The Right Choice
Aegis Advisors helps candidates and parents with all aspects of a university application
Choosing a university course, and deciding where to take it, can be a confusing process for teenagers and their parents. It’s tough enough getting into a target degree programme in Hong Kong. However, if the objective is to win a coveted university place in the US or Britain, it’s vital to have a good understanding of how the application system works, and what admission officers look for.
The most important thing is to make sure the choices made are the “right fit” for the individual student. Doing that is not always easy, especially as young people in their formative years may be unsure where their true talents lie. Interests and aptitudes are still developing, and it’s sometimes difficult to know where a certain path might lead, or what it will take to achieve a specific goal.
That’s where Aegis Advisors comes in. The Hong Kong and Singapore based education advisory firm, which has been operating successfully for the past nine years, specialises in guiding clients through the entire process of preparing for, and applying to, universities in the US and Britain.
Everything Aegis does is based on a collaborative approach. It starts with meetings to understand the broader hopes of the parents and the child. At this initial stage, the advisor would discuss the educational goals, academic and extracurricular interests, personal strengths and weaknesses with respect to the final goal. Getting to understand the student in this way makes it much easier to suggest next steps. The aim is to come up with a mutually agreed game plan on how best to proceed. Each plan is highly personalised, and kept under close review.
Furthermore, the game plan is constantly evolving; an advisor can work with a student over multiple years. Support is given towards achieving grades, exploration of interests and profile building. Aegis Advisors can recommend contacts, or assist in arranging such activities. The key priority is to help each child find what is best for them, and work towards their future direction. Plenty of practical advice is given along the way. This advice covers everything from the mechanics of applying to universities, to understanding expectations, preparing for interviews, and dealing with exams or admission tests.
The intention is to bridge any gaps in knowledge or skills between what the schools teach and what the top UK or US universities expect, and therefore improve each candidate’s chance of admission to their preferred university. One part of that consists of looking at the student’s academic performance and all-round profile. Another part is helping a student avoid making the mistakes which can arise from an unfamiliarity with the process, or wrong assumptions. A third part ensures all the essential paperwork is in order for each separate application, including essays, personal statements, reference letters and – in the case of the US – SAT or ACT scores.
“We are quite holistic in what we do,” says Aegis Advisors Co-Founder and Director Dan Chen, a graduate and former admissions interviewer of Columbia University. “A lot of it comes down to mentorship, which helps kids figure out what matters to them, and partnering with parents to help them make wise educational choices. We team up with families to help the teens and tweens reach their ultimate goals.” The age range of hopefuls stretches from 10 to 18, since the company also advises on applying to boarding schools in the US and Britain.
“Our role is to encourage kids to be the best that they can be, and encourage them to put their best foot forward,” says Cindy Hah, Co-Founder and Director of Aegis Advisors, and alumni and former admissions interviewer for Princeton University. “As advisors, we act as our students’ big brothers and big sisters. We listen to them and coach them to explore options and to spend their time and energy wisely. It takes a lot of thought, but it is very effective.”
As an example, one-to-one sessions with a 15-year-old would typically involve a discussion around what will be required in the university preparation process, and highlight the admissions criteria. After assessing where the student current stands against the admissions process, a plan of action is established.
“A lot of kids don’t have these conversations, they just follow the flow,” Chen says. “They don’t take ownership of their own education or ambitions when they should. Some parents are very involved, but others are more ‘checked out’. We navigate through different family dynamics and assess the whole spectrum of choices.”
The company has extensive experience advising on actual applications, too. “We work through every nut and bolt of the process,” Hah says. “During the years of mentorship, the kids should have developed a good profile. We review essays, do interview preparation, help choose references, and offer views on the pros and cons of various US colleges and universities.”
If students are aiming to attend a boarding school or university in Britain, the services offered are similarly comprehensive. They are tailored to the UK system, where admissions offices look mainly at academic records and other experience directly relevant to the course being applied. The key difference between the US and the UK system is that UK applicants write one statement to apply across 5 different universities on the UCAS application system. Therefore, students do need to select their subjects and universities strategically. “Unlike the US, where you do not need to declare your major during the first two years, the UK universities offer students a degree that is centred around an academic discipline. Any budding lawyers and medics can study law or medicine at an undergraduate level, and will need to prepare their academic profiles accordingly.” Aegis Advisors Lucy Lau and Jennifer Liu who head up UK Advisory Services at Aegis Advisors.
Liu, a Cambridge graduate herself, adds that being strategic on university and degree selection is very important. To some Hong Kong students, studying in a quaint university town like Cambridge or Durham are preferred to being in the midst of the hustle and bustle of London. However, if a student is interested in fashion design or finance, London may be a better bet due to the exposure and internship opportunities available in the city. It pays to spend the time to research and plan on the application process as offers are made on a rolling basis.
When to Make a Change
Certain “red flags” indicate that candidates need to make changes to achieve their goals, says Cindy Hah, Director of Aegis Advisors.
If kids don’t read enough, they may find it difficult to reach or maintain the established foundation level in English. Therefore, we recommend reading lists, including books and articles based on our discussions and ongoing interaction with the student. We don’t want them to just keep reading Harry Potter. We suggest some of the best known American and English classics. If, for example, a kid is interested in environmental issues or robotics, we try to find recent articles, biographies, or website sources for them.
If they are aiming for a university place, it is important for kids to be informed about major local, regional and international issues. They should know what is going on in the world. This could include knowing something about start-ups in Hong Kong, or the main things the two candidates in the US presidential election stand for.
It should be the kids who drive the process, not their parents. Not surprisingly, a lot of parents in Hong Kong have very strong points of view, but we want to help kids develop their own voice and ask themselves why they do certain things.
In the long run, it doesn’t pay to spend all your time studying. Remember that other activities are important for all-round development. Getting into university is not all about grades and perfect scores. Try to balance these with other interests and personality traits, and become engaged with the wider community.
No one should be too impressed by university rankings or “brand names”. Finding the right fit for each individual student is what counts.
A lot of people have highly unrealistic expectations when they start this process. Part of our job is to explain what is realistic before agreeing how to work together in the best interests of the child.
We hear stories of families who pay for years of tutoring, and then fill out university application forms in a hurry. Sometimes they do it far too casually. As a result, these candidates don’t present themselves properly on paper. It is vital to spend enough time preparing, and then double checking, everything you submit.
In Hong Kong, there is tendency to create a generic profile of extra-curricular activities. This typically includes playing the piano, being part of the debating team or Model United Nations, playing tennis, volunteering overseas with an NGO, and teaching English to recent immigrants. The result is that no one really stands out. Instead, it may be better to pursue alternative interests and “drop” something from the generic list.
We always remember that kids still need to be kids. As far as possible, learning should be fun. We aim to reflect that in everything we do.