Trick lies in learning to think and speak in English
A good rapport with teachers, ample practice and not least of all, test-taking skills, are offered by courses that prepare students for such high-stakes challenges as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).
TOEFL instructor Richard Avery of Princeton Review Hong Kong usually arrives in class 20 minutes beforehand for an informal chat with his students. He encourages them to share things that interest them, be they cartoons, chocolate or shopping, in class, in order to get them to think and speak in English.
'What we have to do with TOEFL is to be able to have students thinking in English and expressing their opinions in English. I also offer them a template: whatever they say, they have to give a reason, details and examples. Always using examples and details to back your arguments up - that's a real major focus, even within the essays and the speaking part of the test,' Mr Avery said.
TOEFL covers the four areas of English proficiency: speaking, reading, listening and writing.
Mr Avery is tied up with the 40-hour preparation courses taken mostly by Form Five students, most of whom are attempting to enter American colleges next year. There are 15 students in each class. Every sixth day they will take an examination in a computer room to practice various skills and familiarise themselves with the test format.
Mr Avery also teaches students ways to identify correct answers in the multiple sections of the test, but what he pushes most is to get students to think in English, he said.
Admissions into American universities often depend on SAT scores as well. Summer is a popular time for school leavers to take a preparation course for the test considered difficult globally, said Shantanu Tandon, a SAT instructor and associate director at Princeton Review.
'We recommend students take a course in the summer, practice, then take the test in November, December or January. Some students also want to do the SAT subject tests, such as maths, English, biology, chemistry and physics.'
Even though Hong Kong students are very good, they may not achieve the score required by their favourite university on the first attempt, he said.
'Some students take it several times. Our course can improve test scores by an average of 250,' said Mr Tandon, a graduate of the University of Colorado who has taught the course in the United States and the Middle East.
Top institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley require a SAT score of at least 2,100. SAT comprises three core sections: critical reading, maths and writing skills. Each carries a maximum score of 800.
Mr Tandon said time-saving strategy was important. 'This test has a lot of tricks and traps, the ways the questions are asked, so strategy becomes important. We teach them time management and how to work smarter, not harder because the number one thing is students never find they have enough time during the test.'
Students are also taught to do 'active, objective reading' in reading and comprehension. 'Our strategy is to quickly read a passage in a couple of minutes, then when you read a question about a specific part of the passage, go to the passage and read that part quickly and answer the question,' said Mr Tandon. 'Our course is designed to improve students' weaknesses so they can get a score of at least 1,800.'
Kaplan, another major provider of the English test preparation courses in Hong Kong, incorporates vocabulary building, idiom familiarisation and language practice in addition to the usual test-taking strategies.
Oral practices in the language lab are useful training, said Kaplan's director of test preparation, Vicky Moy. 'Students who practice in our speaking lab are much more confident and better able to respond to impromptu questions.'
Ms Moy added that all Kaplan's courses are designed with the exam format in mind and teach students key concepts and strategies to succeed in the tests.