some of us would classify this kind of behavior as borderline stalking and harassment, but this gentleman not only condoned it but -- by telling the story to this year's prospective parents -- outright endorsed it.

So Mrs Tall and I talked it over: if Daughter Tall didn't get into any other schools that we liked, would I be dispatched some early morning to a nearby school parking lot, with a deeply sincere letter in hand?

In the end, we didn't need to answer that question, because Daughter Tall did get into a couple of schools we were happy enough with, but we did not laugh off the possibility of going through with it.

So where will Daughter Tall actually be a student next year? By November we'd made up our minds: there's a fourth DSS school in Tseung Kwan O, which is less well-known than the other three. It wasn't on our initial list, but when we started getting rejections, we went ahead and applied there, and Daughter Tall was accepted. The more we learned about the school, the better it looked, although it was of course not perfect. But we felt quite settled and happy with the choice.

Our application story ended in late December, when we checked our mailbox to find the final response we were waiting for to round out the whole experience, i.e. the one from Famous Girls' School. And sure enough, it was another very slim envelope that awaited us, with a message just as terse as that first one we'd received in September.

But this one simply asked if we'd mind returning the form included to indicate that we'd accept the place for Daughter Tall that was on offer. We were happy to oblige.


Congratulations & word of caution

Congratulations to you all!

It's wonderful news that Daughter Tall (DT) has been accepted by Famous Girls' School. I really hope she will enjoy her time there and learn lots of things and make many friends.

However, a word of caution. Once she starts, she (and both you parents) may suffer from new forms of anguish. The pressure of exams is high and from my own experience at a CMI Famous Girls' School and from my friends' and neighbors who send their daughters to the EMI one in Jordan, it can be painful. Even if your daughter does well, she may have to cope with weeping classmates at exam results time.

Constantly assess how happy your daughter is and how she is coping. She may do very well and be very happy (I hope and trust she will be) - but also be prepared to have to hire tutors in the not-to-distant future. I have one acquaintance who is an Old Girl of the EMI one and at one point she said her part-time job was basically enough to pay for her daughter's tutors. After F3, she ended up sending them to a Famous Girls' School in Scotland where the pressure is less and they could enjoy more sports. Once in a moment of frustration she said "They just assign tons of homework and the parents have to teach it or hire tutors, that's how they maintain their great reputation!". As I said, this was from an Old Girl who has a certain amount of love and loyalty for the school.

That said, a lot of girls love it and thrive and their parents are pleased with the school. I really hope that will be the case for your family.

My daughter has some friends

My daughter has some friends from that Famous Girls School in Jordan. Repeating year seems to be the norm for those who are active in sports. The repeaters I know of all look to me decent and well-bred girls.


Thanks for the congrats, SKMama, and for the words of caution. We've heard several similar assessments of FGS -- i.e. that they really leave a lot of instruction up to parents. Daughter Tall is already getting tutoring in Mandarin, plus extra coaching/work from Mrs Tall in reading/writing Chinese, so we're right on board the academic bandwagon!

Anon, thanks also for the post -- I didn't know about the practice repeating there. Daughter Tall does not look to me to be a likely 2024 Olympic athelete, but I guess you never know . . . .

not only fgs

Well done on your superb blend of excellent genes and great nuturing to get your daughter into the FGS.  Yes, I'm sure they require a lot of parental and tutoring support, but so do all the famous name schools, international and others.  It seems to be par for the course here.  I think the best you can do as parents is to carry on nurturing your child and ensuring they don't suffer from self-esteem issues along the way where they think that they are their results ...

Good luck 

Very helpful artical! Thanks

Very helpful artical! Thanks again.

fgs experience

hello mr tall,

i grew up in hong kong and i attended one of the fgs in jordan from primary 1 till form 7, then i continued my undergraduate and graduate studies in the States.

i was very engaged in ECAs( extracurricular activities), participated in several sports teams, also very involved in theatre production in my secondary school period.

i really recommend letting your daughter participate in things that interests her. when i told my mother i did not enjoy piano lessons, she said ' alright, but you still have to pick one thing that you will like to learn about, develop a hobby' , i ended up attending drawing class every Saturday for 13 years and now i am an architect. ( although i did not get to learn any musical instruments, and i was the only one in my class that do not play any instruments...which is fine)

the best thing about the school is that every student is given an opportunity to explore your potential.
i used to be a 'bookworm' in primary school days, i hated PE lessons (physical education); when i got into secondary school, i was very much encouraged to try several sports because i am rather tall. i ended up playing basketball, volleyball, netball and doing athletics for the next 7 years. it has helped me grow both mentally and physically and until today, when i think about my secondary school time, despite the stress for exams, tests... HKCEE and A-Levels, it was a really happy time.

I have discovered so much of my potential, made so many good friends, learned so much about dealing with stress, when i went to the States for college; i was really much more mature compare to my fellow classmates.

Talking about private tutor, my mother never forced me to get one; she would always ask me whether i needed one.
i had an English tutor from p.4-6, shared with 2 other classmates, mostly dealing with writing, it has helped me a lot and it was never a pain to go to her, it was always fun.
i had a math tutor from p.4-6 too, but i asked for it. my math was not very good .

When i started secondary school, i never had private tutor again. i had learnt to balance my time with ECAs and school work myself.

i attended extra classes at one of those tutoring schools ( a not so famous one) for my hkcee, only for chemistry, but it was totally out of my own need because that teacher was really good. i did well in my hkcee, continued my study at the same school for f.6 and f.7

For A Levels, i did not attend any extra classes, i was still doing sports, doing drama production, more busy then ever actually because by then, i was captain for several teams. the more responsibility i had, the more i felt like i have to do a good job balancing everything.

A Level was a terrible experience, but after that i have no fear for exams anymore, hahaa. i did well, and i was lucky that my family can support me to go overseas.

After 8 years in the States, i am working in Switzerland now, doing design, learning about buildings.

I have always loved my school, no matter how frustrated it was dealing with the bureaucracy of the school structure, the stress of exams… my life, beliefs, character…were all shaped there, I believed it has only do me good, through good times and bad times 

All the best!

FGS experience

Thanks so much for writing up that testimonial! Mrs Tall and I both read it and were encouraged. Daughter Tall has a lot of extra-curricular interests already, and we really are hoping that she'll be able to try out and explore a range of them just as you have.

Best wishes in your studies in Switzerland!


Getting ready for HK

Hi there!  Thanks for sharing your journey to finding the right school for your children.  I have a 2 yr & a 4 yr old and am prepraring to move to Hong Kong.  I was wondering how your kids are doing and if you have recommendations for current schools and what neigborhood would be best for us to move to in order to get into a good school.  Thanks in advance for your time.