Chinese High Schools vs. American High Schools

Chinese High Schools vs. American High Schools

Advanced Courses.png

Course Selection 

In Chinese public high schools, students have the option to choose a curriculum that emphasizes humanities subjects or STEM subjects in their second year of high school. They cannot choose the level of difficulty of major courses because everyone has to take the College Entrance Exam in the end, which has the same level of difficulty for everyone. There are usually fewer or no minor courses.

In Chinese international schools, students can choose to study IB, AP, or A-Level courses. They can choose what courses they want to study as well as the difficulty. But there are usually more restrictions and they might be required to take harder classes. There are usually lots of minor courses, depending on the school.








In American high schools, there is usually a graduation requirement for every school. Students need to follow the requirements, such as taking 4 years of English, 4 years of history, etc. Other than that, students have more freedom to choose the courses they would like to take. There are usually more variety of major courses such as comparative government and British literature, as well as more kinds of minor courses.

Pasted Graphic 2.png


A Typical Chinese Public Boarding School Schedule

(In China, most high schools are public boarding schools so that it is easier to monitor students preparing for exams.)

7:40-8:00 study hall

8:00-12:30 major classes in the morning

12:30-14:00 lunch break

14:00-18:00 major classes in the afternoon

18:00-19:30 dinner break

19:30-22:00 study hall

After 22:00 free, but most students continue to spend time studying

A Typical American School Schedule

8:00-13:00 major classes, study hall, and minors

13:00-14:00 lunch

14:00-15:30 major classes, study hall, and minors

16:00-18:00 sports/music

After 18:00 free, students might choose to study, continue their extracurricular activities, practice sports, go to musical rehearsals, etc.


Key differences:expectations, norms, values, performances

Fitting in, uniformity, conformity, modesty

  • Examples: 

    • In kindergarten, Chinese students are required to draw apple trees, rain or sun in the same way.

    • A Chinese saying: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” 

    • Students are usually punished for making mistakes, no matter what their intention is.

  • How this relates to school performance

    • Chinese students might not raise their hands if they know the answer to a question

    • Chinese students might be less involved in class discussions.

    • Chinese students might be afraid to do something bold because of the fear of making mistakes. 

STEM subjects

  • Examples:

    • A Chinese saying that “You can do anything if you can learn STEM subjects well”

    • The tendency to look down upon humanities subjects--only people who are not smart enough to learn STEM subjects study humanities.

  • How this relates to school performance

    • Students from China are usually better at STEM subjects and prefer to major in these subjects more.

Value education

  • For thousands of years, government officials, occupations that can be attained by getting a high score on the Keju exam, were valued the most. Because of the boost in social status, political power, and income, ancient Chinese people tended to value education.

  • Nowadays, since a high score on Gaokao is the only way for most people to get better education in college and get better jobs, a lot of people put a great emphasis on education, or more specifically, test-taking, as a method to change their fate.

  • Examples

    • Chinese students spent most of their life in China preparing for standardized tests. (See explanations in the school section)

    • In China, a large portion of the family income will be used to invest in education.

    • Chinese parents like to compare the rankings of the colleges their children are attending.

  • How this relates to school performance

    • Chinese students care a lot about their test scores.

    • Chinese students want to get into the highest ranked colleges possible.



Obedience and respect

  • Examples:

    • Students are required to listen to teachers and parents without preconditions starting at a very young age.

    • Parents and students commonly use physical punishments to make children obey

  • How this relates to school performance

    • Students might listen to teachers’ words with fewer questions.

    • It is sometimes hard for Chinese students to do creative projects.



  • In China, students are likely to blame themselves on mistakes they make to an extent. Introspection has been emphasized in Confucian values, and contemporary teachers also like to make students form a habit of finding what mistakes they make or what they do wrong for a bad test score.

  • Examples:

    • When something bad happens, Chinese students tend to first blame themselves and see if they have done anything wrong.

  • How this relates to school performance

    • Students might experience mental health issues or stress because they blame themselves for all the unpleasant things that happen in their lives.



Competition, scores and rankings


  • Because of the huge population in China compared to a small number of jobs with social respect and high income, Chinese students need to be the top 1% to have a living standard as the same as the top 40% in the United States. Therefore, they need to compete and be better than others to live the life they want to have.

In addition, China is a country that values hierarchy and order for a long time, and resources are distributed according to the hierarchy. Therefore, there is always a tendency to climb to the top to show accomplishment. Being good means being better than others.

As for the emphasis on the ranking of colleges, the requirements of a lot of jobs explicitly say that an applicant needs to graduate from a top 10 or top 50 university. Since the ranking of the college one attends plays such a huge rule, Chinese people naturally care more about the rankings.

There are few open-ended questions in exams in China. To do well, students need to provide the answer the examiner wants. As they practice more and become used to the system, they will have a tendency to continue to seek a single right answer when they are not taking the test.

Students take exams almost every week in China. They are ranked based on test scores, and the ranking is publicized (usually printed on a huge board at the front door of the school). Students form small “classes” at a school based on the ranking, and those with higher rankings become popular among students and teachers. Students with lower rankings will have to do extra work to catch up, and are sometimes mocked by others.


  • Examples: 

    • Students with higher scores are at the top of “the hierarchy” in their Chinese high school

    • Because of the fact that China has such a huge population and few  good colleges, and that scores are the only determinants of whether a student can get into a good college, students have to work much harder than their peers in China to stand out. If they don’t, it is hard to get a good job without attending the best universities.

    • Competitiveness: Take Yunnan for example. There are around 300,000 students taking the college entrance exam, and only 30 of them qualify for the top two universities in China (Which are ranked around 30th in the world). 100 of them (0.0003%) in total qualify for the 4 best Chinese universities (ranked top 100 universities in the world). 

    • Scores and rankings are always posted to the public. There are usually class meetings after each test to discuss the results, and students with low scores and rankings might face punishments.

    • The focus on test-preparation: Because of the importance of test scores, the teaching in Chinese high schools is strictly oriented for test preparation. Any teaching experiment or innovation might cause a punishment to the teacher in a traditional college-prep school.

  • How this relates to school performance:

    • Students tend to choose universities based on their rankings.

    • Students might want to “compete against others” and tend to compare everything with their peers.