Long Wanting, a high school senior in China, just sat her Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) exam in Hong Kong on December 2.
"When I stepped out of the examination room, I felt the nightmare that haunted me for the past few months had finally come to an end," said Long.
Like many students in China who want to pursue further studies abroad, Long started to prepare several years ago.
"I'm in the international department at my high school, so we started to do practice language exams like TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and SAT very early, " said Long.
But preparing to study abroad is never an easy process. "If you just want to get a certificate to attend an ordinary university, you won't be too tired. But if you want to apply to one of the top 30 universities or Ivy League schools, you need to work very hard to get admission," said Long, "as hard as students who take thegaokao(national college entrance examinations) in China."
Thegaokaois a one-time test that decides which college you can go to, and, to some extent, determines your path in life. Reluctant to let their entire lives be determined by one test, a lot of Chinese students prefer to study abroad for their bachelor's degree because their future is not decided by only one score but a variety of conditions.
However, with more and more Chinese students choosing to study abroad, the size of this group has started to grow significantly, creating a highly competitive atmosphere.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Education, between 2000 and 2016, there was a rapid growth in the number of Chinese who study abroad. In 2016, around 544,000 Chinese studied overseas, a new high in the number of students who study abroad. According to another report released by New Oriental, an education company in China, Chinese students who read for bachelor's degrees are still the biggest group among all the Chinese students studying abroad.
But despite the growth in numbers, the process is still not easy, and Long may not be the only one who sees it as a new form of thegaokao.
Complicated application process
A lot of documents are required to study abroad, and they vary according to country and even profession.
"For high school students who want to apply to U.S. universities, the basic requirements are high school grades, language proficiency certification, a personal statement and financial proof," said Xing Haodong, a consultant at a study-abroad agency in Beijing.
"The students' high school and language grades decide what level university they can attend. So, their grades are highly related to their final application results."
Long said she was not familiar with the application process, and it was difficult to prepare all the documents on her own, so she looked for a professional agency to help her. But she still needed to work hard to prepare.
"I was up until midnight every day after I started to prepare for TOEFL and SAT. It became a daily routine to stay up late to study for the exams. In the daytime, I usually relied on coffee to stay awake," said Long.
Su Shanshan, who is doing a one-year foundation course in Australia, found that the biggest barrier for her is the language requirement.
"I need to pass the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) test to meet the requirements of my university," said Su. "I think IELTS is a really difficult test because the learning style is quite different from that of my English class, especially the writing and speaking parts."
She said the IELTS test tends to be more academic and practical, so she had to spend a lot of time adapting to the style of the test.
Wang Hao (pseudonym) just started his first year of university in the U.S. He also did a foundation course. He said he took it because he thought the course would help him adapt to the learning style in U.S. universities.
"Language is the basic requirement for studying in a U.S. university. Compared to local students, we have to work much harder to achieve the same results," said Wang.
He said applying for the course is not difficult, but meeting the requirements of the universities can be really hard.
"We need to spend a lot of time writing essays and studying for tests, just like students in China prepare for thegaokao," said Wang. "The only difference is that we focus on the different aspects. Students who take thegaokaotend to learn a lot of theoretical and academic knowledge, but we focus on more creative and practical things."