Many parents hope to give their children Ivy League or Oxbridge educations. For some, such as Karen Leung, nothing else would do. A chartered accountant, Leung was far more upset than her son was when his teachers at Island School said that his academic record didn't look strong enough to get him admitted into the law faculty at Oxford. Her son's grades were just above average, and they had to be top-notch to get him in.
'I lost 5kg,' she says.
However, Leung refused to give up and enrolled her son in Arch Academy, a coaching centre that helps students get into top colleges in the US and Britain. She paid HK$15,000 to enrol him in a 10-session programme covering topics such as how to write a personal statement to go with his university application. It was money well spent: last year her son won a full scholarship to study law at Oxford.
'The interview techniques he learned also helped him win over admission officials,' says Leung, who declined to give her son's name because 'he doesn't want his Oxford teachers to know that he received coaching'.
Besides the swarm of cram schools that teach how to master exam techniques, various consultancies cater to families considering overseas educations for their children. More recently, Arch Academy and Senate House (both set up in 2009) have emerged to offer customised help for those set on getting into prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Cambridge. Arch has gone from 14 students when it opened to more than 500 in three years.
'If they set their sights on top universities, preparation should start early,' says Jennifer Ma Yin-wai, co-founder of Arch Academy, whose youngest student is 10.
Differences in philosophies and schedules of universities in Britain and the US will determine families' course of action. Students in the US could decide on a major at any time, but Britain requires a candidate to select their main discipline before they even start. And while Americans generally prefer students to have all-round development, British universities tend to value academic rigour.
That's why students planning to go to Britain get discipline-specific training early, says Ma, an economics graduate of Oxford. Would-be law students might take part in mock trials, for example, while aspiring medical students are exposed to topics ranging from stem cell research to abortion ethics.
Arch Academy employs about 10 academics to coach students in various disciplines, but the less academically inclined needn't be disheartened.
'We identify students' strengths and get them to join activities that can play up their strengths,' says Ma. 'If students have established a track record in community service or extracurricular activities or leadership skills [when they apply], they can help make up for the less-than-stellar academic results.'
Remarkably, the choice of where to study may be based partly on a romantic image of intellectual pursuit amid the dreaming spires of Oxford or the Gothic cathedrals of Cambridge. With the two universities made up of dozens of colleges, parents and students should get an understanding of the unique character and culture in a institution before they apply, says Senate House co-founder Samuel Lun Wing-ho.
'Many parents tell us they want to apply to King's College in Cambridge, where the ancient buildings serve as a backdrop for tourist photos, but they know nothing beyond that. They don't realise that it's the college which decides on admission rather than the university. Instead of identifying a college that suits their children's temperament, their only concern is ranking,' says Lun, a former Credit Suisse risk analyst who holds a master's degree in engineering from Cambridge.
'There are around 30 colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, which compete with one another for the best candidates. Each college and each has specific recruitment criteria. Colleges within the same university may have different requirements, so it can be confusing even to teachers.'
Pembroke is a small college in Oxford known for its rowing prowess; Trinity College in Cambridge produces the most Nobel laureates and has a more scholarly atmosphere; and some colleges rarely accept foreign students. 'As you can make only five choices, you should make sure that what you apply for really suits you,' Lun says.
Jon Mills, a manager with Harvard University Asia Centre, suggests families can look beyond coaching centres when seeking help with university entry in the US.
'Students should do thorough research beforehand and choose schools that match their skills and who they are,' Mills says.
As there are about 3,000 American colleges and universities that differ in all sorts of ways, Mills says campus visits can help families see what the institution's atmosphere is like and get a sense of what its mission is. They can also draw on alumni networks or teachers who have attended Ivy League schools to find out what are difficulties in being admitted. 'Harvard looks for intangible skills and future leaders in whatever fields they might be in, whereas Princeton looks for scholars. Stanford is a hybrid of the two,' he says.
While agencies assisting in overseas education have the same general purpose, each has its individual approach to achieve it.
Most local consultancies 'use academic results as their sole reference when matching students with universities. But we assess whether students have the potential to enter better universities which they prefer and offer classes that can help them unlock their potential,' says Lun.
'Compared with Western students, local students have a strong foundation in academic knowledge. But being raised in a Confucian culture that emphasises deference to teachers or elders, they are used to one-way learning. In admission interviews, local students think they should only answer in response to questions. But in the West, interviews can be casual, with a lot of back-and-forth between interviewees and interviewers.'
To prime students for such exchanges, Senate House runs classes in areas such as parliamentary style debate, creative writing and enunciation; fees range from HK$200 to HK$300 per hour. A one-on-one consultation and coaching package stretching from one to two years costs between HK$30,000 and HK$100,000.
There are many misconceptions about admission interviews for Oxford and Cambridge.
'One question asked previously is, how do you describe an apple?' Lun says.
'Students might say that it's red and circular. But they can go beyond physical appearance to talk about the relationship between the apple and different people.'
For example, you could point out it's a source of income to farmers and a healthy fruit to doctors.
'These [questions] are just devices to prompt students to think from multiple perspectives rather than deep philosophical questions. Such thinking skills can be nurtured through training, which should start young; it's much more difficult to guide their minds when they are set in their ways,' Lun says.
Businessman Max Tung Shuk-lun is certainly giving his children an early start. His daughter is currently in Primary Five at the Diocesan Girls' School, and he plans to send her to boarding school when she reaches Form Three. To help her prepare, Tung began sending her to Arch Academy last year.
'I have already applied to three top English boarding schools for [my daughter]. They all require interviews, so I need to prepare her early,' he says.
Tung also plans to make applications later this year for his son, now in Primary Three. 'Although both my children study at top schools here, their class sizes are too big, and they don't encourage free thinking.'
Even the students themselves are seeing the value of a more freewheeling learning environment abroad. 'There are 33 students in my class, and I am not one of those who learns by taking notes and listening to lectures,' says Hanson Datwani, a 14-year-old student at St Paul's Co-educational College.
In September, he will be attending Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, instead. He credits grooming from Arch Academy for a series of successful interviews: he took four days off school in October to attend a marathon series of admissions panels in the US and eventually received offers from seven top boarding schools.
'In debates at the academy, there are just three to seven students, and I get many opportunities to voice my views. We debate moral issues like whether the US should abandon the death penalty. It stretches my thinking,' Hanson says, and that helps him shine in interviews.
'An interview usually lasts about 15 minutes. But I discussed global issues like the economic crisis in the West, and interviewers were impressed that I talked for an hour.'
Some educators, however, see no need for coaching to enter boarding school. Jonathan Watts - head of history and politics at Benenden School, a prestigious girls-only institution in Kent, Britain, that admits many students from Hong Kong and the mainland - is one of them.
'We don't recommend any particular kind of preparation,' Watts says. 'Talent and intellectual curiosity do not come through coaching. We have students from St Catharine's School for Girls in Kwun Tong, which is a good government school. They have a bit of support from the school, but there's no particular preparation.
'Concerned parents enrol children in extra tuition classes. But there's a danger, when you just pour more information into the mind, that it can be overwhelming.
'I worry a lot when I talk with my friends in Hong Kong. Hong Kong children are not allowed to be children.'
School's out there
The number of Hong Kong students pursuing higher education overseas continue to swell.
4,500 students applied to study in British universities starting from September, an 18 per cent rise over the 2010-11 school year, figures from Britain's central Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show.
2,712 Hong Kong students received visas to study at universities and colleges in the US for the current school year, a 15 per cent rise over 2007-08, US consulate figures show.
1,854 students enrolled in British independent schools in 2009-10 - a 13 per cent increase over two years ago, according to the British Independent Schools Council.
One hotel's marketing coup
The yearning for elite schooling creates opportunities not only for prep schools, but also businesses in university districts. Among those keen to tap into this market is the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Boston.
Leveraging its location near a cluster of such elite universities as Boston University and Harvard, the luxury hotel has launched a special College Scouting Package aimed at families.
The scheme, consisting of one night's accommodation for three people and a private limousine complete with city maps and university neighbourhood restaurant recommendations, costs HK$16,813 per day.
Tom Stroik, the Mandarin Oriental's director of sales and marketing, says the package is available during the peak university-hunting season from June 1 to December 31. 'Our reservation agents were often asked if we had special packages for families [who come to Boston to look for universities], so we developed the new package in response to the high demand,' he says.
Each year the hotel registers an 'extraordinary' number of guests who want to visit one or more of the 100 colleges and universities in the Boston area, Stroik says. 'Many are international first-time visitors who are parents accompanying their children to inspect and evaluate two or more schools.
'Many visitors have several campus appointments daily. Having a driver as well as special scouting maps with suggestions and reservations for lunch alleviates some of the pressure from this hectic schedule, allowing them to focus on the universities.'