With more secondary schools offering places before the Primary School Leaving Examination results are out, educational centres are cashing in.
At least nine are running courses to prepare pupils for entrance exams, interviews and auditions for the direct school admission (DSA) scheme. Half the centres interviewed told The Sunday Times they responded to parents' requests for help.
The number of secondary schools accepting pupils through the DSA scheme has grown from just seven in 2004 to 121 this year. The decade-old scheme allows schools to accept pupils who display talent in various areas, from academic ability to sports to the arts.
Most sought-after are places in Integrated Programme schools whose students bypass the O levels. But to be shortlisted for DSA in these schools, pupils usually have to take a general ability test which assesses reasoning, comprehension and problem-solving skills.
Ms Katherine Law, who set up Guru Kids Pro, said she trains more than 20 children a year in analytical skills, using practice papers. "They are exposed to the kind of questions they will face so they will be more confident to tackle them," she said.
Each child takes five lessons that cost $500. But even a full year of preparation will not help a child who does not have the "potential", she added.
Madam Jane Lim's Primary 6 son, who is eyeing a place in Raffles Institution or the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science, has attended four sessions at the centre. "If I can prepare him for the test, why not?" said the 41-year-old housewife.
Ace Academy, set up in 2012, will see its first batch of pupils try for DSA places through the academic route this year.
One of its directors, Mr Ang Peng Seong, said there has been "heightened interest" in its $800 DSA package of 12 lessons. "Parents seem more aware of DSA these days and recognise its benefits," he said.
Charging up to $200 an hour, some centres conduct speech classes to help children do well at DSA interviews. Trainers give tips - such as, always keep eye contact with the interviewer - and put them through question-and-answer drills.
They also show the children how to bone up on the background and culture of the school they want to get into. Speech Academy Asia founder Lukas Seet said: "It's a plus point if children can explain why they want to join a school."
From two DSA hopefuls in 2011, the centre had 10 last year.
Another centre, Speak! Ventures, started getting calls from parents in 2009 asking for DSA-related coaching and helped five children that year. Last year, it coached more than 40 Primary 6 pupils.
"These kids are sharp and intelligent, but sometimes they try too hard and it comes across as unnatural. So our job is to help them express themselves confidently and naturally," said director Nina Sabrina M.
There are also courses for artistic or sporty children.
Asia Pacific Sports Management managing director Ulli Niedermeyer said: "In the last two years, we've got more requests from parents with children hoping to enter good schools through sports."
The centre trains 10 to 12 children each year in sports such as football and hockey.
Kids Performing Academy of the Arts managing director Joanne Leow started preparing pupils for DSA five years ago on an ad hoc basis. In 2011, she started a formal programme, and the first batch of 15 joined the School of the Arts (Sota) last year. The centre now has 43 children in its DSA programmes.
She said: "It's hugely competitive to get into Sota, which offers about 100 places every year. A portfolio is very important, so we give them key roles in performances so they have a good portfolio to show schools."
Investment coordinator Sarah Lam, 44, whose 13-year-old son landed a place in Sota after being on the programme, said: "There are a lot of kids who have some talent but need some guidance. The programme is not a must, but it does help an average kid take a step further." Her younger daughter, 11, is attending the same classes now.