There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “If you haven’t died from hard work, just work harder.” The dark humor might not bother fiercely competitive and ambitious young men and women in China. But it might only inspire them to strive to reach their goals, come what may.
Many young students in China have one dream: go to the US for higher studies. In 2016, as in preceding years, China accounted for the second largest number of GMAT test-takers, with 70,744 applicants appearing for the test, next only to the US, where 83,410 applicants took the test. India accounted for 33,123 test-takers.
China only had the 16th highest total mean score among test-taking countries, with 581, according to data from Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which conducts the test. This was only to be expected in view of the large number of test-takers. However, China’s total mean score was way better than the US’ 547 and a little above India’s 577.
But the point is that there are always a great many Chinese applicants with scores approaching or crossing 750. And when it comes to admissions to the top US schools, they are the most serious contenders. In fact, with so many great candidates from China, US schools have a tough time ensuring that their classes are not jam-packed with students from that country.
How do Chinese students do well on the GMAT? What’s the secret? There are, of course, a few obvious reasons. The foremost is that they simply prepare harder. A Poets and Quants article refers to a GMAC study which found that the typical Chinese GMAT test-taker prepared for 100 hours compared with the typical US test taker, who studied 40 hours for the test. Another report attributed to GMAC says Chinese students prepare for the test for 151 hours compared with US students, who put in 64 hours.
It is not as if the Chinese students suddenly become purposeful and diligent at the mention of “GMAT.” Yes, certainly, GMAT is a special examination for many Chinese test-takers, and admission to a top b-school on the steam of a high GMAT score might well be the academic crowning glory for most of them. But the fact is that GMAT is not the biggest academic test that Chinese students work the hardest for. They have a tradition of slogging for highly competitive examinations, and for them, GMAT as just another hurdle they have to cross for a bright career.
Among these competitive exams is the grueling nine-hour National Higher Education Entrance Examination (“gaokao” in Chinese, often described as “the most pressure-packed examination in the world”). Students’ performance on the gaokao decides whether or not they secure admission to courses for the most valuable undergraduate degrees at top colleges or universities.
Chinese students prepare for the gaokao virtually all their lives, and going into another high-focus test-preparation mode for GMAT is not at all difficult for most of them. An analyst with the GMAC research and development team is quoted in a Times of India article as saying that students from countries with high-stake tests tend to perform well on GMAT.
According to GMAC data, Asian students do better than their counterparts in the quantitative section of GMAT. South and East Asian students seem to be certainly better grounded than US students in math fundamentals.
That many Chinese students clearing GMAT have an academic background in engineering also helps. Engineering courses in China lay greater emphasis on quantitative analysis than courses elsewhere, and therefore, engineering candidates at GMAT tend to ace GMAT’s quantitative section. Other Chinese students also do well in quant, but with a lot of preparation. They are aware that the verbal section is their weak point, and that they have to score as high as possible in the quant section to compensate, says an Indian admissions consultant quoted in a Times of India article.
Chinese students are disciplined and highly motivated, too. They are also brand-sensitive and prefer the top schools, one of the M7 schools being at the top of their most preferred destinations. This means they have to aim to score very high in GMAT and prepare for it with dedication.
Read Why Americans score low on GMAT
They don’t do this alone, tethered to their desks. They have a whole team behind them. Many Chinese applicants to US universities hail from well-to-do families and are able to seek the services of the best admissions consultants in China who can help them find their way through the entire US-school admissions process.
Chinese applicants seek the guidance of firms and websites that prepare GMAT candidates and secure support for selecting colleges, submitting the applications, writing essays, and doing well at the interview.
Some go for paid tutoring classes, shelling out thousands of dollars, to pick up some “tricks” on how to ace GMAT. Most have their supportive parents to thank for, who don’t mind spending any amount to get their sons and daughters to the best b-schools in the world. Many other Chinese students prepare for GMAT and other tests using study guides and practice mock tests provided by the testing agencies. Some opt for free online tutoring courses such as the ones provided by Khan Academy.
Another method Chinese GMAT takers use to score high is to appear for the test multiple times until they achieve a score that will get them into the US or European b-school they want to go to. An MBA admissions consultant quoted by P&Q says his clients appear for GMAT three or four times in order to attain a high score. Some take the test as many as six times to reach a score of 750.
The pursuit of diversity by US schools has made it mandatory for Chinese (and also Indian) students to score higher than other students. A Chinese student has to get 30 to 50 points higher than a school’s average GMAT score to be considered a competitive candidate in highly selective b-schools, according to an admissions consultant quoted in P&Q.
This is because Chinese applicants tend to be over-represented in the applicant pool, and in the interest of having a diverse class, schools tend to avoid admitting too many applicants with similar backgrounds. In the case of Chinese students, they use GMAT scores to select the best candidates among them, giving the green signal only to those with very high GMAT scores.
For example, Chinese students need to score in the 98th or 99th percentile for their applicants to be considered seriously at Michigan Ross (a favorite among Chinese students), Duke Fuqua, or Wharton. A Chinese student with a GMAT score near the school’s average score is not going to make the cut. There are usually many Chinese applicants with scores of 730-750, says the consultant quoted in P&Q.
Chinese students don’t just study hard. They also study smart. They know what it takes to accomplish great scores. A Chinese student, Sunny Sheng, who secured a place at the Copenhagen Business School, was quoted in an article in FT as saying that being Chinese, it was important for her to focus on the verbal section, since the quant part was easier for her. She made practice her mantra and picked up strategic reading skills.
Sheng indicates that she looked up her preferred schools’ GMAT requirement to estimate her target score. Spending too much time on achieving a perfect score is not a great idea, as some time can be used to research schools. Writing an inspired application and doing well at the interview are just as important as the GMAT score, she says.
About the necessity of joining test-prep courses, she says that they can help you if you’re appearing at an earlier exam date. They can also provide study material and short-cuts for problem solving—but problem-solving skills can also be picked up from books and online portals. The prep courses don’t deliver a high score on a platter. You still need to practice.
“Treat the exam as a game. The questions need to be solved quickly. Remember to focus and keep calm,” are her other tips for GMAT test-takers.
However, unfortunately, Chinese students have been charged with cheating to score high in admission tests to US universities, including SAT, GMAT, and GRE. These charges have hurt the reputation of hard-working Chinese and other Asian students, as much as they have affected the credibility of the agencies that run the tests. Steps have been taken to make the tests more fool-proof, but US schools need to focus on the integrity of the tests and not just eye the revenue from Chinese students.
Some 330,000 Chinese students were pursuing courses in US universities as of the 2016-17 academic year, according to a Time magazine article. A vast majority of them secured admission on merit, using fair means, says an article in The Atlantic. But it also points out that there have been allegations that a few Chinese students use unfair and even illegal ways to score high on GMAT. In the past, many Chinese student who aspired to study in the US have fallen victim to unscrupulous Chinese agents who offered to provide their clients with an advantage, through unfair and illegal means.
GMAC has pursued cases of Chinese admission agents accused of tampering with the Council’s policy and procedures. In one case, the Council pursued a person who ran a website, Scoretop.com, where GMAT takers shared live test questions. Scoretop offered a VIP membership plan, which gave students access to live GMAT questions that they could practice answering.
The GMAC filed a civil suit against the website owner and took control of the domain, reports the GMAC newsletter, “Graduate Management News.” It also took action against those who paid the VIP membership fee.
We cover more on this in a separate article.
Meanwhile, honest and talented Chinese students just keep working harder. They won’t even consider any other option.