Overseas admission success: what schools and curricula work best?

International school students do not necessarily have an edge over their local school counterparts in applying to overseas universities

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 October, 2018, 2:12pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2018, 2:40pm

Many IB Diploma graduates would probably agree with the maxim that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. The IB is renowned – or notorious, in the eyes of some students – for its rigour and the demanding Extended Essay is often cited as a reason why IB students hit the ground running at university.

With the growth of international schools in Hong Kong in recent years, we have also seen a greater degree of choice in terms of the “senior curriculum” offered in the final two-to-three years of secondary school. What are the choices; how different are they; are some intrinsically better than others, and how are they viewed by universities abroad?

The IB Diploma, or International Baccalaureate, to give it its full name, is the most “international” of curricula, and the fastest growing in Hong Kong in recent years.

Some international schools with strong or direct links with a particular country such as Canada, Australia, France or Germany may offer the curriculum of the “mother” country – often alongside the IB – with the expectation that many of their students will return there for their higher education. Although the same could be said of GCE A-levels and the US-style High School Diploma with APs and honours courses, these are more often viewed as serving a broader range of higher education options, and are offered more widely.

These curricula differ in terms of the subjects offered, the breadth of study demanded and in terms of methods of assessment. Many national systems and the IB Diploma expect students to continue to study a broad range of subject areas in their senior years, including maths, science and languages. The GCE A-level system, however, allows greater specialisation in three or four subjects that may exclude one or all of these subject areas: this reflects the greater specialisation at undergraduate level for a three-year rather than a four-year degree. Many will debate whether one curriculum is better than another but, at the end of the day, it is a matter of what each student makes of it, rather like the university experience.

How do overseas universities view these qualifications? In reviewing a student’s academic profile, universities will look at:

  • the grades the student has achieved, or is predicted to achieve;
  • the qualification or programme studied;
  • the rigour of the chosen programme – has the student challenged him or herself in the choices of subjects and study level they have made.

Inevitably, admissions officers will be more familiar with the domestic curriculum of that particular country but will claim that they look at each student in their unique context. Their ability to do the latter will vary by country, institution and even individual. US colleges tend to score highly in this respect, partly because individual admissions staff often take care of a specific region such as Hong Kong or Greater China. There are organisations created specifically to compare, evaluate and sometimes accredit overseas qualifications, such as NARIC in the UK. For the benefit of students as well as universities, a range of overseas qualifications are given an equivalency points score by UCAS in the UK and on the ATAR in Australia, whereas US colleges will establish a GPA equivalency independently.

Universities do, of course, look beyond grades and, in terms of “holistic” admission and emphasis on college essays or personal statements and extracurriculars, the US is probably at one end of the spectrum and Australia at the other. While one might criticise Australian university admission as a number-crunching exercise, it is dealing with actual rather than predicted results and, as such, there is an element of objectivity in that approach.

Do international schools give students an edge over local schools in applying to overseas universities?

The answer is: not necessarily. Some Hong Kong “local” schools actually have what is effectively an “international” stream, where some students study the IB Diploma rather than the HKDSE. Most international schools have higher education counsellors whose function is to advise and support students in their overseas university ambitions. How experienced and how familiar are such counsellors with each overseas destination; how many campuses have they visited and to what degree have they engaged in overseas conferences and other opportunities to develop their knowledge and their professional networks? These are questions worth asking.

Your choice of school (international, local or boarding school) and curriculum should be the same as your choice of college or university: that is, not one based on perceived advantages in terms of advancement but on intrinsic value. Ask the question: “is this a place where my child will thrive?”, and you will have your answer.