Even if you are not working with Chinese families, you probably have heard that they care a lot about rankings. If you already work with them or plan to do so, you’ll find that it’s true.

Besides the question “What SAT and TOEFL scores will guarantee my son’s admission into a US News & World Report top 30 university1?” you must have heard another question from time to time, “What college or university can you help my child get into?” This is a question almost all Chinese parents ask during a first meeting with a counselor, no matter if s/he is an IEC or a school-based counselor. 

Honestly, like many of my fellow IECA members, I don’t like the emphasis placed on rankings. Having worked in college counseling and test prep since 2006, I have struggled with contextualizing the US News rankings to Chinese families. In this article, I’d like to share with you what I have observed in my practice over the years, analyze some reasons behind these observations, and finally attempt to offer a new perspective to IECs who are already working with or plan to work with Chinese families. 

Over the past decade or so, I have met over 600 hundred Chinese families in person, a majority of whom applied for undergraduate programs and a smaller group of graduate applicants. Admittedly, most of them wanted to discuss the above two questions with me before signing a contract. Even for those who didn’t, when I tried to understand their expectations, they would still frame their expectations with relationships to rankings, such as: “We hope that s/he will get accepted by, at least, a top 50 or 30 or 20 college.” It seems that these families take rankings as the sole criterion to evaluate the college application process. However, finding a “good fit” for the client is the actual ultimate goal of every IECA member. Thus, the fact that Chinese families are so crazy about rankings poses one of the largest obstacles for IECs to stick to the “finding fit” philosophy. 

Despite even more ways to find information about schools, the presence of rankings in China continues to grow. In March 2018, US News & World Report registered an official WeChat account (WeChat being the most widely used multi-purpose messaging, social media platform in China) named “US News Global Education” to better promote its products in China, i.e. Best College Rankings. A series of official events were run in China to introduce the new ranking and its methodology, which was welcomed by parents, students, and even counselors. The US News has also appointed a manager for the Greater China region to showcase the company’s future strategy and develop even more of a presence. In addition, there are many competitors of US News ranking drawing wider attention, Princeton Review, Niche, Forbes, QS, to name a few. So, why are they becoming increasingly popular? 

To better understand this trend, allow me to start with some fundamental truths about our educational system and culture:

1. There is no “holistic review” in the undergraduate admissions process of mainland China universities. The only criterion is the test score result, known as the gaokao. High school academic performance, recommendations, essays, interviews, and extracurricular activities are not taken into consideration. 

2. The national university entrance exam (the gaokao) is organized only once every year by the Ministry of Education (MOE), meaning that every senior student only has one opportunity in his/her lifetime. (There are very few who could retake the exam in the following year, but the government is tightening the number of retaking students.)

3. The above two contribute to the fact that the entrance requirement of every Chinese university is crystal clear and published in newspapers and others kinds of media.

4. The rankings of Chinese universities are largely based on the entrance score.

5. All of the above somehow widen the gap of educational quality among different universities and thus increase the educational inequality of different regions. 

6. The MOE has also categorized universities as “211 or 985 schools,” distinguishing them as top tier or tier two or three universities in China. This categorization system has led to a deeply rooted tradition in Chinese people to view every university through a lens of “rank.”

Given all this, it is very natural that people could evaluate a domestic student’s “academic strength” by which university s/he gets into. And people firmly believe that there must be some criteria, i.e. rankings, to classify the schools and definite standards, i.e. a test score, for admission to each school. 

You may ask, “Steve, I’ve heard of and understand all the above. But that’s in China. When it comes to US college applications, is there any chance that the Chinese families have a different perspective?” Yes, they might. However, even though some of them could be convinced by the philosophy of “finding fit” and that “the rankings are just one of the many factors to build a school list,” everyone must face the same challenge when s/he graduates: to find a job. So, let’s continue the list.

7. A majority of big companies in China have the so-called “target school list” when recruiting new employees. A good number of them (mostly large-cap state-run companies), set strict standards of schools where their future employees graduate. For example, a leading investment bank requires that a prospective employee graduate from a US News top 10 college. 

As you can see, everybody is, more or less, results-oriented. When considering all the above facts in China, it may become easier to understand why Chinese families are so crazy about rankings. I don’t like rankings at all; however, in most cases, they are the direct criteria for parents, especially given the fact that most parents lack firsthand knowledge and don’t search college websites due to a language barrier. Since 2012, I have cooperated with an international program in a high school2 to run its college counseling office. Therefore, this comes from my experiences as a counselor both in private practice and as a school-based counselor. This unique perspective helps me understand this issue from both sides of the wall. 

No matter how we feel, rankings are here to stay. We have tried to educate families about the importance of “finding fit” and we may also learn how to better help them refer to rankings wisely. I hope this article provides a new perspective on working with Chinese families. If you’ve also suffered with rankings as I do or are considering working with Chinese students, feel free to reach out to me by email. I am more than happy to share my experience and hear yours. 


1. Though “college” is more frequently used in the US for any undergraduate school, “university” is the only word used in China within the same context. 

2. “High school” refers to a secondary school offering classes for students from Grade 10 to 12. The program I cooperated with offers English-taught classes and all graduates apply for oversea colleges, mostly in the US. 

By Kan (Steve) Li, MA, IECA (China)

Kan (Steve) Li, Youfang Education Consulting Co., Ltd., can be reached at [email protected]