College in Mainland China and the U.S.A: A Brief Comparison

The college experience of students in the United States and China are often strikingly different. Certainly neither  is perfect, though both reflect the specific economic and social situations of their own countries.

Entrance Examinations

Senior year of high school in the United States ideally involves a lot of social and extracurricular activities: games, proms, clubs, jobs, dating, and discovering one’s interests. In China, by contrast, high school seniors often live in dormitories, rarely date, and spend the great deal of their time studying for the Gaokao (高考), China’s National Higher Education Entrance Examination.

In the United States, college-bound high school students take the SAT (and the ACT in Colorado), although an increasing number of colleges are ropping this requirement from their admissions policies, focusing on other aspects of applications instead. While prep classes for the SAT are offered outside of school and high school teachers try to prepare students for the test, it doesn’t hold nearly the weight or demand for preparation as the Gaokao.

Chinese students are allowed to take the Gaokao once a year, but typically take it during their senior year. Often  the entire last year of high school is spent in preparation for the Gaokao. Teachers and students alike experience a great deal of pressure related to the test, with a lot of focus on cramming in preparation for the exam. Many students recall their senior year as being hellacious and low on sleep. Even outside of school hours, when U.S. students are running home or to sports practice, Chinese students often stay in the classroom studying from early morning until after sundown.

Gaokao scores are weighed differently in admissions applications based on where the student is from and to where they are applying. Thus, students born near Beijing will have an easier time gaining entrance into its more prestigious universities than students born far away. The admissions system also tries to add extra points to the scores of students from disadvantaged minority groups or areas in China in order to counterbalance their lack of educational resources. These different weights of scores are complex and somewhat controversial among students.

Choosing Majors

Many undergraduates in the United States take their first couple of college years to decide on a major. In China, one starts to narrow down one’s academic path much earlier on, at around age 15 or 16. This is because whether one decides to study social or natural science will determine which version of the Gaokao one will take. While college students in the United States choose their own majors, Chinese students’ options for majors are limited by their Gaokao scores. Thus, students with lower scores might only have a couple of options for majors if they get into college. The same holds true for graduate degrees: PhD candidates in the U.S. decide the subject of their dissertation, whereas PhD candidates in China often do not.

Moreover, students in China less often have the luxury of choosing a major out of personal interest and pay even more attention to the job potential of majors than U.S. students do. This is partially due to the growing competitive nature of the Chinese job market. Chinese students also tend to shoulder more family responsibility, often expecting to one day take care of their parents and thus having to make financially responsible and low-risk choices from a younger age.

Testing and Critical Thinking

Aside from the Gaokao, entrance examinations are given even for high schools and competitive middle schools. Thus students spend their academic lives learning in ways that will allow them to achieve maximal results on tests.

The popular stereotype in both the United States and China is that Chinese students are better at math, science, and memorization, whereas U.S. students are better at critical thinking and creativity. Against this stereotype, a recent Stanford study suggests that in fact Chinese students exiting high school typically displayed critical thinking skills two years ahead of their U.S. and Russian peers. However, during college, the critical thinking skills of the Chinese students ceased growing significantly and were outpaced by U.S. students.

Some researchers believe the reason for this is that Chinese colleges tend to be less demanding than U.S. colleges. Making it into college is such a grueling process that once accepted, students have already in some sense “made it” and can reasonably expect to graduate. A lot of the pressure is off students once college starts, and they are finally able to relax a bit.

Nevertheless, they can still expect more tests. English majors, for example, seeking to enter the professional world or graduate school should take tests like the TEM4 (and ideally the TEM6 or TEM8) while in school. These tests emphasize memorization of words and roots, route skills, and formulaic essay writing. Though to be fair, the essays expected by the GRE in the U.S. are no less formulaic.

Student Dormitory Life

In the United States, students living in dormitories usually share their rooms with one other student at most and enjoy a common living room and kitchen. Chinese dormitories typically place four to six students in a single room with bunk beds, with no additional living room or kitchen. Electricity and internet can be shut off at night, especially during finals periods. Many luxuries U.S. students take for granted are scarce in Chinese universities. Air conditioning is often not available during the sweltering springtime. Bathrooms are communal and students have to fetch their own hot water in jugs rather than getting it easily from a faucet. In spite of these inconveniences, students report that in certain ways they enjoy having many roommates. Despite disturbing each other’s sleep, they can help each other feel less lonely or homesick.


While schools are often places of youthful romance in the United States, students in China are often forbidden from dating by their parents, even in college! This is not to say they never do it, but it is far less common. Additionally, dating is taken more seriously. Students might text for months before asking each other on a formal date. A male student might surprise a female classmate with an elaborate “proposal” involving circles of candles and onlookers, asking if she would like to be his girlfriend. Students report expecting to have only one or two boyfriends or girlfriends in their life (sometimes zero) before getting married. Dating is more serious and, when compared to the United States, more often undertaken after studies are complete.

Table Manners in China

Living in Sichuan for almost two years, I had to learn a lot about the dining etiquette of China. Expected table manners vary according to the formality of situation, and some ethnic groups might have their own specific rules. Nonetheless, dining customs are mostly universal across Mainland China, especially in the majority culture.



At formal banquets, seating is hierarchically organized. Tables are round, with the most respected seat being farthest from the door (or sometimes, easternmost), and functioning much like the head of a rectangular table in Western culture. The honor of the remaining seats corresponds to how close they are to the most respected seat. Even at family dinners, the seating order will be hierarchically organized with elders receiving the most respected places.


Shared dishes

In Chinese households dishes of prepared food are normally put in the center of the dining table. Each person will typically have their own bowl for rice or noodles. However, you should get accustomed to sharing your meat and vegetable dishes, or even taking your noodles from a central bowl. People will move food from the central bowl into their own bowls a little at a time. While you don’t want to take too much food from the central plates at once, it’s also not good to eat every bite directly from the central bowls. Though this tradition might at first feel uncomfortable if you’re used to having your own plate of food, it lends a warm, communal atmosphere to meals.



A few basic rules about using chopsticks:

  • It’s considered rude to leave your chopsticks sticking upright out of your food or bowl. (If there’s no chopstick rest, place them horizontally across the top of your dish or bowl when not in use.)
  • Don’t do anything with your chopsticks you wouldn’t do with a fork or knife (pointing, picking teeth, reaching, etc.)
  • Technically, it’s rude to spear your food with your chopsticks, although as a laowai (foreigner), doing so in my case usually just evoked laughter. Still, avoid doing so at a formal meeting.
  • Don’t dig through your food.


Toasting and Drinking

Drinking occurs within an intricate set of toasting customs, especially at formal banquets. It might be easiest to explain from experience. At the formal banquets hosted by my school, the president of the college would take the highest seat, surrounded by the vice president and the dean of the foreign languages department, then supervisors, and finally teachers. Two things would happen then. Firstly, the president, supervisors, and an occasional brave teacher made toasts to the whole table, basically thanking everyone. On top of this, throughout the meal, each person at some point would get out of their seat and go around the table toasting each other person individually, starting with a toast to the president. Plus, you can always toast someone near you. These customs were exactly the same at government banquets I attended.

If this all sounds like a lot of drinking, it is. You might even end up with as many toasts as the number of people at the table squared!  If you’re drinking beer or red wine, you can just take a sip. With baijiu (the traditional hard liquor), you’ll often be encouraged to gānbēi! (empty the glass). However, if you feel you’ve had too much to drink, it’s acceptable to toast or accept a toast with a cup of tea. If you don’t drink at all, you might encounter some pressure to drink, and might consider making a physical or health-related excuse.



Generally, it’s considered rude to split a bill, at least among the older generations. While it’s good, and even expected, to softly protest when a friend offers to pay for a meal, when they insist, gracefully accept their offer,– and pay next time! Paying for the meal is considered an honor. For this reason, don’t be surprised when you’re expected to (or “allowed to”) pay for everyone’s meal on your birthday!



Tipping is not at all expected, but appreciated. I recall once being chased to the end of the block by a server who thought that I had accidentally left behind money, but once I explained that I wanted to leave it for her, she was quite happy.