The Great Graduate Exam Struggle: Why High Scores Aren’t Enough in China

Alex Lew, CFA
3 min readMay 31, 2024


Getting into graduate school in China has become increasingly tough, even for those scoring exceptionally high in initial exams. Recently, some students with scores well over 400 still couldn’t make it to the interview round, leaving many puzzled and frustrated. Despite a decrease in the number of applicants for the 2024 exams, competition seems fiercer than ever. What’s really going on here?

First, let’s talk about the quality of candidates. Although the number of people applying for the 2024 graduate entrance exam dropped to 4.38 million, these students are better prepared than ever. They’ve spent countless hours in prep classes and practice exams, making sure they’re ready for anything. This increased dedication has led to more students achieving top scores.

For instance, there’s the case of a student scoring 428 in the initial exam but being disqualified because their political science score didn’t meet the required threshold. Despite their high overall performance, this single subject barred them from advancing. It’s stories like this that highlight the intense competition and the sometimes harsh realities of the current system.

Next, consider the limited spots for interviews. Prestigious universities have not significantly increased their graduate admissions quotas. This means that to secure an interview, candidates need exceptionally high scores. There’s simply not enough room for everyone who meets the minimum criteria, leading to cut-off scores climbing higher each year.

A telling example is from a top university where the cut-off score for a journalism master’s program jumped by 45 points from the previous year, surpassing 400 points. This sharp increase left many high-scoring candidates out of the running, despite their strong overall performance.

Then there’s the issue of “involution” in the exam process. As job market pressures grow, more graduates are seeking higher degrees to boost their qualifications. This trend has led to an increasing number of applicants over the years, despite some fluctuations. Students aren’t just looking for any degree; they want one that gives them an edge in a highly competitive job market. This intense focus on securing top scores drives the cut-off thresholds higher and higher.

Many students are beginning to question the fairness of this system. Some believe the emphasis on high test scores doesn’t necessarily reflect a candidate’s true potential or capabilities. The story of a student who missed the cut-off in just one subject despite scoring very high overall is a prime example. Such rigid requirements can unfairly penalize students who may excel in their chosen fields despite not performing perfectly in every subject.

Online forums are filled with discussions about this issue. One user, “Deryy,” lamented the wasted efforts of those who feel pressured to pursue graduate studies without clear direction, ultimately sacrificing valuable years. Another, “男人什么罐头我说,” pointed out that without a graduate degree, it’s nearly impossible to land a good job, especially for those from ordinary backgrounds.

Others argue for a more balanced approach. “小兔兔” questioned whether the system is producing researchers or just good test-takers, while “关机咯” noted that intense competition is present in all fields, suggesting that students might look for less saturated areas to stand out. However, as “默博博” pointed out, finding these niche fields is increasingly difficult as everyone is trying to do the same.

What’s the solution? There’s no easy answer, but it’s clear that the current system might benefit from reforms. A more holistic evaluation process that considers a student’s overall potential and capabilities, rather than just test scores, could help ensure that talented individuals aren’t unfairly excluded. Until then, students will continue to face an uphill battle, navigating a system that demands ever-higher scores and increasingly intense preparation.