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Studying in China: What You Need to Know

Did you know that China is one of the world’s top three destinations for international students? That’s right! In recent years China has risen to rival educational powerhouses like the US and the UK as a top choice for people looking to 留学 (liú xué) – study abroad. 

In fact, walking through my own university campus it’s common to hear students from Europe, Africa, America, and other Asian countries talking to each other in Mandarin!

If you want to improve your Chinese or learn more about Chinese culture, there is no better place to be. But - whether you’re a soon-to-be undergrad looking for an alternative college option, or aiming to take advantage of China’s huge cultural or business opportunities - the choice of programs, schools, and cities can be overwhelming. 

That’s why, as one of the hundreds of thousands of international students studying in China, I’m sharing my insights in this blog post.  These tips can help you make your dream of studying in China a reality - and the experience will change your life!

Choosing a school and program

China has literally thousands of universities, plus countless language and training schools. And, from PhDs to a short summer language courses, there are a huge range of study options (almost too much choice!).

Big, centrally-managed public universities have the most prestige, and are a good choice for degree programs. In fact, many offer graduate programs taught in English, aimed at international students, alongside their traditional Chinese-taught programs. 

For example, I chose 复旦大学 (fù dàn dà xué) – Fudan University, because of its strong international reputation for research. And, on arriving I was excited to find people from all over the world studying everything from engineering to economics.

But, if you want to come to China to learn Mandarin for business or personal reasons, it might be better to choose a private language school, which can be more flexible to individual learning needs, and generally have smaller class sizes.

Choosing a city

China is a huge and wonderfully diverse place. That means finding the right location is almost as important as choosing the right school!

If you’re super keen to get a perfect Mandarin accent, 北京 (běi jīng) – Beijing is the best choice.  In other parts of China, people often use another local dialect at home, and speak with a non-standard accent in Mandarin.

But, if you want the most modern, developed location (and warmer weather), then it’s better to pick somewhere in the East, like 上海 (shàng hǎi)Shanghai (where I live and study), or South, like 深圳 (shēn zhèn) – Shenzhen.

Or, if you’re keen for a quieter pace of life and fewer Western influences, China’s less developed inland regions are a good choice. I’d particularly recommend 成都 (chéng dū) – Chengdu in Southwest China for its relaxed atmosphere and amazing spicy food!

How to prepare

Before I first came to China (initially for work, not study), I had no idea how to prepare. I bought a book of the top 100 Chinese characters, and set about trying to learn how to write them all. 

Not a good idea! When I arrived, I found I couldn’t understand or speak any oral Mandarin (which was of course what I needed most when trying to get a cab from the airport, order a coffee, or buy notebooks and pens).

Whether you’re preparing to go to China for study, work, or travel, the priority is to learn as much conversational Chinese as possible beforehand. Written Chinese is better studied later, when you have a basic foundation in the language.

If you're reading this, you're probably already studying with the Yoyo Chinese conversational courses.  If not, these courses will give you the Mandarin skills you need to get accepted into a study abroad program in China, and then survive (and thrive!) when you are there.  

(You can actually go through the first 5 units of the Beginner Conversational Course for free, so you have nothing to lose.  Start here with Lesson 1.)

Another great way to prepare for study in China is to download 微信 (wēi xìn) – WeChat (China’s equivalent of Facebook and WhatsApp), and ask your school to add you to student WeChat groups where you can ask for tips and make new friends. 

How to mix with Chinese students

It’s no secret that a great way to improve conversational Chinese is to make Chinese friends. But, at I first I found this challenging because Chinese and Western students tend to socialize in different ways. 

For example, when students in my home country of the UK want to hang out over beers, they go to a bar or pub. But in China, they do karaoke. As an extremely unconfident singer, needless to say I found this uncomfortable at first!

Likewise, while in the UK I played soccer with classmates, in China I play badminton and (thanks to friends’ patient teaching) am slowly improving my table tennis abilities.

To make Chinese friends, be prepared to step out of your comfort zone and be flexible (a great way to learn new skills, sports and even card games!). And, don’t be afraid to join student societies and clubs – Chinese universities have lots, and they tend to be super welcoming to international students.

Maximizing your Mandarin study opportunities

Many courses in China leave a lot of time for self-study (for example, scheduling classes for the morning, with afternoons free). 

Especially in big internationalized cities like my current home of Shanghai, it’s easy to slip into the habit of speaking English during this free time. But, the best way to improve your Mandarin is to make sure you’re constantly practicing and learning. 

That means speaking Chinese in every coffee shop, restaurant, and social situation, not just in the classroom. 

(Read my post on different ways Chinese people react to a foreigner speaking Mandarin here.) 

And, if you’re keen to learn about Chinese culture (even if that’s not your main study program), make sure you try activities like Tai Chi, calligraphy, or Chinese cooking

For example, as a keen foodie, on the weekend I love to visit the bustling food market near my apartment to chat with the stall owners about Chinese cooking and get ideas for new ingredients.

Combining work and study

When I ask my fellow international students why they chose to study in China, the number one answer is the professional opportunities in China’s booming economy. And, most Chinese universities proactively encourage 实习 (shí xí) – internships during the summer and winter breaks, making it easy to combine study with building work experience.

* Tip: make sure your visa status allows internships, usually via a special amendment to your student residence permit.

Given the relatively low cost of living in China, doing an internship in 上海 (shàng hǎi) – Shanghai or 北京 (běi jīng) – Beijing is much more affordable than in New York or London, and opportunities are easy to come by through student 微信 (wēi xìn) – WeChat groups or expat websites.

And, as well as a chance to practice Mandarin, internships are also a great way to learn about Chinese working culture. 

(Read our post on working in a Chinese office here!) 

Are you considering studying in China? 

Do you have any tips or stories to sharing about the student experience in China?

Let us know in the comments, we’d love to hear from you!