Viewing the US university system through a Chinese lens

Writer: Titus Levi  |  Editor: Liu Minxia  |  From:   |  Updated: 2024-04-09

As the vernal equinox bears down on us, many students across China will check their mail — old school email — for acceptance letters from U.S. universities and colleges. For some, the notices will bring joy and relief. However, many will feel crushing disappointment.

Make no mistake: the anxiety that students feel about university admissions shakes U.S. students to their core. I remember one friend in high school that got three rejection letters from his top three choices — all on the same day. He took the next day off from school.

Other students will feel anxiety of a different kind: choosing “the right school” when faced with multiple options. Sure, you can simply select the highest-ranked school. However, if you deviate from this path, what criteria matter? I will help you (and your parents) to consider these criteria.

Chinese students and their parents feel especially acute anxiety over the process of choosing the right school. Chinese culture increases the intensity of pressure felt by students and their parents while making these choices.

For instance, Chinese students learn from an early age to take their cues from outside. Parents guide student decisions, family expectations bear down on where to study and what to study, and test results lay out a rank-order understanding of success and performance. A Shanghai Media Group publication, The Sixth Tone, delved into this point in an article titled “Is Chinese Math Education as Good as It Seems?” written by Lu Tang and published Feb. 25, 2022. This article identifies the limitations of extrinsic motivation in education in how deeply students learn. However, I go one step further here: the environment of learning within an extrinsically focused set of motivations turns educational behavior into a series of boxes that one hides within. While students in the United States all face these strictures and pressures, Chinese students feel these pressures more acutely than their North American counterparts.

And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. The hell-bent climb to enter the highest-ranking schools is often misplaced. Students can have an excellent education at many schools. Sure, a student who comes back to China with a degree from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn, or Columbia — the BIG Reputation Ivies, for lack of a better way to state the point — will have employers chasing them and parents (and grandparents) fawning over them. However, the performance that these students attain compared to many other high-ranked but lesser-known schools is negligible and may not exist. That is, a mechanical engineering student from, say, Case-Western Reserve or Cal-Berkeley may actually be more skilled than a student coming out of Harvard or Columbia. A student specializing in English literature from Pomona College may outshine counterparts who graduate from Columbia. In short, rankings are often unrevealing and confusing.

Rather than focusing on rankings, I recommend that students and their parents consider a range of criteria when picking schools in North America. Doing so manages anxiety, while often delivering excellent educational outcomes.

Many factors affect student performance. While studying in a top-notch environment will produce some positive benefits, other factors affect learning and performance. For instance, having access to a mentor that meets with the student regularly and often will deepen a student's insights and associated skills. This kind of close engagement will often produce deeper and more lasting impacts than simply being in a classroom in a high-ranked university. The mentoring I received with studying for a Ph.D. at the University of California, Irvine — an up-and-coming second-tier university at the time — proved crucial in helping me to complete my degree and feel well-prepared for moving into academia. I have spoken with other Ph.D. recipients who completed studies at higher-ranked schools who rarely had access to their Ph.D. advisors. I met with my advisor, Linda Cohen, weekly. I also met with other committee members on a regular basis. Chinese students and their parents rarely investigate such factors in the process of selecting a suitable university.

Moreover, engaged mentorship exposes students to many subtle sociocultural behaviors that can make the adjustment to living abroad unfold more smoothly. One student that I worked with in Zhuhai connected with two mentors while studying in the United States. These mentors helped her to find well-positioned internship opportunities when she completed her studies, which helped to open doors to freelance opportunities. Additionally, these mentors would talk her through various difficulties she faced, which better prepared her to adjust to, and even anticipate, various challenges that she encountered as she developed her career. This guidance has allowed her to thrive in her work as a freelance photojournalist.

Some fields of study benefit from the particular location or environment associated with the field of study. For instance, a student studying music or art will benefit from being in or near a city with a thriving music or art economy. Location takes on an even larger role in fields where internships play a central role in skills development and lining up future employment opportunities. While cities like Boston (Harvard) and New York (Columbia) tick these boxes, other Ivy League cities— New Haven, Princeton, Ithaca, Hanover, and Providence— might not.

This situation becomes especially acute in some STEM fields. A student pursuing a career in videogame design or artificial intelligence development may be better advised to attend Cal-Berkeley rather than an Ivy League university.

Location matters in other ways. For instance, Chinese students raised in large, bustling mainland cities may feel more comfortable in large cities. On the other hand, some students who feel overwhelmed in China’s large, high-pressure cities may do well in college towns like Ann Arbor, Michigan — home to the University of Michigan — or even small towns hosting a high-quality liberal arts college like Amherst, Massachusetts (Amherst College) or Middlebury, Vermont (Middlebury College). I recently spoke with a student from Shanghai who went to Oregon State University (in Corvallis, Oregon) to study; after he adjusted to the initial shock of the quiet, he found that walking in the woods around the campus helped to steady his mood and sharpen his concentration.

Those prone to homesickness may find that visiting a local Chinatown or having an excellent Chinese meal may take the edge off of these longings. This would steer students to the Los Angeles area, The San Francisco Bay Area, Vancouver and its suburbs, New York City (especially Queens), and Toronto.

While food works as a reliable form of attitude adjustment, sometimes deeper and rangier contact with Chinese culture helps to keep students on track. West Coast cities such as Los Angles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver tend to have older, more established Chinese communities than East Coast cites. Also, professors in universities and colleges on the West Coast tend to have more familiarity in working with Chinese students than their East Coast counterparts. This can help with in-class communication and various forms of sociocultural coordination. 

I grew up with Chinese neighbors from the time that I was a child. Mrs. Liu never did learn English, but she found steady work in the Cantonese-speaking Chinatown in Downtown Los Angeles. This exposure helped me better understand the mainland classmates I interacted with during graduate studies at UC Irvine (UCI). These interactions, in turn, helped me communicate more effectively with Chinese students who enrolled in classes I taught at the University of Southern California (USC). Universities like USC and campuses like UCI have worked with mainland students for decades. This body of experience helps administrative staff, as well as professors, to better understand and accommodate the needs of students from China.

Finally, if, after making a well-considered choice, things don’t work out, change schools! You will learn all kind of things about yourself wherever you go — particularly how you respond to the collegiate environment — and with this new body of information in hand, you and your parents can make a more informed choice after making a choice that does not work out.

This is a complicated process. A single article doesn’t cover all possibilities. This piece simply introduces some of the key considerations to help you choose more effectively.