Getting into a good university is considered the first step toward a good, stable and lucrative career in China, so it's important to choose carefully.
Before students take the all-important National College Entrance Examination in June, they take many "mock" exams and must fill out complicated forms stating their preferences.
Last year around 9 million students enrolled to take the exam. Universities and colleges admitted 6.85 million students.
Since last month, Chinese college rankings compiled by various organizations and individuals are being released one after another as a guide to students, parents and teachers who advise them.
What most families look for are indicators of overall academic excellence and excellence in students' prospective majors.
They consider the honors a school has won and how many prestigious professors are on the faculty. Factors such as physical environment, library, class size and sports facilities tend to be less important.
One of the most influential rankings is issued by the China Alumni Network (cuaa.net), which for the past 11 years has published the Chinese University Evaluation and Research Report in collaboration with national media outlets.
The initial report issued last month ranks 100 colleges and universities on the Chinese mainland and looks at overall quality as well as the quality of majors. The full ranking of 600 schools on the mainland is to be released this month.
It uses publicly available numbers to indicate academic achievements, student quality, student faculty ratio and other factors.
In the initial report there are few surprises. The top five in descending order are Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, Fudan University in Shanghai, Zhejiang University in Hangzhou and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The list is similar to rankings issued by other organizations.
Another well-known ranking is the 20-year-old Chinese University Evaluations compiled by a team led by Wu Shulian. It comes out in March. This ranking covers 100 schools on the mainland and is more detailed than the alumni ranking; Wu examines as many as 700 schools in developing his lists.
Twenty years ago, there were no common and generally accepted criteria for ranking Chinese universities. Wu independently came up with his own evaluation system.
The annual Chinese University Evaluation is not only about ranking top national universities. It also evaluates institutions' academic excellence, number of awards, the quality of students (measured by freshmen's test scores and graduates' grade-point average), the quality of departments and other factors. It aims to provide multiple perspectives to help students and their parents choose the right school, and thus, it's very influential.
Wu's report contains many lists and numbers, but he tells Shanghai Daily that one of the most important is the Undergraduate Graduate Quality Ranking. This is based on two indexes: the average academic level of faculty and the freshmen's score in the National College Entrance Exam.
"These two criteria decide what kind of teachers and classmates students will encounter during four years of study. The smarter and the better the people surrounding the student, the better the chances the student will be successful," Wu says.
Receiving a national academic award also adds points to a school's ranking for eight years. But events are not considered, positive or negative.
"It's hard to define a 'major' event, and events cannot be all positive," Wu says. "For example, if a university official is sentenced for a crime, it's a big event for the school and obviously not a good one. If we add points for good events and deduct points for bad ones, it's hard to operate a system since there's no common standard." That means plagiarism by professors, for example, isn't counted.
"It's most important to pick a good university, but for those who have already chosen their career path and major, the ranking of university departments is more important," Wu says.
Wu only uses public records and statistics, but as a result there are some factors he cannot take into consideration. For example, the Undergraduate Graduate Quality Ranking doesn't include employment rate of graduates and the number of students going to graduate school.
"So far the government has not released indexes of graduates' job placement or advanced studies, so these two criteria are not considered," he says.
Another important factor in both Wu's ranking and the leading college rankings in other countries is the student-faculty ratio. Because of the huge number of students enrolling every year, the general class size in Chinese universities is larger than that in other countries. The smaller the class size, the more attention each student gets.
"For the next year's university evaluation, we will emphasize the student-faculty ratio: If a school only increases the number of students but not the faculty, or the rate of faculty expansion is lower than the rate of student enrollment expansion, then the points will decrease," Wu says.
Data on student-faculty ratio is usually publicly available, but it's difficult to quantify the non-academic factors, such as campus environment, sports and extracurricular activities, factors that are important in foreign rankings.
But whether a university has a good sports program doesn't interest many Chinese students and their parents who focus on academic ranking.
Gong Lian, a chemistry teacher at Shanghai High School, says that most seniors already have clear goals and understand their strengths, so they make decisions accordingly when applying for university.
"Students choose the schools according to their strengths, for example, someone focusing on the humanities would aim for Peking University and those interested in engineering can choose Tsinghua University," she says.
Every school has different advantages, so a single list of rankings isn't very meaningful, she says.
Wu's ranking last year generated controversy when he ranked Zhejiang University No. 1, ahead of Peking University and Tsinghua University, the traditional No. 1 or 2. Zhejiang University usually ranks fourth or fifth on various lists.
"University rankings differ, criteria differ, the weight of various factors differ, so there's bound to be disagreement," says Tang Anguo, former director of the Institute of Higher Education at East China Normal University.
"The institutions that rank the universities have their own objectives. Wu's ranking is for students and parents," Tang says. "Some rankings are not intended to be references for parents but for academics and officials."
Tang says that if he were a parent he would place more emphasis on results, meaning academics, as do most Chinese parents.
Tang divides all rankings into two categories - one for people looking for results, such as parents, and the other for academics, university officials and education officials looking at resources and development. "So when you look at rankings, it is important to know what you are looking for," Tang says.
In the China Alumni Network ranking, while the top seven remain the same as in 2012, Jilin University has moved up to No. 8 from No. 10. The University of Science and Technology of China dropped to No. 10 from No. 9. But those are minor differences.
"It's common for a university to move up or drop a bit in rankings and it doesn't mean anything if an institution is two levels behind or ahead," Tang says.
Tang also looks at rankings overseas, such as the US News & World Report international ranking of universities and The Times of London ranking of universities globally.
"Chinese universities can make it into the top 100 in the world, but not the top 20," Tang says. "We are just not there yet, there's still a long way to go to become a country strong in higher education."
In US News & World Report's World's Best Universities Top 400 ranking, the University of Hong Kong ranks 23rd, the highest among all universities in China. And while most of the top 50 universities are in Europe and North America, the university from the Chinese mainland ranking the highest is Peking University at 44th place. Tsinghua is 48th and Fudan is 90th.
This ranking is based on the QS World University Rankings, and it is the same as published by QS (Quaquarelli Symonds). Since 2004 QS has ranked the world's top 700 universities. Its criteria include global academic peer review (40 percent); faculty student ratio (20 percent); citations per faculty (20 percent); job recruiter review (10 percent); and international orientation (10 percent).
Tang says that Chinese universities are still developing and lag behind because the faculty level is not as high as in other universities. Hong Kong universities are more international with more foreign academics, he observers. Chinese universities also have fewer academic and science achievements than schools overseas, he says.