Ice guys strive to finish first
His best articles in the school magazine, years of playing clarinet, a stint as vice-head prefect ... the list goes on. When Lloyd Chan Long-yu submitted his university applications in December, he included a portfolio featuring his extra-curricular accomplishments.
Topping the list was an 18-day expedition to Antarctica in 2010 sponsored by the Yan Oi Tong charity. Only 15 students from Hong Kong were chosen to go on the trip, so Long-yu, 17 and a Form Six student at Sha Tin Tsung Tsin Secondary School, reckons it will boost his chance of admission.
'It's my greatest achievement attained so far,' he says, adding that he examined the effects of tourism on Antarctica as part of his trip, and highlighted the experience in his university admission essay and interview.
With the inaugural Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams just a month away, Form Six students are busily reviewing their lessons. But they know that unlike previous years, exam results will no longer be the key factor in admission to university.
This stems from a new criterion-based assessment system introduced under the 2009 education reforms. It is expected to yield large numbers of candidates with similar scores, so university officials must look to other qualities, including rounded development, to tell them apart.
'The education landscape has changed substantially,' says Grace Chow Chan Man-yuen, director of admissions and financial aid at Chinese University.
In the past, grades were awarded based on how well the student performed compared with others in the same year - 'norm-referenced' testing. Used as a way to decide on college entrance by fixing the percentage who could receive certain grades, this sorted candidates into a bell-curve distribution, with a few people scoring at the high and low ends, and the bulk clustered in the middle.
Faced with masses of similarly ranked candidates under the new criterion-referenced exams, university officials say the selection process will place greater emphasis on admission interviews, aptitude tests and extra-curricular activities.
Selection interviews, once administered only sporadically, will be required for more than 90 per cent of first-year disciplines at Chinese University, says Chow.
University officials interviewed thousands of hopefuls in November - the first time interviews were conducted at such an early stage - and a second round will be held in May after the DSE exams.
The interviews and aptitude tests will be used to differentiate people with the same scores, says HKU student recruitment counsellor Francisca Kwok Suk-wai.
'We also require students to demonstrate leadership potential from their record in extra-curricular activities. Instead of dabbling in a lot of activities, students should strive to excel in one or two interests and show that they have made contributions in their respective fields.'
The scramble for the 14,500 subsidised university places available will be tougher for DSE candidates. Under the old system, about 17,000 of 30,000 candidates sitting for A-levels annually would be eligible for admission. With the elimination of Form Five public exams, an estimated 77,000 students will sit the DSE exams, of whom more than 20,000 are expected to meet university requirements.
This is why, good academic foundations aside, students must join extra-curricular activities to impress the universities, says Dr Mak Yiu-kwong, principal of CMA Secondary School in Sham Shui Po.
The school does its best to help students bolster their resumes: 'We organise adventure trips, classes in hairstyling, first aid and magic tricks,' Mak says. 'When they complete the activities, students get certificates of participation.'
To nurture all-round development, students are no longer split into arts and science streams when they advance to Form Four. Instead, besides the four compulsory subjects (Chinese, English, maths and liberal studies), they are required to take two or three electives from a range of disciplines including history, accounting and information technology.
Extra-curricular activities - known as 'other learning experiences' (OLE) - are a new requirement of the reformed senior academic structure that extends learning beyond the classroom. In the three years from Form Four to Form Six, students must complete 405 hours of OLE activities.
Each student's OLE participation is recorded in their Student Learning Profile, which is submitted to the Joint University Programmes Admission System (Jupas) in December. Those who want to further impress admission officials can hand in two essays for good measure: a 1,000-word article reflecting on their OLE experiences and a 300-word statement spelling out their university and career aspirations.
Although optional, Mak says most students at CMA have submitted articles to boost their chances of admission.
Besides running writing workshops to help students polish their articles, the school also invited three university professors to conduct interview workshops, with students honing their techniques in individual and joint sessions.
'Secondary students have little idea of how a university interview is conducted,' Mak says. 'From what to wear to speaking techniques, we coach them on everything that will help them stand out.
'Such non-academic training is especially important for schools like ours. We are not a high-ranked school that boasts a high university admission rate. If our students get scores similar to their competitors, an outstanding performance in interviews and broad exposure to extra-curricular activities may help tip the balance in their favour.'
At the Hong Kong Taoist Association's Tang Hin Memorial Secondary School in Sheung Shui, principal Lau Chi-yuen isn't leaving anything to chance, either.
Following two universities' early admission interviews in November, teachers debriefed students who attended to find out what kinds of questions were being asked.
'The information is valuable for students who might have to attend admission interviews later,' Lau says.
Interview training and other preparations for university admission have put pressure on both teachers and students.
'Under the old system, nearly everybody from our school could enter university,' Lau says. 'But it's difficult to attain this rate under the new system. Students are very worried about their chances.
'Teachers need to read students' admission essays and help polish them. They also need to corroborate claims that students make in their Student Learning Profiles. While there's no question with OLE activities organised through the school, teachers need to verify those done outside. I need to give my endorsement of those activities as a principal.'
Despite concerns, Chinese University's Chow says students nowadays have a greater sense of direction than their predecessors.
'Students now are less likely to devote all their attention to academic pursuits at the expense of other interests,' she says.
'When we conducted the first round of interviews in November, we were afraid that Form Six students, with one year less schooling than their predecessors, might be at a loss over what they want to do in the future. But they performed very well. They set clear goals before advancing to senior forms and joined activities that would help them attain their future career paths.'
Outstanding OLE records can improve the odds of university admission.
'Such a record can show the all-round development of a student,' says Professor Walter Yuen Wai- wah, vice-president of academic affairs at Polytechnic University.
At Baptist University, academic registrar So Kwok-sang says: 'A well-written self-reflection can show how a student evolves over his three years in senior secondary. A student under the new academic structure is exposed to a wide spectrum of experiences; they can explain how these relate to their futures.'
This is why Chan Hon-to, a Form Six student at Yan Ping Industrial & Commercial Association's Lee Lim Ming College in Tuen Mun, is highlighting his ice hockey career. He hopes the sporting achievements can make up for a less-than-stellar academic record.
'My academic results are, at best, mediocre,' concedes Hon-to, 18.
He took up ice hockey while in Form Four and joined the Hong Kong Amateur Hockey Club the following year. He did well enough to captain the Hong Kong team in an international youth competition in September. Although they did well before losing to Japan in the final, he reckons they learned much from the foreign teams.
'I played up the hockey playing in my admission essay,' Hon-to says. 'The sport has taught me the importance of hard work and team spirit. Before taking up ice hockey, I used to get dejected easily. The sport has enhanced my endurance and perseverance.'