A thoroughly inquisitive mind is essential for students aspiring to enter top universities, says Paul Langman, vice-principal and academic director of private British school Bellerbys College.
A leading independent college that prepares international students for entry to such universities, Bellerbys gives its students training in admissions interviews. Interviews and a strong personal statement that shows a student's level of commitment and interest in the subject being applied for carry much weight, Langman said.
"Interviewers also ask the usual questions about why this university? Why this subject? What areas within the subject really interest you? What are your career plans? Etc."
Top candidates are also expected to demonstrate a deeper level of thinking. A frequent traveller to Hong Kong, Langman thinks that while the education system here is very good, it is not necessarily good at helping students to think for themselves.
"Quite often the mode of teaching in HK is quite factual, a matter of transferring data and facts from the teacher's head into the student's head," he said.
"Some schools sometimes do not encourage students actually to engage with the subject matter in an active way so they are necessarily thinking critically about the material being put in front of them. They need to be encouraged to do that."
He said he occasionally heard parents of various nationalities mentioning offering money directly to the universities, but each time he responded: "Admission is based on merit."
What will make the difference is what students do in their own time, Langman said. "Quite often for students going to a top university it can be quite a shock, because the level of study is so much harder, deeper than what they have been used to at school. Some find that a huge mountain to climb if they are not used to thinking on a deeper level."
The veteran educator recommends plenty of independent reading or online study, and a more constructive use of holiday time, such as internships. "It is important that students think of that not as having to do more work but as having the chance to spend more time on what should be a fascinating area for them."