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Does Earlier Equal Better?

A recent article in the New York Times Metro Section covered the trend of wealthy Chinese students going to New York for high school with the goal of increasing their chances for college admission. While the trend is well documented, the article points to one of the things that surprised us most these past two years of doing interviews with college applicants from China. We started off thinking that Chinese students who were already studying in the U.S. (or who were in international divisions of Chinese high schools) would be the strongest communicators, but in many cases we found the opposite to be true.

Many high school students from China who are studying in the U.S. have participated in our interviews. When we interviewed them, we often found that even though they were studying in the U.S., their English communication skills lagged behind what one would expect of a U.S. high school student. In contrast, it was often the students in China enrolled in a “local” track high school and surrounded by classmates studying for the gaokao who were the most impressive in interviews.

What was the reason for this? While difficult to generalize, it perhaps involves a couple of factors. First, there is definitely a clear pecking order of high schools in each province based upon gaokao scores, and even a province far removed from Beijing or Shanghai has one or two top schools (with thousands of students) which have a history of turning out exceptional graduates. Admittance to those high schools is based purely upon entrance exams taken at the middle school level, which has the benefit of providing even families of modest means with a clear target upon which to focus their educational aspirations. Second, it may just be a numbers game: a little more than 9 million Chinese students took the gaokao last year (in Chinese here), so even the comparatively small group of students applying to the U.S. from China might have a large percentage of exceptional students. Just to give a sense of the scale, the entire number of American first-year college students in 2012 was just 2.1 million.

In many cases, the students going to the U.S. for high school are actually not the top students—if they were, they would opt to stay in China in order to both save money and keep their options open. Often, studying in the U.S. merely indicates that the student is in the (still) very small percentage of wealthy Chinese families with the means to pay for educational options in the U.S., and, as the article indicates, they are able to find schools that accept them despite their less than conversant English ability. For those students, studying in the U.S. might still be something that dramatically increases the level of their language skills—admittedly, we don’t have any sense of a particular student’s degree of improvement. We are merely able to compare them to their counterparts who remain in China for high school, and we were surprised by the often weak correlation between English ability and country of schooling.

We’re keen to hear your thoughts—particularly thoughts to the contrary—so feel free to either email us at or reach out to us on Twitter at @initialview.