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Understanding ‘School Speak’: Part 1

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

When dealing with schools, you’ll learn a whole lexicon. Waitlists, debentures, redshirting to name a few. Here, we look at three slightly technical aspects of the admissions process in plain English.

1) Waitlists & waitpools

We all hear much talk of the dreaded waitlist. Waitlists are actually not actually as scary as the talk of waitlists.

For most schools, a waitlist doesn’t exist until the first round of interviews have been completed for entry level. Three usual outcomes from an interview are: accepted, waitlisted and rejected. For students not even interviewed, they are not waitlisted. Their application is simply ‘rolled over’ to the following year.

A minority of schools do operate a waitlist with strict(ish) sequencing but, increasingly, the waitpool is taking over.

In our opinion, a waitpool makes more sense. A school operating a waitpool will collect all applications during a prescribed period before interviews are scheduled. By some non scientific method that takes a variety of factors into account, applicants will be selected to be invited to interview. Factors considered include:

  1. applicant’s English language proficiency (and that of the parents)

  2. nationality

  3. gender

  4. race/ethnicity

  5. month of birth

The idea is to create diverse classes of suitable children. Essentially, all international schools are striving for this, except their definition of ‘suitable’ differs.

So, the dreaded waitlist is mostly applicable to late applicants. If you’re not late, you need not worry too much about waitlists and waitpools.

2) Priorities

If you are fortunate enough to have some sort of priority to enter a particular school, understand that it’s just a priority and not a guarantee. You cannot afford to relax and rely on your child getting into that school. Priorities are, in fact, getting weaker.

Common priorities are:

  1. alumni

  2. sibling

  3. debenture holder

  4. existing student

It’s important to understand the strength of your priority as they vary greatly from school to school and, even, year to year.

Generally, we’ve noticed a weakening of priorities as schools become more and more selective; some schools in particular. Specifically, the weakening of the sibling priority has resulted in many families with children in two, or even three, schools.

The existing student priority applies to students enrolled in a lower section of the school and hoping to move up. This priority ranges from extremely strong to extremely weak.

And a common misnomer is that it’s almost impossible for children without a foreign passport to enter international school. This simply isn’t the case.

In summary, it’s risky to rely on priorities and always wise to have a Plan B, C and D.

3) Cut offs / Redshirting

Even just a few years ago, we had a fairly even split between schools that accepted children born 1 Sep – 31 Aug and those that accepted children born 1 Jan – 31 Dec. Today, the vast majority are using a 31 August cut off. (Carefully consider scheduling a C section in the last week of July! Your OBGYN isn’t thinking about school applications!)

We are often asked if it’s possible to hold a child back or, less frequently, if it’s possible to push a child ahead. It is almost never possible to do the latter. To hold a child back may be seen to be beneficial – just Google the term ‘redshirting’ to get an idea of the vast discussion on this topic, particularly in the US.

In Hong Kong, we do not recommend raising this topic with any school you are interested in applying to. The general principal is this: apply on time, according to your child’s date of birth. If your child is particularly young in the year group (ie end of July or end of December), the same three outcomes of an interview apply, plus one. A fourth possible outcome is that the school suggests you reapply for the same grade the following year. This means that the school feels your family to be a good fit and that your child just isn’t ready. This is a gift since it will usually result in an acceptance the following year.

If you fail to apply on time, you may only apply the following year for the appropriate year group, based on your child’s date of birth.

And, it goes without saying, that you should check and recheck the application deadlines and not miss them as they do change from time to time, as do cut-offs.


Top Schools’ small, highly specialised and experienced team of completely independent experts works with companies and families seeking places in Hong Kong’s top pre, primary and secondary schools.

We have 100% success rate with zero requirement for corporate debentures.


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