Life at an international department

Some background information. Typically, middle schools in China go from Grade 7 through Grade 9, and high schools in China go from Grade 10 through Grade 12.

High school admissions are typically done through an examination known as the Zhongkao (or the universal high school admissions exam, sometimes called the middle school academic abilities exam), and students fill out a “wishlist” after finishing Zhongkao for the schools they want to be admitted to. Each school has its own score requirement for admissions. Zhongkao is not the only way to enter high school, however, though it is the most prevalent way.

As a high school student, I am in no way qualified to talk about admissions personally. The following is but some of my simple and naive ideas stemming from my personal experience.

It’s about time for the Zhongkao! Just last week, my (previous) classmates in middle school participated in the “100-day oath ceremony”, which is a motivational rally held for students 100 days before their big exam (in this case, the Zhongkao.) In fact, some of you reading this article may be my previous classmates, and you might even be considering to enter a public high school’s international department after your Zhongkao! In this case, I think there are a couple of things that are worth knowing from my experience.

Before choosing… Are you really sure?

Over the past few weeks, the public international departments around Beijing are already starting to accept student applications for entry, so if you have already applied, you’ve likely already made up your mind about going the international route. For those who haven’t chosen yet, however, there are a couple of misconceptions that you must avoid before choosing the international route.

  • Myth: The international route is way easier than the domestic route (going through the Gaokao.)
    Reality: The international route is just as hard, if not way harder, than the domestic route (even for going to the best of universities through the Gaokao.) To achieve your dreams, you need to achieve high in almost every manner possible, and 3 years (in fact, only 2 years until the application season) is very likely not enough.
  • Myth: I only need to have good English abilities to succeed in the international route.
    Reality: Other than having good English (or foreign language) abilities, you also need passion in a specific field of study and certain personal abilities such as collaboration, leadership, and more. Only having English abilities is not enough.
  • Myth: I only need to excel in academics to succeed in the international route.
    Reality: There is this phenomenon of students competing hard in their academics, especially with math, in Chinese middle schools in Beijing. In my previous middle school, students would study in advance to Grade 11 math content in Grade 7. This, however, is not enough, and unnecessary. By “not enough”, I’m not suggesting for people to study to Grade 12 (instead of just Grade 11) content in Grade 7, but rather suggesting that having only academic abilities is not enough. In an international department, you need to expand your world way beyond academics to truly demonstrate your abilities.

Apart from these misconsiderations, there are also other important things that must be considered before choosing the international route.

  • Do your family’s financial situations allow for studies abroad? Undergraduate studies, especially studying in the United States, cost a lot. These information regarding costs can be easily found online, so I’m not going to repeat it here, but it’s definitely an important consideration if you want to go the international route. Even in high school, you will already need to spend a lot. Certain extracurricular activities, such as research programs and competitions, also cost a lot. As an example, you can search for the costs of the Pioneer Academics research program and summer school programs offered by universities.
  • How is your language ability? If you can read this blog post with fluency, then congratulations! You are already meeting the basic requirements for English fluency in a public international department. For entering an international department, it’s best for you to have entirely fluent abilities in English communication. Although this is not strictly necessary (your English abilities will improve rapidly in an international department), it’s best for you to deliberate if you fear that you cannot reach the level of English ability required. At the very least, you should be able to excel in a typical Chinese middle school English classroom.
  • Do you have a field of interest? This is not strictly necessary, but it’s best for you to have a field of interest before entering an international department, because this will allow you to plan out your high school life way earlier in advance and thus allowing you to seize the limited time available before applications.

I have chosen… What will life be like?

So you have chosen, and you will soon be enrolled in an international department. So what will life be like? Before we answer that question, however, you should know the key factors of international college admissions.

  • Your GPA. Unlike the Chinese system that you are used to, which includes exam grades determining everything, GPA stands for “Grade Point Average”, in which both your exam grades and your daily performance (like your class attendance, homework, projects performance, etc.) are factored into your final grades. At our school (as of the time of writing), the GPA is consisted of daily performance (50%), midterm exam grades (20%), and final exam grades (30%). In most high schools, the GPA is first calculated on a 100-points scale, and then transformed into a 4.0 scale. At our school, a 93 – 95 is an “A” on the 100-points scale, and 96+ is an “A+” on the 100-points scale. GPA that are A or above (93 or above) are considered as 4.0s, the highest achievable GPA. To apply for a top 10 university, you need a consistent 4.0 GPA for all your classes and during all 4 (or 3) years of high school.
  • Your standardized testing scores. For people born in China, there are typically two standardized tests that you have to take for college admissions.
    • A language test. These include TOEFL, IELTS, and the Duolingo English Test. These are mandatory to show that you have the language abilities for international studies.
    • SAT/ACT. These are the standardized tests that most universities require for applications (some schools are test-optional.) The SAT or the ACT measures your academic abilities. Typcially, you will choose whether you will take the SAT or the ACT upon entrance or after your freshmen year at an international department.
      • For SAT testers, SAT testing is not available in mainland China. You will need to travel to other countries/regions (e.g. Hong Kong SAR China) to take the SAT. You can register for the SAT on your own.
      • For ACT testers, ACT testing is not directly available in mainland China. To take the ACT in mainland China, you must complete a program known as the “GAC” that is offered by your school. The GAC program costs. Only after finishing the GAC program will you be able to take the ACT. Your school will register the ACT for you, and you will not be able to register on your own. However, unlike the SAT, there are test centers for the ACT in mainland China, and most of them are international schools. In fact, your future school may be an ACT test center itself.
  • AP Classes (or other curriculum of your choice). There are several international curriculums (the most widely known ones are AP, IB, and A-Level) that you will need to choose upon entrance to an international department.
    I am currently taking the AP curriculum. AP is offered by the College Board (the host of SAT), and stands for Advanced Placement. AP allows high school students to take college-level classes in high school, such as calculus, biology, history, and more. In each May, the College Board hosts the AP exam, where you will demonstrate your abilities in a timed test that results in a score from 1 to 5. Most AP exams can be taken in mainland China, but certain ones (mostly history and political ones) must be taken outside of the mainland. Some AP classes (like AP Seminar and AP Computer Science Principles) also have other “performance tasks” that you complete before the exam to contribute to your grades. The amount and rigor of the AP classes that you have taken will be considered when you are applying to college.
  • Your extracurricular activities. This is the most complicated one. Your extracurricular activities demonstrate who you are as a person and your unique abilities and shining points. Considering that most people applying to top universities have a 4.0 GPA, at least 9 AP classes with a 5, and almost perfect standardized testing scores, your extracurricular activities may be what gets you in rather than someone else.

Now that you have an idea of how international college admissions work, you should start to have a vague idea of how life at an international department looks like. The following is my personal account of what I have experienced at BAID, and I imagine that life in other international departments may be similar.

  • Before school.
    • Students and parents attend a conference in which they are asked to choose SAT or ACT for their standardized test. Students who choose ACT are later required to pay for the GAC program.
    • Students attend a pre-entrance test for English and math. The English part was similar to a TOEFL exam.
  • Course schedules.
    • Compulsory classes. As a public international department, students in BAID still have to take compulsory Chinese-style classes. This is because they have to pass the “qualification exam” (高中合格考) in order to receive official certificates upon graduation.
      • All students throughout G9 to G12 have to take Compulsory Chinese.
      • For G9 freshmen, they have to take Compulsory Biology, Physics, and Chemistry for the year. They do not need to take History, Geography, and Politics for the year, and will instead take them next year. For G10 freshmen, they have to take Compulsory Biology, Physics, Chemistry, History, Geography, and Politics for the year.
      • There are each 3 sessions for Compulsory Chinese, Biology, Physics, and Chemistry each week. There is each one one-hour session for Compulsory History, Geography, and Politics each week.
      • For students starting last year (the year when I entered), Compulsory Math was replaced with a mandatory AP Precalculus class.
      • As you might know, Chinese high school textbooks are separated into Compulsory (必修) and Elective Compulsory (选择性必修) parts as of 2017. The Compulsory parts are the textbooks that everyone attending public high schools must study (in order to pass the qualification exam), and the Elective Compulsory parts are the textbooks that only people attending Gaokao must study. Only the Compulsory textbooks are studied at international departments.
      • The teachers go through the compulsory textbooks really quickly, and classes are often compressed to increase speed. For example, unlike the typical schedule of finishing Physics Compulsory I in one semester and Compulsory II in another semester, both Compulsory I and Compulsory II are crammed into one single semester. The level of study is not as in-depth as the level for Gaokao studies.
      • Compulsory classes are included in your GPA. The school always uses its own exam papers for the midterm and final exams, instead of the district ones.
    • English classes. English classes at our school are separated into two — the Integrated English class, which prepares students for standardized testing like TOEFL and SAT/ACT, and the EFL class, which teaches students general English abilities.
      • Students are separated into four different classes (corresponding to the students’ different levels of English) that are independent of their own classes for English. English class 1 is for students with the highest proficiency in English, and English class 4 is for students with only rudimentary English abilities. Students are grouped into different classes based on their grades in the pre-entrance English exam.
      • All students take the Integrated English class.
      • Students from class 2, class 3, and class 4 take the EFL class. Students from class 1 take the AP Seminar class instead.
    • AP classes. For students’ first year at school, they typically can’t choose their own AP classes, and are instead given a fixed AP class curriculum. Starting from the second year, students can choose their own AP classes.
      • All new students were enrolled in AP Precalculus. This is a replacement for the Compulsory Math that was taken previously.
      • First-year students are given a 2 week trial period for AP Microeconomics, and can voluntarily choose whether or not they want to continue or not.
      • Students in English class 1 enroll in the AP Seminar class.
      • Certain students enroll in the AP Physics 1 (Algebra-based) class.
    • Other classes with GPA. For first year students, the school offers two sets of other classes that are included in their GPA with an A/B/C/D.
      • Glocal/Drama/Art. This class set is available to certain students. The Glocal class is a class about entrepreneurship. The Drama and Art class is as its name. All of these classes have 2 sessions per week, and students may choose one of them that they want to take in the first week of school.
      • Humanities/Presentation/Literature/Integrated English Prep/EFL prep. This class set is available to all students, and have 2 consecutive sessions per week (typically during the last two periods of Friday afternoon). Students chose one of these classes in the pre-entrance meeting. Humanities/Presentation/Literature are as their name. Integrated English Prep is an additional Integrated English class. EFL Prep is an additional EFL class.
    • Classes with only a pass/fail GPA. All students can enroll in certain classes that do not have a graded GPA but only a pass/fail GPA. These classes have no exams.
      • Student Clubs. Student Clubs, as their name, are operated fully by students, and have two consecutive sessions per week (typically during the last two periods of Wednesday afternoon.)
      • Elective Courses. Elective courses are (mostly) owned by teachers and have two consecutive sessions per week (typically during the last two periods of Thursday afternoon.)
    • Class conference. Students have a class conference once a week.
    • Activities consulting. G9/G10 new students have an “activities consulting” class once a week, which is aimed at informing students about college admissions and how they may plan their extracurricular activities.
    • Phys Ed. There is a one-hour Phys Ed session per day, typically during the seventh period.

The above information is very specific to my school, however, and may not be applicable to you if you enter other international departments. Still, I’d imagine that most public international departments have similar routines. I hope that all of the above is helpful, and best of luck in your exams! (March 30, 2024)