Standardized tests are part of the admissions process in both the United States and China, but the importance of these exams differs.
Yuchan Wang and Rachel Hoppock both applied to college. Both took a big exam. Both were stressed about which colleges would accept them.
What’s the major difference? Wang applied to colleges in China, Hoppock looked in the United States. Just the contrast in the location of their colleges made a significant difference in the application process.
Most U.S. admissions offices use a holistic approach when looking at applicants — grades, test scores, essays, extracurricular activity, volunteer work and recommendations.
Some of the most competitive institutions don’t even look at academics first, but rather focus on fit, according to a 2012 Harvard study.
Hoppock, now a senior at New York University, remembers her NYU essay questions being very unique. She said she vividly remembers two prompts: “If there was a movie made about you, what would the title be and what would the opening shot be?” and “Write a haiku that describes you.”
“They end up selecting really interesting people to attend the school and I think that their admissions questions are genius because it lets people show very different sides of themselves that are usually hard to show on paper,” Hoppock said.
Dr. Marlyn McGrath, director of admissions at Harvard University, said the school has to take a holistic approach when looking at candidates because people who are applying are already talented — if they weren’t they wouldn’t be applying — so it needs a way to find the people who will truly fit at the school. McGrath said last year around 30,000 people applied to Harvard; its freshman class was comprised of 1,650 people.
“What we’re looking for is excellence. Once we’ve established a good academic match with Harvard, then we’re looking for other parts of excellence,” McGrath said.
McGrath discussed how the school recruits people with other talents — such as artists, athletes and musicians — in addition to strong academic records.
When it came to taking standardized exams before applying to college, Hoppock said she didn’t do much preparation for her ACT test. She took one practice test and then decided to go for the real thing.
“When I took the real test, I got a 29. The minute I received my score, I looked up what NYU required and saw that it was a 28 and decided that that was it,” Hoppock said.
Wang, on the other hand, had been preparing for her admissions test basically her whole life. Now a senior at Harbin Institute of Technology in Harbin, China, she said she believes the information provided by teachers during regular class time is not sufficient, and said that if families have the financial means, they pay for their students to have classes outside of school.
Wang said the average price of an outside teacher is 200 RMB, the equivalent to about $29 USD per hour. The average family of three earns $9,000 USD a year, according to China Market Research Group.
“Of course, some people choose the cheaper teachers, but the rewards are different. It is not a fair game. Children from low-income families usually have less possibility to be enrolled, especially for the students from countryside,” Wang said.
After class each day, Wang would go home to study until early hours of the morning. She had to forgo relationships, outside activities and housework to make time to prepare for the “gaokao” exam, known formally as the National College Entrance Examination.
For students in China, this single score will determine the rest of their life. Less than half of 1% will score high enough to qualify for admission to a school in the C9, a presitigous academic conference of universities often referred to as “China’s Ivy League,” which will catapult them into life in government or state-owned enterprise, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal.
Students who score within the lowest third have to decide if they want to spend another year cramming and hoping for a better score next year. Many students end up going back to repeat a year of high school in addition to outside teaching sessions. For many others, it means abandoning the dream of college and settling for a manufacturing or low-income service job.
The test is offered once a year over a two- to three-day period in early June.
“[During the exam] traffic is controlled on major roads, all distractions stop and the whole society tries to make the lives of the test-taking students easier,” said Xue Bai, author of the Offbeat China blog.
“People have studied for more than seven years just for two days, 10 hours. It is no doubt a cruel experience, isn’t it?” Yuchan said.
After scores are released, students with adequate marks submit a list of desired universities to education officials. School administrators decide whether or not to admit the students based solely on this score, according to a New York Times article by Edward Wong.
Each year, there are extreme stories of the lengths students will go to ace the exam.
Photos of a classroom full of students in Hubei province taking energy-boosting, amino-acid IVs so that they didn’t have to move while studying, surfaced this year.
Another student wasn’t told his mother had died until after the exam in fear that the trauma could make him perform poorly.
In the United States, SAT and ACT scores often provide the initial cutoff for the admission process, but the scores are one of many things on the application. For the Chinese, the scores are the only factor in the admissions process.
As U.S. admissions deadlines loom, students can ask themselves which process they’d rather deal with; for many, the SAT and ACT might not be so bad.
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