The Value of a Master’s Degree: Why More Chinese Students are Turning to Graduate School 硕士学位的价值: 为什么越来越多的中国学生选择考研

By Ziyan Zhang 张子琰

NANJING, CHINA — On April 30, 2021, China’s unified graduate entrance examinations (kaoyan) officially came to a close. First administered in 1951 and briefly suspended during the Cultural Revolution, kaoyan is the country’s last annual national examination jointly administered by the Ministry of Education.

中国,南京 —— 2021年4月30日,全国硕士研究生招生考试网上调剂系统正式关闭。起始于1951年,在“文革”期间短暂中止的“考研”,是中国每年最后一次由教育部组织开展的全国性考试。

The number of kaoyan candidates has been rising exponentially in recent years, and kaoyan is drawing greater degrees of attention in society. According to official data, a record 3.77 million fresh graduates and working adults participated in kaoyan in 2021. Only one million candidates are expected to succeed.


The number of kaoyan candidates in recent years

Source: Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China



Kaoyan has become the only way for most people to do get accepted into master’s programs. Exemptions from the exam are only available to a small minority of students. In addition, China has no direct PhD programs, meaning students without special recommendations must first obtain their master’s.


Kaoyan is divided into two stages. The first entails a written preliminary test (chushi) held in the last weekend of December. Candidates who score above the national qualifying score will proceed to the second stage, known as the reexamination (fushi). Organized by individual universities, the fushi is comprised of a written test and an interview, conducted between March and May. However, 34 elite universities have their own independent qualifying scores that far exceed the national benchmark.


As a result, it is common for candidates to retake the kaoyan several times. One such candidate is Qin, a 24-year-old girl based in Hainan, who will be sitting for the kaoyan for the third time this winter. She aspires to gain admission into a prestigious university to study Chinese Language and Literature, obtain a doctorate and enter academia. Last year, Qin’s preliminary examination score was 34 points higher than the national qualifying score, but she failed the reexamination. “The national qualifying score has no bearing on my application process, because the school [that I am applying to] has its own independent qualifying score.”


Qualifying scores aside, candidates may also be rejected by universities if they are not alumni of similarly reputable undergraduate institutions. Chinese academic circles normally refer to first-tier “985” universities and second-tier “211” universities. Several universities have a preference for students from top schools, and tend to reject “non-elite” applicants during the interview round.


Given the intense preparation required and competitive admission rates, why is China witnessing an increase in graduate school applications? Practical reasons come to mind. Graduate study may be a way for some to gain a competitive edge and find better jobs. According to Li, a 28-year-old mother of one who obtained her undergraduate degree six years ago, “Take a look at the recent job ads. Are there any great positions that do not require a master’s degree? No.” Indeed, professional graduate programs are becoming increasingly popular amongst fresh graduates and working adults alike.


Candidates targeting “lucrative” majors such as computer engineering, finance, and accounting face fiercer competition. Two years ago, Li took part in kaoyan for the first time, having self-studied for a finance exam from scratch. In the recent round of kaoyan, she remained unsuccessful. “I know I have less time for revision and that has not been effective, but I won’t give up before I am admitted into a postgraduate school. I have a family to feed and the cost is too high. My plan is to take part in kaoyan ‘til I am 30. If I don’t pass the exam by then, I will admit that I am not really cut out for it.” Li said.


Indeed, only a few candidates will keep taking part in kaoyan until they gain admission to their dream schools. Most have to consider factors such as time, money and age. For instance, Qin made two friends during this kaoyan period. One entered a university that was not her top choice, whereas the other chose to find a job after two unsuccessful attempts. Qin decided to persevere. “In many people’s eyes, I’m unrealistic, overconfident, a loser and a parasite to my parents,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s sad to think about these words, but as long as I study, I’ll forget about them. I don’t know if it’s a kind of obsession, but it’s really the only dream I want to realize.” Fortunately, Qin’s family has always supported and encouraged her, but many other repeat examinees face pressure from their families to give up.


Apart from career advancement, the pandemic could also be driving the surge in the number of people sitting for kaoyan in 2021. On one hand, the education ministry has expanded graduate school enrollment in light of gloomy job prospects in the pandemic-stricken economy. On the other hand, the pandemic’s travel restrictions have also led many students who originally planned to study abroad to pursue a domestic master’s degree instead. “I got an offer from one of the G5 schools in the UK, and I was very satisfied with the application results,” said Yuan, an undergraduate student in his senior year who was initially bound for the UK this August, before the pandemic changed his plan. “I couldn’t get a visa, and even if I could, I dare not go.”


Yuan took part in kaoyan just in case the overseas option does not work out. However, he worries about his lack of preparation, and plans to try again. “I’ve been set on applying to go abroad since I was a sophomore, but I am a total beginner when it comes to kaoyan. Beyond exam preparation, I also need to gather information to select target colleges. This is very important too. Several months ago, many people began revising ten hours a day.”  


A final reason for the growth in graduate school applications boils down to a personal sense of achievement. Many participate in kaoyan because they did poorly on their college entrance examination, and seek to “prove themselves” in another national exam. Others feel like they must have a graduate degree for the sake of it. Liu, a physics undergraduate from a fourth-tier university, successfully gained admission to a 211 university this year. “I was a top student in my high school, but I failed my college entrance examination.” said Liu. “I was very depressed, and I have been aiming to take the postgraduate entrance examination since my first day of undergrad. I believe that I deserved to attend a better school.” As such, Liu spent four years striving for his goal, without thinking too much about the purpose behind attending a better school. Liu admitted that he could be driven by his “famous school dream,” or the prevailing conventional wisdom to pursue a master’s.


Driven by various specific reasons, kaoyan candidates aim to change their present situation via further study. In addition to fresh graduates, China is seeing a growing number of experienced working adults who view graduate school as a means to realize a career switch. Hence, the number of kaoyan candidates in 2022 may continue to break records.  


Will these candidates realize their dreams after entering graduate school? While no one can give a definite answer, kaoyan will take place year after year; its candidates, successful or otherwise, will continue to write their own stories.


Ziyan Zhang is reporting from Nanjing, China.


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