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.

Why Learn Chinese?

The answer to this question largely depends on you and your interests. Some of our students learn Chinese because of the opportunity it affords in business. Other students want to learn to speak a common language with the almost 1 billion Mandarin Chinese speakers alive today. Chinese language also offers a deeper insight and connection to one of the oldest and most unique cultures in the world. We can, however, give an overview of a few of the top reasons many people decide to learn Chinese, and perhaps why you might be interested as well.


Lesson Medium

1. New Job and Business Opportunities

American Chinese speakers find jobs in customer service, travel, post-secondary education, business, and other fields.

China’s economy has been steadily growing since the late 1970s. The current GDP of China is reportedly 9.24 trillion U.S. dollars. This is up from about four billion in 1990. Over 20% of global manufacturing takes place in China, though this sector is being replaced by the service industry as the new center of growth in the Chinese job market alongside the swift growth of China’s consumer economy.

It is fairly common knowledge that China’s workforce, unprotected by U.S. labor rights, manufactured many American-sold goods at a low cost. However, as the wages of workers in China rise, the next generation of Americans will be interacting with a new rising class of specialized workers in service and other professional jobs.

However, less than 1% of Chinese people speak English fluently. College students that are not English majors often have only a very rudimentary understanding of English. Therefore, for people in international business, learning basic Chinese can open up a world of opportunities. Additionally, for people thinking about teaching in China, a working knowledge of Chinese is naturally essential for navigating one’s community and daily life there.

2. Personal and Cultural Connections

For those with Chinese ancestry, learning Putonghua (Mandarin) can be a way of getting in touch with the culture of their family. Other people may be moved to learn Chinese because of their Buddhist or Taoist faith, and a desire to study their religion with greater depth. The original texts of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, for example, are all in Chinese. With a history of over 8,000 years and over 55 distinct ethnic groups, China holds people’s fascination as one of the major world civilizations.
Knowing a foreign language will allow you to bond with people from places far away and speak with people you never thought you would be able to speak with.


Photo by Rob Web

Photo by Rob Web

3. Traveling

Some websites claim that learning Chinese allows one greater opportunities for travel in other East Asian countries. This is not always true, even in popular tourist destinations like Thailand. Nevertheless, China is a massive territory that now includes Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet. You will find a large percentage of Mandarin speakers in all of these areas. Countries such as Singapore and Bali, while remaining independent, still have sizable populations of Chinese speakers. China itself is a massive country with ancient Silk Road deserts, lush forests, icy mountains, unique wildlife, sprawling modern cities, and ancient architecture. It is an almost inexhaustible resource for travel.




4. It’s an adventure that will enrich your life, and it’s not as hard as you think.

Chinese isn’t as hard a language to learn as people often suppose. People often worry, for example, about the differences tone makes in pronouncing otherwise homophonic words. However, there are only four basic tones in Mandarin: up, down, bending, and high. These tones can be thought of as a simple second alphabet with only four characters. Moreover, Chinese language has no tense, gender, or honorific articles.

Anyone can learn Chinese if they have sufficient motivation, and everyone can put it to a unique use.

10 Apps and  Tools to Help You Learn Chinese Faster

Learning a new language is difficult, and it’s even harder without the right resources. When you take a class at Hong Tu we will help you master the language through a combination of lessons and materials to help you outside the classroom. If you want even more tools to help you in your pursuit to learn Chinese, here are 10 apps that we have found useful.




Cost: Free for Basic

Platforms: App Store, Android, Google Play, Amazon App Store



Pleco is a staple favorite among Chinese students, teachers and travellers. Simply put, Pleco is a comprehensive language dictionary. It provides both traditional and simplified characters, and has additional plug-in features for purchase. This app is ideal for looking up unknown characters found in readings, finding different word variations, and a single-character reference while traveling.







Cost: 15 day free trial; $15/month or $120/year for basic, $30/Month or $240/year for Plus

Platforms: Website, App Store, Android Expected Soon



FluentU is a great resource for someone learning or maintaining Chinese who is not enrolled in courses. Focused on entertainment-based learning, FluentU provides video and audio tracks in Chinese with the ability to have both English and Chinese subtitles. With the option to choose between traditional and simplified characters along with the ability to select the difficulty level, this tool is ideal no matter what stage you are at. A basic subscription provides unlimited listening and watching, while the Plus package provides a “Learn Mode” with additional features.  




Google Translate Chrome Extension

Cost: Free

Platforms: Google Chrome

Website: Chrome Web Store


Anyone who speaks more than one language will caution you from using a full translator, especially when translating Chinese. Keeping this in mind, the Google Chrome translator plug-in is a great tool for when you run into trouble reading Chinese online.  Get the meaning of individual words or sentences in real time as you are reading online. While you can translate entire pages, you will quickly notice the translations are less than perfect.






Cost: Free with in-app purchase options

Platforms: App Store, Google Play



Do you ever find yourself reading Chinese text and come across a tough character you get stuck on? CamDictionary might be able to help. This app allows you to take a picture of a character to find the meaning instantly. While it doesn’t work 100% of the time with strange fonts, it’s a great tool to have in your pocket for homework or reading in general. If you only use a couple searches a day, the free limited version should be enough to get you by. If you find you are using it more frequently, you can purchase unlimited searches for a couple dollars.





Mandarin Typing

Cost: Free

Platform: Apple and Android Products


Although this isn’t exactly an app, this smartphone language feature is one not everyone is aware of. Whether you are just starting to learn Chinese or you are an expert, being able to write and type in Chinese on your phone is crucial. In addition to communicating with friends and family in Chinese, this feature makes looking up unknown words and characters much easier. Along with the ability to type out the pinyin for characters, most software also allows you to draw in characters in the event you don’t know how to pronounce them. In both Apple and Android devices, just go to the Languages and Keyboards section of your settings, and add in the language and the options you would like to use, such as simplified, traditional, pinyin or drawing.






Cost: $14.99/month

Platforms: Web, App Store and Google Play



Skritter is another great resource for those learning Chinese. With a large focus on writing, reading and tones, Skritter enhances essential skills needed to learn Chinese quickly and efficiently. Although this service comes with a steep price tag, they boast an impressive amount of features and support, which includes a money-back guarantee. Try a free demo of the service to see if it is right for you. Cater the software to your skills and preferences when you sign up for an account to get the most out of your purchase.






Cost: Free

Platforms: App Store and Google Play



One of the hardest parts about learning a new language is getting motivated to put in the time in effort. ChineseSkill helps this by using games and activities to help you learn. Choose either simplified or traditional characters and take off! Enhance your character writing, vocabulary and pronunciation while playing games on your phone. With such a high rating, you know the app is not only fun to use, but educational as well!






Cost: Free

Platforms: App Store, Google Play



Anki is a flashcard and quiz based service that allows you to keep track of what you know and what you need to work on. While other services, such as Pleco, also contain similar features, Anki software is flexible, allowing you to add exactly what you do and don’t want on your list. This is an ideal tool for someone enrolled in courses or studying for an upcoming exam. Check out AnkiWeb for lists, quizzes and flashcards that former users have already put together.





LearnChinese Phrasebook by CodeAgent

Cost: Free for basic

Platforms: App Store, Amazon App Store, Google Play and Windows Phone Store



Single word dictionaries are very useful, but if you will be traveling to a Chinese speaking country, you may need a little bit more. The LearnChinese Phrasebook by CodeAgent provides useful and common phrases. The App provides characters, tones and pronunciation for whatever phrases you may need. The basic version will get you through most scenarios such as introducing yourself and transportation, but you can also purchase the pro version for expanded topics.





Popup Chinese

Cost: Free

Platforms: Web



If you are looking for a service with range of tools to learn Chinese, but don’t want to pay expensive costs for other services, you might want to look into Popup Chinese. The website contains videos, podcasts, stories and other media content that you can download and take with you. A community forum allows you to ask questions, and a tests and tools section allows you to test yourself and track your progress. Popup Chinese not only allows you to choose between simplified and traditional characters, but also has an option for learning Cantonese as well.  

Hopefully these apps can help you on your journey to mastering the Chinese language. Tell us, which one will you try first?