The Girl Who Wouldn’t Leave: Two Very Different Educational Systems


If you are going to attend a college meeting in America during your junior or senior year, I can confidently predict some of the admission officer’s key responses. They will range along the lines of “there is no perfect student,” “we like both well-balanced and lopsided students,” and “there is no minimum GPA/test score accepted.” All very evasive and generic responses. Now, when I was the one sitting in the audience hearing these responses, I rolled my eyes. Of course there was some type of minimum GPA , SAT, or ACT  that they expected. They just weren’t going to publicly announce it since they wanted more students to apply. More applications equals more money.

But today I found myself playing the role of the admissions officer. I was saying those same silly phrases! A teenage Chinese girl approached me in Act III at the USA Pavilion in the World Expo asking about applying to American universities. She came at the beginning of my shift and stayed there with me for forty-five minutes. She just wouldn’t leave. She wanted to know what she needed to do to apply to college in the US. I didn’t know an exact response, so I asked her about taking the SAT. She didn’t know what it was. I asked if she could ask a college counselor for assistance. She said they didn’t have those. She then proceeded to ask me what type of student American colleges look for. I had to explain that it wasn’t all about grades, the way it is in China. She didn’t understand the concept of “well-rounded” or “extracurricular activities.” She wanted me to give her a concrete list of activities she should do. She wanted to know every activity I had done during high school and for how long I had participated in each one. When my coworker told her he was a piano player, she started discussing taking up piano lessons. As we tried to explain that colleges weren’t looking for a certain list of activities, we realized we didn’t know how old she was.

…She was eighteen. She had just graduated high school…..

We then had to carefully explain to her that it is too late for her to pursue a whole new list of hobbies and activities. Instead, she needed to write about what she has already done with her life. At this point, she looked like she was about to cry when she said, “but all I’ve done is study.” It’s interesting that in America, extracurriculars, sports, clubs, and activities are so strongly stressed, yet in China, students are encouraged to focus solely on their studies. Clubs and such are usually not even provided because students are expected to use their free time studying. Their college admissions process doesn’t depend on ACT or SAT scores, teacher recs, essays, or GPA…no, it depends solely on ONE test. The “Gao Kao”. This nine-hour test is offered only once per year and determines a Chinese high school student’s future.

Read more Gao Kao information.

Tricky essay topics that have been on the Gao Kao’s essay section include-

  1. Why chase mice when there are fish to eat? (Nationals)

  2. What is light reading? (Nationals)

  3. Looking at the stars with your feet on the ground. (Beijing)

  4. Morning (Hunan)

  5. Neighbors- “We are neighbors and rely on each other. You might be visible or invisible.  It is impossible to avoid having neighbors, but you can make a choice.” (Guangdong)

These were all actual essay questions on the Gao Kao. With a test like that, no wonder the girl I was talking to didn’t understand the concept of a “well-rounded student.” We tried to help her the best we could, but without any outside assistance, applying to an American university will be hard for her. I had a hard enough time with the Common App and all that nonsense and I had a college counselor holding my hand the entire time!

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