This past summer, I once again found myself drafted into Chinese academia’s secret war: the annual fight waged between universities to recruit the top-scoring candidates on the gaokao, or college-entrance exam.
Every year, Chinese universities battle for the highest possible minimum score cutoffs. The numbers, which are determined by the lowest score of any student admitted in a given year, have become symbolic of schools’ academic quality and prestige. But as students and parents wise up to the game and schools attach greater importance to scores, the competition has started to spiral out of control.
China’s college admissions process is simultaneously complex and brutally simple. There’s no need for long, drawn-out applications or personal essays. Each year, millions of young adults take part in the gaokao. Their scores are ranked by province, after which they are given the opportunity to submit a list of school and major preferences.
Cutoffs vary from year to year. To get an idea of where they might get in, students and their parents will look at previous years’ admissions data for particular universities and prospective majors. Each student is admitted to only one school — the highest-ranked school on their list for which they meet the score requirements.
This is a relatively new development. Previously, students would indicate their preferences before taking the gaokao. Since similarly ranked schools tended to have equivalent cutoff lines and students could only guess what they’d score, all admissions committees could do prior to the gaokao was a bit of generic self-promotion. Now that students can test first and choose afterward, schools have more room to jostle, and they’re making full use of it.
As a recruiter, I’m expected to praise and spotlight my school’s strengths, counsel students on potential majors, and answer their questions. But the real challenge is fending off attacks from other schools, hungry to poach our most promising candidates.
The process is particularly tricky with high-scoring but not top students, who are often unsure what major to choose or what school is the best fit for them. Lacking strong convictions, many candidates and their parents see the process in mercenary terms. They want to get into the highest-ranked school and most popular major possible, which they see as the surest way to land a high-paying job after graduation.
The result is a vicious cycle. The more students and families focus on rankings, the more desperate Chinese universities become to move up the list, which means upping their admission cutoffs by filling out classes with higher-scoring students — even if those students might be better served elsewhere. Some universities have even created an incentive system for recruiters who land high scorers, which has only made the recruitment process uglier.
One increasingly common tactic is using popular majors to lure students. Schools combine some of their most and least popular majors into a single admissions category — think of an “engineering” major pool that brings popular moneymakers like microelectronics and computing together with less sought-after majors like thermal engineering — then finalize placement based on students’ freshman year grades. On the surface, this makes it seem like all candidates have the opportunity to move into big-ticket majors, but in reality it merely keeps less popular majors from dragging down the school’s admission lines.
More outrageous are the direct attacks and slander campaigns. Schools situated in more economically developed cities along the coast may criticize other institutions for being located in “backward” regions with fewer opportunities for students, for example. Sometimes these efforts cross the line and become outright malicious: One recruitment committee reportedly discouraged candidates from attending a rival school in the eastern city of Nanjing by bringing up the Nanjing Massacre carried out by Japanese troops in 1937.
In less extreme cases, liberal arts universities have attacked science and technology-centric schools for their lack of curricular and cultural diversity, while engineering institutions portray liberal arts education as financial dead ends.
Many of these attacks rely on stereotypes, but it’s hard to clear the air in our brief interactions with candidates. They’re also just demoralizing. Is it really that important if one school’s admission cutoffs are a point or two lower than another school’s? Instead of racking our brains over a one- or two-point differential, wouldn’t it be better to direct that effort toward bettering our students and helping them fulfill their potential?
Aside from ensnaring every school in an endless arms race, the competition over scores can end up curtailing schools’ abilities to admit outstanding students perhaps better suited to their institutional strengths. The gaokao has value as a simple, fair admission criterion, but the current system pushes students down the same path, regardless of their preferences or passions.
It’s all so disheartening sometimes, especially coming from China’s best universities. Still, two recent headlines have offered me hope for the future. The first was about a rural, “left-behind” girl who chose to follow her passion for archaeology to Peking University, despite the field’s relatively limited prospects. The second was about a high-scoring student who tested into Fudan University and picked philosophy as his major over more popular options believed to have better post-graduation prospects. Netizens argued over whether these kids should have gone into popular majors like computer science and finance instead, but I applaud their decision: They followed their hearts.
Getting worked up over admissions scores is putting the cart before the horse. By definition, high gaokao scores say nothing about a university’s quality. They simply reflect its influence and reputation. Good universities have a duty to be inclusive and support students in pursuing their diverse interests and passions. They should guide young people toward finding their own path — not treat them as tools for boosting their own prestige.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Students walk past a board showing the cutoff scores of different universities during an enrollment fair in Shenyang, Liaoning province, 2014. Bai Bing/People Visual)