Only a small fraction of those applying to get into publicly funded universities this autumn will be accepted. And with more local students wanting to stay home to get their degrees rather than study overseas, it's no wonder that, with only a few weeks before the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exam begins, youngsters studying in groups or alone are a common sight in cafes, study centres and libraries.
It's not just the pressure of the exam, but also the fact that their chances of entering local universities are slimmer than ever. A total of 82,198 candidates have registered for the exam this year, up from 71,000 last year, according to the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA). The rise is due largely to a tenfold increase in independent candidates, many of whom are retaking the exam.
However, despite mounting public demand, the number of openings for first-year university students will remain unchanged from last year - about 15,000. That means about 18 per cent of the students of that age trying for admission will get in.
Under the new system, all secondary students sit the HKDSE after six years of secondary education. Competition for university openings is always fierce as students aspire to get degrees, often with pressure from parents.
"It is also a global trend for school graduates to get a degree," says George Tam Siu-ping, chairman of the Grants School Council, an umbrella group of 22 elite English-medium schools.
The growing number of applicants from international schools - many of whom study for the International Baccalaureate (IB), which local universities like - makes the competition even harder. The University of Hong Kong, for example, reserves about 20 per cent of its first-year degree places for students who study international curriculums.
Against this background, the English Schools Foundation (ESF) reports a rising number of students who prefer to go to local universities. Karen Tsang, a Year 13 student at Island School, has an offer from Oxford University to study law subject to the IB grades in her remaining courses, but she's considering forsaking it.
"If I study law in Hong Kong, I won't have to take the conversion test, and it will be much easier to get into a Postgraduate Certificate in Laws course. You do have an advantage if you study at a Hong Kong university; the path [to enter the legal profession] is easier and more direct," she says.
Besides the familiar environment and convenient lifestyle in Hong Kong, she adds: "Universities here are so diverse now. They have attracted students and professors from many backgrounds; if you stay in Hong Kong, you'll still get the exposure and sense of international education."
Another Year 13 student at Island School, Shafee Mohammed, who also grew up in Hong Kong, hopes to study business and management at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology despite having conditional offers from five British schools.
"I want to stay here; I was born here. I like Hong Kong because this city is such a special place near China, yet we are not totally within Chinese culture but have other cultures mixed in with it. There are also more job prospects in China," says Mohammed, a Pakistani who speaks Putonghua and Cantonese, as well as English.
ESF says it is expecting 20 per cent to 25 per cent of its students to apply to local universities, up from 16 per cent in 2011. Eventually, about 16 per cent will further their studies locally rather than abroad, says Roger Wilkinson, head of careers at Island School. "Hong Kong has a great range of institutions. There is also a trend of students applying for an increasing range of subjects, such as psychology, social sciences, architecture. It's a lovely meeting of not just understanding themselves, but also being in the best place to achieve the best education for them."
Besides IB candidates, more students are trying to maximise their chances by sitting the GCE A-level exam, which, although it's defunct in Hong Kong, local universities still use the results to evaluate candidates.
Tam - who is also the principal of Wah Yan College, a grant-in-aid secondary school on Hong Kong Island - says one of his students was admitted into HKU's medical faculty last year on the strength of his GCE A-level results when he was still in Form Five.
Educators and students agree the British exam is easier and were not surprised when the HKEAA announced recently that the top score of 5** on the HKDSE is equivalent to 145 points in the UCAS Tariff system, which is used by some British and Irish universities. By comparison, a grade A* on the GCE A-levels is worth 140 points, and a 5** is also equal to the highest grade in the IB Diploma programme.
"Science subjects in the GCE exam are definitely easier," says Hugo Cheung Man-wai, principal of Sha Tin Tsun Tsin Secondary School. As a result, he says, schools have seen more students leave to study in Australia or Britain after finishing Form Four or Five, and then apply to universities here using overseas results.
Professor John Spinks, chairman of HKU's admissions committee, says students who apply to Hong Kong universities through the Joint University Programmes Admissions System - (Jupas) applying to all eight member universities in Hong Kong at the same time - have a better chance of succeeding than non-Jupas applicants, on the basis of applicants per place.
As if doing well on the HKDSE exam was not difficult enough, those candidates also face a stringent language requirement. Some students from the Grants School Council's member schools failed to enter university last year because they could not meet the minimum requirement of level 3 in Chinese, says Tam. "Level 3 is about the equivalent of a D grade on the former A-level examination," he says.
As a result, member schools are paying more attention to the teaching of Chinese by, for example, increasing students' exposure to classical writings.
One of the solutions often proposed is for the government to increase the number of undergraduate openings, and Tam agrees with that idea.
Although the number of private universities is rising, they are not really part of the picture. For one thing, their higher fees have made them unpopular with youngsters. For another, Cheung says: "There is little government supervision over their curriculums and quality of teachers. Students and parents are worried whether the courses there have the same recognition as those offered by government-funded universities."