How to Identify Trustworthy Schools in China

Identifying qualified candidates is what makes college admissions difficult. Unfortunately, this task takes on an additional degree of difficulty in China. We’ve all heard the stories: in China cheating and lying on college applications is widespread. Many students and families go to great lengths to get ahead and obfuscate real qualifications. For admissions officers, a solid dose of background knowledge on an applicant’s high school can help breathe life into their application and verify their qualifications.

High school is where students form long-term study habits and academic integrity. Many Chinese high schools provide supportive environments for students with ambitions to go abroad. However, many other high schools are still beholden to old-fashion teaching techniques—large classes, impersonal relations with faculty, heavy handed use of standardized testing—and breed grounds for a culture of cheating. 

When it comes to preparing college applications, the role of high schools become even more critical. Supportive staff can help guide students through college essays and application questions while maintaining honesty. On the other hand, a lack of institutional support can lead parents and families to place their trust in unsavory domestic college admissions agents. As Time Magazine reported this month, it’s often the case that forged letters of recommendation start with apathetic teachers who refuse to write individualized letters of recommendations for students.

So how do we identify good high school environments, the type that will create good, trustworthy applicants? Here our some pointers for understanding high schools in China: 

1. Location, location, location!

China’s a large country, with cities and urban centers of a diverse stock. Understanding the regional difference between a local school located in Shanghai and one in, say, Chengde is key to understanding the environment from which your applicants are applying. While not always the case, schools in large international cities have stronger norms against cheating and corruption in the college application process. This does not mean that schools outside top international cities do not produce good candidates—nothing can be further from the truth. Cities with an international presence like Changsha, Chongqing, and Xi’an all have sizable student communities that studies abroad. And the list goes on.





2. Scrutinize school reputation.

In China, schools fall on a spectrum of international-ness, with international schools being completely geared towards international college admissions, and domestic schools focused on the gaokao and domestic universities. Schools that are serious about their reputation abroad will likely have strong norms against internal cheating and be good at cultivating students that will perform well in a Western setting. The best strategy: carefully comb school websites, make connections with teachers—in short, get to know your schools.

3. Watch for schools inside schools.

They are called international departments, and they’re the cause of endless confusion. In China, government regulation only permits residents with foreign passports to attend international schools. But that hasn’t stopped schools and families from finding ways to skirt government regulation. Many public schools have opened internal departments oriented towards international college admissions. While sharing the same name, these international departments are managed by separate administrations, follow different curriculum, and are often located on separate campuses. Confused yet? Well, many times domestic departments with strong academics are also quite good at sending students abroad. In fact sometimes they’re better than the international departments that share their name! This all goes to show, doing careful research on schools is a must. 

4. Look for schools that produce human candidates.

If admissions officers could step into their applicants’ high schools, they would be stunned to find many so-called “international departments” are taught exclusively in Chinese and follow a curriculum not much different than traditional domestic schools. While international departments have multiplied at a dizzying pace over the past tens years, their individual quality doesn’t always match their overall quantity. Seeing the demand, many administrators have enthusiastically adopted the title of “international department” without first making the difficult adjustments to internationalize their schools. For Chinese parents, the distinction isn’t always clear; but for admissions officers, there’s not shortage of red lights. Look for programs that signal a humanistic education: extracurriculars, art programs, drama, debate. If schools are signaling a real commitment to creating well-rounded students, there’s a good chance they’re succeeding. 

Lanzhou Fall 2014 Regional Debate Tournament at Lanzhou Number 1 High School

Lanzhou Fall 2014 Regional Debate Tournament at Lanzhou Number 1 High School


Helpful Links

  1. See this list of China's 260 best high schools.
  2. Read about the dilemma of Chinese students when it comes to honesty on college applications. 
  3. Learn more about engaging prospective students through Sunrise Extracurricular Events