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Special report: As competition for grad schools heats up, students take admissions exams repeatedly

Updated: Jul 9, 2023

(Photo from Wix library)

This special report has been prepared by Nguyen Ha Linh, Zhao Mingjun, Charmaine Magbuhos, Raphael Perri, Shen Chen and Erdenenyam.P., reporters in the Global Business Journalism program's In-depth Reporting and News Writing course.


Global Business Journalism reporter

China has a severe supply and demand problem. There are more students graduating from college than there are available jobs. There are more students applying for graduate school than there are available slots. And, for the first time in 2022, there were more students applying to graduate schools than graduating with bachelor's degrees.

Amid the job crunch, the number of students in graduate programs has surpassed undergraduate enrollment. And as competition heightens for master's and Ph.D. programs, there has been a massive increase in applications for graduate admissions exams, the gateway to grad school in China.

Here are some of the stories of students who are trying to navigate the situation.

Failing exams over and over again

Jade Zhang will never forget the night of December. 23, 2022, when COVID-19 struck her down unexpectedly. Within half a day, her body temperature had risen to 40 ℃. Throughout the night, “my head felt like it was going to explode,” she said. “I was aching all over and could not even stand up.”

The next day she was scheduled to take the national postgraduate entrance examination for the third time, hoping that an advanced degree would help her find a good job. But being seriously ill, she had no other choice but to miss it. {I combined these into one paragraph.} Zhang felt terrible and hopeless.

“A year of hard work has gone to waste,” she said.

Another test, another failure to obtain a passing grade. Zhang is one of tens of thousands of undergraduate students who have endured the pain of repeated failures in their desperate desire to secure a spot in graduate school in China.

Zhang's ideal job is to work for a respected accounting firm. With more and more graduate students in the society, she realized she was not competitive with only a bachelor’s degree from an unexceptional university.

Therefore, she applied for a master’s degree program in statistics at Renmin University of China, which ranks first among statistics majors in Chinese universities. It is easy to imagine how fierce the competition is. With over 200 students competing for 10 admission slots, just 5% of applicants could win admission.

Source: Renmin University. (Global Business Journalism graphic by Zhao Mingjun)

Zhang studied hard for 10 months in her first year to prepare for the postgraduate entrance examination, but fell short of the required admission score and chose to take the exam a second time.

The next year she worked even harder. She got up to study at 6 in the morning and did not rest until midnight. In the end, her total score exceeded the admission threshold, but her English score did not meet the requirements. She resolutely decided to try again.

The third year, she didn't even make it to the exam because of her illness. Instead of getting a job or even an internship, she had spent three years taking exams.

“Now I don't know what to do,” Zhang said.

During her most painful days she locked herself in the house and lived in tears. To comfort her, her parents bought her a cat to keep her company. After three months of resting and adjusting her mood, Zhang finally decided to give up applying for graduate school and will take the national civil service exam instead.

The exam will be held next month, but she does not feel ready.

“It's too torturous to take an exam that you're not well prepared for,” she said.

Graduate school craze

Jade Zhang is not an exception. Graduate school is becoming an increasingly popular choice for Chinese undergraduates.

In 2016, China had 3.74 million fresh graduates with a bachelor’s degree and 47% of them applied for the national graduate entrance examination.

However, in 2022, the number of applicants for the national graduate entrance examination exceeded the number of undergraduate graduates hat year for the first time, meaning that more students were trying to get into graduate school than were completing their first four years of college.

There are two reasons for that remarkable statistic: more students are taking the exam and more students are failing and taking the exam more than once.

(Global Business Journalism graphic by Zhao Mingjun)

Like Zhang, Qinqin Yang, 24, signed up for the entrance exam for the third time this year. She had applied to Renmin University of China previously. But after failing the interview and being rejected, she chose Guizhou University, which ranked lower. This time she finally got in.

Recalling her two previous failures in postgraduate entrance exams, Yang uses only one word: “confusion.”

She suddenly felt disoriented after failing the interview. She tried to find a job directly, but “good jobs require fresh graduates or work experience, and I didn't qualify.” She worked as a temporary teacher in an educational institute for four months, but eventually quit and decided to continue preparing for the graduate school.

It is equally difficult for fresh graduates to find a job. Yawen Cao will graduate from college this June. He passed the postgraduate entrance examination for the computer science major at Southwest University and will be enrolled in September.

He explained why he chose to take the postgraduate entrance exam rather than work directly: “Unless you are particularly outstanding or you have a good degree, it is very difficult to get a good job opportunity.”

In fact, the difficulty in finding a job with only a bachelor's degree is the main reason for the graduate school craze. Qin Han, further-education counselor at the University of International Business and Economics pointed out many clear regulations in the job market.

A master’s degree or overseas degree is preferred,” he said. “The conditions for finding a good job are getting higher and higher, so the bachelor's degree in China is becoming less and less satisfied.”

A master’s degree is not enough

In order to meet the recruitment requirements of enterprises, students have to continue to graduate school and hope that they can find a satisfactory job after graduation. However, with the increasing number of graduate students in the society, such hopes may be shattered again.

Lin Yuhong, 26, who studied computer science at Tsinghua University, decided to pursue a Ph.D. because he could not find a job that he liked in China.

“The market is saturated. Graduating with a bachelor's or master’s from a great university is not enough anymore in China. You need a Ph.D. to get very decent job,” he said.

Pursuing a Ph.D. has become a favorite option for more people.

Although Qinqin Yang will start her master's degree at Guizhou University this September, she has already planned to apply for a Ph.D. at Zhejiang University after graduation.

“My current plan is continuous study for master’s and doctoral degrees, and then work in Guizhou University as a teacher,” she said.

About 160,800 people are expected to graduate with a master's degree or a doctoral degree in Beijing this year, while 136,100 will earn a bachelor's degree. According to data released by the Municipal Education Commission of Beijing, the number of graduate students in Beijing surpassed that of undergraduates for the first time this year.

A master's degree is like a reservoir where students with a bachelor's degree are placed in the pool and then released to the job market two or three years later. When the master's reservoir is full, some of the graduates are put into the doctoral reservoir.

Xiao Peng, 24, decided to apply for a Ph.D. in finance because he thought it would help him to survive in a very competitive job market. “There are so many overqualified graduates in China,” he said, “so a Ph.D. is often the only way to differentiate yourself from the crowd.”

What if one day the doctoral reservoir is full?

The question is so complicated that perhaps no one can answer it clearly. For each student, personal development is a greater concern.

Despite being admitted to graduate school, Cao is still full of anxiety. “Ordinary people like me, who can only go with the flow after graduation. We have to do some of the jobs that a lot of people do, competing with many people,” he said.



Amid unprecedented youth unemployment, discover the insights of Chinese students pursuing graduate studies with our additional stories:


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