Admitting Chinese Undergraduates

Over the last four years there has been a dramatic explosion in the number of Chinese undergraduate students studying at U.S. universities and colleges. Between 2009 and 2010 alone there was an increase of over 17,000 Chinese undergraduates, more than the total number enrolled just three years earlier, according to figures released in November by the Institute for International Education. Even more remarkable is the almost six-fold growth in undergraduate numbers between 2006 and 2010.

Year Undergraduates % of Total % Increase Total
2010-11 56,976 43 43 157,277
2009-10 39,921 31 52 127,628
2008-09 26,275 27 60 98,235
2007-08 16,450 20 65 81,127
2006-07 9,988 15 7 67,723
2005-06 9,304 15 12 62,582
2004-05 8,299 13 3 62,523
2003-04 8,034 13 -15 61,765
2002-03 9,484 15 10 64,757
2001-02 8,659 14 5 63,211

Source: IIE Open Doors (2011)

Whether or not the huge percentage increases we have seen in Chinese undergraduate enrollments will continue now that all four undergraduate classes (freshman through senior) have experienced post-2006 boom enrollment years is yet to be seen. A drop in the number of college-age students brought on by China’s one-child policy may result in fewer students coming to the United States in the longer term, as has been the case with Japan during its era of shrinking college-age populations, but it seems safe to expect that China will represent the largest market for undergraduate international students for at least the short term.

The reasons behind the post-2006 rush to U.S. colleges are of course multifaceted (after all we are talking about tens of thousand of students), but the most commonly cited factors are linked to China’s growing middle-class affluence, especially when concentrated on a single child; unmet demand for quality higher education at home; university budget cuts in the United States (and a subsequent need for institutions to increase revenues by recruiting abroad); and an easing of stringent student-visa policies implemented in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. There are subplots under each of the aforementioned talking points, but by and large they appear to be the main factors driving Chinese students to U.S. campuses.

The Flip Side

With all the cultural and financial benefits that international students bring with them to U.S. campuses, there is also a steep learning curve for those admitting, hosting and teaching them, especially when they arrive in such large and immediate numbers. With this current wave of Chinese students, there appear to be a specific set of issues that administrators and academics are beginning to come to terms with.

Perhaps the single biggest concern relates to fraud in the application process and an uncertainty about the quality of undergraduates that schools are admitting. And then once on campus, Chinese students tend to struggle more than other nationalities with English-language fluency and comprehension, while their large numbers often lead to something of a ghetto mentality and a general lack of cultural interchange, which is troublesome for schools seeking to boost international understanding and diversity by bringing foreign students to their campuses.

Statistical Overview

  • Number of primary students: 103 million+ (MOE: 2008).
  • Number of primary schools: 457,000 (MOE: 2002)
  • Primary gross enrollment rate (UIS: 2009): 111%
  • Number of students in junior middle school (including vocational): 55 million+ (MOE: 2008)
  • Number of junior secondary schools: 65,600 (MOE: 2002)
  • Number of students in senior middle school: 24 million+ (MOE: 2008)
  • Secondary gross enrollment rate (UIS: 2009): 80%
  • Tertiary gross enrollment rate (UIS: 2009): 24%

Two weeks prior to the release of the 2011 IIE data, the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education co-published a story exploring the impact of the growth in Chinese students, citing numerous examples of public and private universities that have seen meteoric rises in Chinese applications and enrollments. The University of Delaware, for example, has grown enrollments from eight in 2007 to 517 in 2010, while Ohio State University received 2,900 undergraduate applications from China, and the volume of applications to Mount Holyoke College would have allowed it to “fill its entire freshman class with Chinese students,” if it so chose. Beyond highlighting the sheer volume of applicant numbers from China, the article also touches on many of the issues related to application fraud and campus integration that campuses are facing with the influx of Chinese students.

Ensuring Quality, Mitigating Risk

The current demand from China is quite clearly huge. So how do institutions ensure they are admitting the best candidates?

In this article, which appears as a companion to recent WES webinars on similar topics, we offer advice on ensuring accurate credential evaluations and admissions decisions based on best practices in obtaining and verifying necessary academic documents, and in converting Chinese secondary grades.

Structure of Secondary Education

The Chinese system of education is similar to the U.S. system with 12 years of K-12 education:

  • First nine years are compulsory with six at the elementary level and three at the junior middle school level.
  • Three years of senior middle school.
  • Four years undergraduate.

Secondary education in China is highly centralized, with the Ministry of Education setting the guidelines for all areas of study. However, provincial education departments have been gaining increased autonomy in executing the regulations set by national authorities in recent years. As a result, there are now significant differences in methodology across provinces in how students are taught and assessed.

Traditionally, the ministry has set the exams and the provinces have administered them, but now local and provincial education departments are able to create and administer important exit exams as long as they meet the general guidelines set out by the ministry.

Key Characteristics of Chinese Secondary Education

  • High stakes, examination driven system with exit and entry exams at each stage of study.
  • Academic year runs from September to July.
  • Two semesters.
  • The language of instruction is Mandarin (bilingual with an ethnic language in some autonomous regions). In some select private schools, instruction is in English.
  • Secondary schools are 99% public and therefore have to follow central and provincial policy on curriculum and assessment.


At the end of junior middle school, students take a formal graduation examination known as the Zhongkao (中考, Senior Middle School Entrance Examination), administered by provincial education departments. Subjects that are tested include:

  • Chinese
  • Mathematics
  • Foreign Language
  • Politics (open book)
  • Physics
  • Chemistry

At the end of senior middle school, students take the huikao (Joint Graduation Examination, 会考) or the xueye shuiping ceshi (High School Academic Proficiency Test (HS APT), 学业水平考试), which is a requirement for graduation.

Students who wish to go to university after senior middle school take the centralized admission examination known as the gaokao (高考). In order to take the gaokao, students must first pass the huikao or HS APT.


At the junior middle school level, the prescribed curriculum mandtes an average of 13 compulsory courses, including those in the humanities (which include history, political science, and geography) and the sciences (physics, chemistry and biology).

At the senior secondary level (or senior middle school, as it translates), there are three different streams:

  • General academic at senior middle schools (3 years)
  • Professional secondary at professional secondary schools that impart medium-level technical skills (3 years)
  • Vocational and technical at vocational schools that train graduates for jobs that require basic production and operation skills (2-4 years)

The curriculum of the general academic stream for senior middle school is essentially divided up into two and a half years, with the final semester in the third year reserved for exam preparation.

Senior Middle School Program Length

Academic Year 1st and 2nd Year 3 rd Year
1st semester 2nd semester
Classroom Instruction 36 weeks 18 weeks
Social Practice 1 1
Final Review and Exam 4 2 20
Vacation 11 11
Total 52 weeks 52 weeks

The current senior middle school curriculum was introduced in 2004. The ministry of education has since phased out the streaming system and is in the process of replacing it with a credit-based system (2010). Under this new system, there are eight subject areas and 15 compulsory subjects in which students have to complete a minimum number of credits.

In order to graduate, students must fulfill a minimum of 144 credits and a maximum of 180. At least 116 credits must be attained from compulsory subjects. A further 22 credits must be attained from subjects in the national elective curriculum, which will vary according to the student’s major. Finally, a minimum of six credits must be attained in elective credits based on local needs and individual interests outside the major field of study.

Senior Middle School Curriculum (MOE, 2004)

Subject Compulsory Credits
(116 credits total)
Electives I Electives II
Language and Literature Chinese 10 22
Additional course modules based on national elective curriculum
Optional school modules for students based on local needs and individual interests
Foreign language 10
Math Math 10
Culture & Society Ideology and Politics 8
History 6
Geography 6
Science Physics 6
Chemistry 6
Biology 6
Technology Technology 8
Arts Arts (Music, Fine Art) 6
Physical Education and Health PE and Health 11
Comprehensive Practice Research-based Study 15
Community Service 2
Social Practice 6
Total Credits 144 -180

Compulsory subjects in the following fields are worth two credits each (~18 standard weeks) for 68 credits total: Language and Literature, Math, Culture and Society, Science.

Subjects under Arts and Physical Education & Health are worth one credit each (17 total, approximately 18 hours each), Technology subjects are worth four credits each (8 credits total), while Comprehensive Practice subjects are worth a total of 23 credits (Research-based study = 15 credits spread out over three years & other classes are worth two credits).

Students can typically choose from the following foreign languages: English, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, German and French. ‘Research-based study’ encourages pupils to analyze and solve problems independently and to develop study skills.

High School Graduation Exams

As mentioned above, in addition to fulfilling credit requirements, senior middle students must also pass exit evaluations in order to graduate, including school-based examinations in individual compulsory subjects and provincial-, municipal- or city-based exit examinations.

The Joint Graduation Examination, or huikao (会考), was introduced in 1990, implemented nationally in 1993, and subsequently phased out last year (2010). Designed and administered by the provincial education departments, the exam is based on a national curriculum set by the Ministry of Education.

The huikao tests students in 10 major subject areas:

  • Chinese
  • Math Foreign Language
  • Politics
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • History
  • Geography
  • IT (newest one, introduced in 2003)

The High School Academic Proficiency Test (xueye shuiping ceshi) was introduced nationwide in 2007 (experimentally in Guangdong, Shandong and Jiangsu in 2005).

There are three basic formats to the HS APT, with students taking exams in 5 to 9 major and non-major subject areas. In most provinces the examinations are administered by the provincial education department, however, in Guangdong, Hunan, Hubei and Shanxi the exam is administered by the school attended, which affects the documentation requirement when evaluating credentials from these provinces.

Humanities majors must pass exams in the sciences (chemistry, biology, physics), and science majors must pass exams in the humanities. Both majors take examinations in Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language. Compared to the huikao, students have a greater degree of flexibility in the subject areas they study and are examined in.

The three general APT formats are:

  1. Chinese/Math/Foreign language + non-major subjects (6 exams).
  2. Chinese/Math/Foreign language + Comprehensive Science and Comprehensive Humanities (5 exams). These comprehensive exams are consolidated, testing more generally in the sciences and humanities. In some instances, a student might take one comprehensive examination in the humanities or sciences, and three separate subject examinations in the other stream.
  3. Huikao format (3 compulsory + 3 humanities + 3 science subject exams)

As with the huikao, students sit for the HS APT exams upon completion of their high school curriculum – as early as 10th grade, but typically in the 11th grade – and exams are offered twice a year (January/February and end of June).

Grading Scales


Subject exams are marked in percentage grades and reported in letter or Chinese grades.

Letter Grade Percentage Description Translation
A 85-100 优秀 or 优 Excellent
B 70-84 良好 or 良 Good
C 60-69 合格 or 中 Pass/Satisfactory
0-59 不合格 Fail*

*Fail is indicated in Chinese as ‘not passing.’

High School Academic Proficiency Test

The APT has its own grading scale specific to individual provinces. Some schools have grading scales going up to 120/130, although this is not common. Scales can vary from year to year as well as from province to province. It is important when evaluating these documents that you know which grading scale you are dealing with, if it is not included on the documentation.

National College Entrance Examination (gaokao)

The gaokao is administered specifically for students seeking university admission. It is administered uniformly within each province or municipality. Traditionally, the Ministry of Education would write the examination questions and the province would administer it and report the results. Now, the provinces and municipalities can create their own papers (18 currently do) if they choose. The Ministry creates two examinations for distribution to provinces or municipalities not setting their own.

The gaokao is a three-day exam (June 7-9). Three exams come from the compulsory subjects (Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language) with an additional one coming from either the sciences or humanities (with up to three subjects from: chemistry, physics, biology, politics, history and geography), depending on provincial and major requirements.

Before students sit the exam they are required to list their college or university preferences. These preferences are given in four tiers, and for each tier students can list four to six preferences:

  • Early admissions
  • Key universities
  • Regular universities
  • Polytechnic and independent universities.

Each province or municipality will have a minimum score required for entry to key universities, non-key universities, and polytechnic and independent colleges. These can vary from year to year, although the standard benchmark for key universities is 550 out of 750 total points. Typically, the three compulsory subjects are marked out of 150, with the three subjects from the major worth 100 points each.

High schools will typically receive an official copy of each students gaokao results, which can be requested by overseas admissions departments if needed. However, with the rise in popularity of international tertiary study among Chinese students, many school leavers are now opting to forgo the gaokao entirely to concentrate on preparing for English-language proficiency examinations and, in the case of U.S.-bound students, the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

WES’ Required Documentation for Chinese Secondary Credentials

Completed Programs

For completed programs, there are three documents that WES requires for an evaluation:

  • Academic transcript issued by the institution.
  • Photocopy of the graduation certificate issued in Chinese by the institution (be sure to check for a seal from the school, a seal from the principal, and an embossed seal from the local or provincial education department).
  • Verification report for high school joint examination results, depending on province (students are exempt in Guangdong, Hunan, Hubei, Shanxi, Shaanxi (key high schools) and Shanghai municipality, so results should be verified by the school).

In all situations, the students should be able to provide their academic transcripts and graduation certificates, sent directly from his or her school in Chinese along with an English translation (most are issued in both Chinese and English, and in the event that only a Chinese version is received official school-issued English translations can be requested by the student).

Examination results can be verified by the ministry through the CDGDC. Admissions departments should request that students have the CDGDC send them the verified transcript documentation. The student should name the school being applied to as the receiving institution so the document verification comes directly. For school-based exams, results may be obtained directly from the school and they will also need to be verified by the school.

The CDGDC does not verify graduation certificates for the general academic streams, only the vocational programs. A copy of the graduation certificate is adequate, as the transcript will indicate whether or not a student has graduated.

Incomplete Study

Document requirements should include the academic transcript issued by the institution and partial high school joint examination results. If credit allocations are not included on HS APT transcripts, then the school attended should be able to provide an official letter stating the exact number of credits attained. This also applies to completed study.

The CDGDC can also issue a verifying report for gaokao results, which is an optional document that may or may not be required by international university admissions departments. A gaokao verifying report automatically indicates that the student is a high school graduate as they cannot sit for the exam without passing school-leaving exams.

A few things to keep in mind when inspecting documents:

  • Has the students met the 144 minimum credit requirement?
  • Does the specific province have an exit mechanism in place? If yes, then which one? Huikao, HS APT or school based exam.
  • Which grading scale does the province use?

Verification reports take 20 working days from receipt of payment to receive if paying for the regular service. There is also a five-day rush service. Documents are sent by an EMS courier.

CDGDC contact details are as follows:

China Academic Degree and Graduation Education Development Center (CDGDC)
B-17, Tongfang Scientific Plaza
No.1 Wangzhuang Road
Haidan District, Beijing 100083
Tel: 010-82379480
Fax: 010-82379491
Email: [email protected]

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Posted in Asia Pacific, Education System Profiles, Mobility Trends