The air is electric in China each June in the lead up to the country’s college entrance examination — the gaokao. At the same time, my students are stressing over the American counterpart: the SAT.
The Hong Kong Stadium is one of the testing centers. Students from mainland China have a nickname for it during the months of the test: the “mass grave.” More than 10,000 students and parents cram into a stadium that’s less than 10,000 square meters until finally the place feels more packed than Super Bowl Sunday.
My student Li Kefan was one of them. Although he received an impressive 2190 out of a possible 2400 last year, he wasn’t satisfied with the result. He wants to go to Stanford, and most Chinese students applying there will shoot for at least 2300. Li is from Changsha, in central China’s Hunan province, where very few students study abroad compared to Beijing or Shanghai.
In the education consultancy industry, we call those who choose to pursue higher education in Western countries the “departure party.” Those who choose to stay for China’s national college exam we dub the “gaokao party.” Although the total number of Chinese students pursuing higher education is only increasing, the number of the gaokao party decreases every year in large international cities like Shanghai and Beijing.
According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, in 2011 the number of students taking the gaokao in Beijing was around 76,000 and 61,200 in Shanghai. In 2016, these numbers had dropped to 61,200 and 51,000, respectively. Conversely, the departure party is only growing. From 2009 to 2015, the number of Chinese students pursuing an education in the United States increased from 52,000 to 122,000.
This shift has made a huge impact on three communities in particular: Chinese students and their families, who experience cultural clashes between Eastern and Western values, international schools and other educational institutions or consultancies born in China out of demand, and American universities, who find their student bodies swelled with international students.
When I first got into this field in 2011, the trend of studying abroad at a young age was just beginning. Many parents were only concerned with one thing: which top-ranking U.S. school could their child get in to. Chinese parents viewed sending their children to college like buying a designer handbag — they cared more about the brand name than the style or any practical aspect.
Students like Li, who changed their education paths in high school, faced an uphill battle. They came from disadvantaged positions — not only is the syllabus catering to the Chinese college entrance examination painfully dull, but the information and exercises in the textbooks are incredibly rigid, leaving little room for creativity from the students. The Chinese system doesn’t foster the critical thinking and expressive abilities that American universities are looking for.
The battle was especially hard in places like Changsha, where very few avenues to obtaining an international education exist. In these places, members of the departure party take supplementary classes to prepare for their SAT and TOEFL exams, attend summer school programs in the U.S., teach themselves advanced placement courses, and participate in various extracurricular activities.
Out of a personal interest in computer programming, Li launched his own company at 16. Since he was a minor, he needed to sign on his high school teacher as the company’s legal representative. Li designed and built the company website and mobile app by himself, through which he provides a service for students around the country to register and participate in the Model United Nations.
And on top of all other stresses, the road to departure is also a lonely one. A student I was providing education consulting services to once told me about the time he bumped in to some students from his school right before they took the gaokao, and suddenly realized how different their lives had been.
He said that the lives of those in the gaokao party are simple. They don’t have to worry about anything besides doing well on a single test, whereas the departure party have to jump through multiple hoops to attract the attention of admissions officers — stacking up extracurricular activities, trying to change their style of learning, and taking a variety of foreign tests. They spend a lot of time isolated, working toward something completely different from their peers.
To make matters worse, many of those who finally get in to American universities find themselves lost. Some students arrive in the new country and find they are unhappy — unable to adapt to a new environment, completely different from what they were used to growing up, and their grades suffer. The fact that many of them are pushed into programs or universities they aren’t particularly well-suited for by overbearing parents only compounds their struggles.
Zhong Xujia has just finished her freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). She told me: “This year in America, I feel I learned more than everything in the years from primary to high school in China. I felt my brain capacity was expanded several times.”
American universities value independent studies, which is a form of education whereby the student works mainly without teacher supervision. Zhong had trouble with this at first: “In China, teachers give you the answer to everything and you’re expected to memorize it all. When I first got to UIUC, I did pretty badly for two midterms, even though I was studying a lot.”
But things are getting better. As the number of Chinese students going abroad increases, attitudes at home are beginning to change. Parents are increasingly coming to realize the importance of a good fit when choosing colleges, as well as the importance of fostering the type of education favored by American universities early on. They are increasingly asking how, in the current Chinese cultural environment, do we cultivate our children to be worldly, happy, and strong?
Li and Zhong have worked hard to get where they are. Li is currently preparing his college application for the 2017 round, while Zhong is working through summer school. Both of their parents are supportive of their choice to study abroad, and have confidence in them. Li is aiming for Stanford, but his parents aren’t overly concerned with where he studies as long as the program suits him well.