Shanghai's mad dash: University Admission


University admission in China is a fiendishly complex sport, Jane Bao reports

Jane Bao

Issue date: 1/15/07 


SHANGHAI-It's June 7, 2007, a day you've prepared for your entire life. Over the next three days, 12 hours of exams will determine your future, forever. Sound melodramatic? For the 1.5 million university hopefuls in Shanghai, it is the reality they've always lived with. Unlike at U of T, where 63 per cent of undergraduate applicants were offered admission last year, the limited number of places in prestigious Chinese universities has enormous numbers of students jostling for a spot. In China, entrance into the nation's top universities is a stepping stone to a successful career.

"Everyone lives on campus," says Jiang's roommate, Shirley Ting, "There's no reason to leave." Jiang, who completed an exchange program at U of T last year, says that at SJTU "there is no clubbing, no drinking, no partying [...] especially at the suburban campus where there are no bars." Ting adds that Chinese students mostly like to go out to dinner, followed by karaoke. Though the exams are months away, the media has already begun reporting on exam-related news. First, students take mock exams to gauge their abilities and to make decisions on which universities and programs to register for. The score a student submits to a university may very well affect their chances of entry, so one's application strategy becomes a fiendishly complex game. Based on the total number of points scored on a slew of exams, students are accepted into the highest-ranked program they qualify for. Everyone seems to know someone who cracks at this crucial time, devastating the family who has devoted the past 18 years to sending a child to university. Based on available results, universities set a minimum score required for entry. However, each school practices regional favoritism: less points are required from students who live nearby. This reflects the practical realities of Chinese citizenship, which registers each citizen to a specific zone, with citizens living outside their zone ineligible for many services. As the nation's best universities tend to be in Beijing and Shanghai, this practice struck me as unfair. Professor Yunxia Yang of the East China University of Science and Technology (ECUST) explains that the uneven entrance requirements result from the sponsorship of universities by the local government, where taxes from a specific economic area help take on the cost of administration. None of the students I spoke to seemed concerned about regionalism. "Probably because we are used to it," shrugged Eva Shi, a fourth-year English major at SJTU. "Each region favours its own students, so it evens out," adds classmate Haier Wang. Neither are from Shanghai originally, and knew that they had to test much better than the Shanghainese contenders. Now both are more concerned with seeking employment in a similarly competitive job market. Many students arrange full-time employment before graduation. Several fourth-year students I spoke to at SJTU had already signed two-year contracts at one of the "Big Four" accounting firms in Shanghai, which promise lucrative salaries and benefits in exchange for grueling hours and workload. "There are too many graduates in Shanghai, so competition for jobs is incredibly fierce," says Wang. The rigorous interview process can consist of several rounds of interviews, both online and in person, as well as standardized tests. Pointing out the benefits of a region-centric system, professor Yang cites Zhejiang, an area experiencing rapid economic development because young graduates are more willing to return home instead of seeking a high-powered career in Beijing or Shanghai. Like many parents Yang played a large role in her son's university education. She selected mathematics as his major and filled out the first draft of his application. Lun Yang (no relation), a retired ECUST professor, feels there's no need to push for the best university, and concentrates instead on the importance of community and exercise. "My 14-year-old granddaughter is in Grade 8. She goes to school on Saturday and is in classes from morning till night. It's not necessarily the best," he says, recalling shorter school hours and a less extreme emphasis on schoolwork during his student days. The era of the single-child family brought ever-increasing competition, and university attendance is now a family affair and a source of great anxiety. High stakes call for extensive preparation, which starts from grade 1. Testing is required to enter Chinese middle schools and high schools, which are sorted into various official categories according to their academic quality. Ironically, less reputable schools tend to charge more, knowing that desperate students are willing to pay. Although the entrance committee only looks at entrance exam scores, students still believe firmly in the importance of attending "first-rate" high schools. Going to a better school, says Jenny Ye, "ensures a better environment for learning. You're a lot more likely to work hard if people around you are working hard."