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The College Admissions Game (With Chinese Characteristics)

Posted: 04/ 1/11 01:40 PM ET

High school seniors have been hearing from colleges over the last few weeks. At Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn, where I teach history, we've seen smiles, tears, and any number of new hoodies emblazoned with bulldogs, bears, and various birds of prey.

I always find this time of year exhilarating and bittersweet; I know my students will grow from their experiences, but I hate to see them reduced to a few numbers and words on a piece of paper.

The process often seems absurdly unjust: standardized test results correlate with income and may be racially biased; the cost of private schools goes up while public schools get eviscerated; at highly competitive colleges, thousands of students with perfect GPAs are rejected; and few families can afford tuition at elite private universities. (How much will our seniors pay? Columbia runs $54,000 a year. University of Chicago will cost two grand more than that. And at the top of the list, parents lucky enough to send a kid to Sarah Lawrence will shell out around $58,000).

But whenever I get truly indignant about our system, I remember my days teaching in China. Here in the States, we often hear about how Chinese students are kicking our butts. They are not: this is a media invented fallacy. I saw the Chinese system from the inside and can safely say that we have little to fear.

This could be a long blog entry, but to keep it short I'll just focus on the topic of the day: the college admissions game. As stressed out and two-dimensional as my students in Brooklyn may now feel, it's nothing compared to the similar part of the college process for my former students in Guizhou Province. There, everything rode on a single test score. High School seniors in China sit for a two day, twelve hour national exam given in January -- the dreaded Gaokao. Their score is the ONLY factor in college admissions; there are no essays, no letters of recommendation, no reference to extracurricular activities, athletics, or extraordinary talents. You are a score, a three digit number.

The Gaokao consists of hundreds of multiple choice questions in three required subjects (Chinese, Math, and English), and two additional subjects (choices include Communist Political Theory, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, History, and Geography). To prepare for the test, competitive students start studying in 7th grade. They spend six years of school focused SOLELY on the Gaokao. That's six days a week, 12-16 hours a day, for six years, cramming information.

And for the real Tiger Mothers in China, not even this is enough hard work from their kids: some parents hook their teens up to oxygen tanks to improve their concentration; others spend tens-of-thousands of dollars on high-tech cheating methods (one of my students swore a classmate had a tiny transmitter surgically implanted in his ear so he could hear answers being read to him from a secret location) and each year there are hundreds of arrests of students, parents, and teachers who get caught in the act. And, of course, there are always heart-breaking spikes in suicide right before and after the test.

All of these extremes are entirely understandable. When you are in an inhuman system, it makes sense to stop behaving like a human. Critical thinking is a distraction in Chinese schools and is not part of the curriculum; music, art, and physical and emotional health are irrelevant. To many of my former students, these things are downright silly.

The whole system is soul crushing.

Last year, 10 million students took the Gaokao. They were competing for approximately 6.5 million slots at universities. This meant that literally millions of Chinese teenagers saw all of their hard work end in an educational train wreck. Millions of kids opened a letter, looked at the number printed on the top, and knew instantly that instead of heading off to college, they would be heading to a rice paddy, or into a factory to make IPods for American consumers. One of my favorite students, Apple, put it to me this way: "when I got my Gaokao score, part of me died; I knew I could never reach my dreams, because I would be stuck in a terrible school, and a terrible location, forever." It wasn't melodrama. It was the Chinese school system.

So to seniors at Saint Ann's and elsewhere in America: our system is brutal and dehumanizing, but the letter you received in the mail this week will not determine your fate, your job, your happiness, or how much you will learn in the next four years.

Perhaps it is sensible to close with a Confucian saying: "If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want to learn, go to the library."

Or was that Frank Zappa?