Q&A: Local Schools vs. International Schools

Q: I would like my son to study at a top university overseas. Would it be better for him to transfer to an international school or stay at his local school?

– Ada

A: Dear Ada,

With the right academic support and education plan in place, it is absolutely possible for any student from any school to secure spots at top universities abroad. Over the past 14 years, our team here at Aegis Advisors has helped many local school students get accepted at reputable universities overseas, however the reality is, that it’s much tougher for them to get directly into the Ivy Leagues and Oxbridge. More often than not, our success cases involved helping our students transfer from local school to either top international schools or boarding schools, and ultimately helping those secure spots at top overseas universities.

So yes, the chances of getting into a top university overseas are significant higher from a reputable international school. While both local and international schools matriculate students to universities overseas, top international schools get more students into the top universities each year. Simply compare the published university matriculation rates across different secondary schools in Hong Kong and you’ll see the difference. But before you jump straight into applications, take note of some key factors as you contemplate what’s best for your son:

Understanding the Different Curricula Options

International schools in Hong Kong differ widely in terms of curricula and teaching styles. While the most commonly offered curriculum is IB, there’s also the American, Canadian, UK, Australian, and French systems amongst others. In our opinion, universities are most familiar with curricula used in their respective countries (i.e. AP in the US, A-Levels in the UK). They are also very familiar with the IB system. This means that admissions are naturally more confident in their judgment of candidates graduating from systems that they are most familiar with.

Additionally, different curricula prepare students for different university tracks. A-Levels best prepares students for UK universities as it mirrors the UK’s focus on academics and academic-related activities. The American system best prepares students for US universities, which focuses on both academic accomplishments and commitment and leadership skills demonstrated through extracurricular commitments. Students at local schools simply wouldn’t have as much time to build impressive extra-curricular profiles as they have much heavier academic workloads. The IB curriculum sits in between and is therefore considered relatively versatile.

So questions for you are: which country would your son like to study at (or do you want to keep your options open)? Which curricula would suit him best? Putting him into the appropriate education system will help prepare him to become a more competitive candidate for university admissions.

Strong English Foundation

The medium of instruction at most local schools is Chinese, whereas all international schools teach in English. In our opinion, it is not possible to expect one school to check both boxes; and while there is a rise in bi-lingual international schools, it’s arguable whether they really do check both boxes, or only checks half of each. Top universities will require students to have a very solid English foundation and this can only be accomplished by immersing your son in an English environment. Students simply won’t make the cut if they can’t score well on standardized exams such as the TOEFL, IELTS, and SAT, can’t write impeccable essays, and can’t speak convincingly in interviews. Every year, our students spend a lot of time with our tutors to prepare for standardized exams; and with our advisors to work on application essays and train for interviews; but it’s a much tougher task when students don’t have a solid English foundation.

Pay Attention to Track Record

More established international schools have built stronger track records of graduating students into top universities, which means they have earned more credibility and created better relationships with top universities. Simply put, admissions would have more confidence in academic reports and recommendation letters from schools they trust.

It is important to bear in mind that your son will not thrive if he is not ready for the transition, or transfers to an environment that’s not best suited for him. So first thing’s first: is he ready for the change? And, which international school will provide the best environment for him to grow and excel, not just for admissions, but in life?

The first step is to keep an open dialogue with your son and to make sure he’s aligned every step of the way. Note that the application process, deadlines, and requirements differ greatly across different international schools. An experienced education consultant can help your family navigate this complicated process, work through options and make the right decisions along the way, ensure your time, energy and money are spent wisely, and ultimately, achieve your desired results. You can look at the advisory services we offer here.

Good luck!

Any further questions? Please reach out to us!

The original version of this article was published as “Q&A: Local Schools vs International Schools” on SCMP Education Post.