China admissions trips are often planned down to the last detail, as they should be. “Where to go?” is one of the first questions you’ll have to answer when you plan your next China trip. But, you should know about China’s “tiered cities” before you answer this

As epicenters of government and business, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou are China’s 1st-tier cities. However, entertainment companies, investment banks, sports teams, household appliance manufacturers, HR headhunters, and every other conceivable industry, all salivate over the market potential of China’s current 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-tier cities. These cities’ populations are gaining wealth and haven’t established strong brand preferences. China’s cities are part of one nation, yet separated by differences in government, communication challenges, regional rivalries, infrastructure, and more.

If you’re involved in China admissions, you must take this tiered city system into account.

Here are the 4 reasons why you shouldn’t recruit Chinese applicants from Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.

1. Competition: Everyone comes to these cities

Let’s say you’ve never been to China before and don’t know anything about it. If I were to ask you to name Chinese cities, you’d likely say:

“Ok, I got this! 1st is Beijing. That Olympic opening ceremony was amazing. Shanghai is definitely one. Hong Kong is part of China right?”

You might have a hard time coming up with other cities. Fame and high-quality schools make tier 1 cities attractive destinations for admissions trips. Resist the temptation to go the behemoths. Branch out to other cities to avoid the heavy competition. Chinese applicants who can afford to study abroad, are part of a special subset in Chinese society and they now hail from a wider range of Chinese locations than ever before.

2. It’s easier to position your institution’s brand in lower tier cities

Believe it or not, but folks in 2nd and 3rd-tier Chinese cities have never heard of the US News & World Report! Ok, maybe they’ve heard of Harvard. But besides Harvard, they’re open to hearing about any and all academic institutions. Folks in lower tier cities have no preconceived notions about your institution and are open to hearing about what your institution has to offer.

3. Relationships and connections can have more influence in lower tier cities.

Many Western academic institutions have alumni circles and associations in tier 1 cities. Power, connections, and relationships can lead to a messy recruitment strategy in tier 1 towns.

Instead, find one or several successful alumni of your institution to speak to other parents/students in lower tier cities. A dinner and/or Q&A session will have a meaningful and long-lasting impact for your institution at a quarter of the price/headache of a formal alumni association.

4. People in lower tier cities will treat you better

If you’ve spent any time in China, and especially if you’ve traveled elsewhere in Asia, you know that Chinese folks have a unique warmth towards foreigners. This warmth shines through in lower tier cities where locals are less likely to interact with foreigners or at least visiting foreign admissions officers.

Your decision to visit lower tier cities results in increased hospitality and a overall smoother admissions trip. Hard as that might be to believe…


Have you been to any of China’s lower tier cities for admissions trips? Have any admissions strategies that’ve worked well in lesser-known areas of China? Am I wrong about lower tier cities having qualified applicants? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments section below!




  1. Jared says

    Chengdu, Wuxi, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Nanjing, Suzhou on my last trip. Problem is most college reps pay tour companies to handle the visits and schedule. Do it yourself, and you get to a lot more places for less than 1/3 the cost.

    • Langston Smith says

      Thanks for commenting Jared. Can’t believe I missed the whole agent issue. Less headache and more pride both come from doing it yourself. Let us know the next time you’re in China!

  2. Stephen Lyons says

    This article is so true! I had the good fortune to recruit in Qingdao, Zhengzhou, Changsha and Kunming and was greeted by gracious hosts and well-prepared, inquisitive students. There is FAR MORE to China than Beijing, Shanghai and the other mega-cities, and these ‘2nd tier (I prefer lesser known) cities are packed with schools looking to make long-term connections and students eager to attend school in the states. Do yourself a favor and establish a presence for your institution in these regions. It may take a bit more legwork, but you will be rewarded with productive and mutually beneficial recruitment relationships!

    • Langston Smith says

      Thanks for the comment Steve! Nice to see that you’ve hit some lower-tier cities, especially Zhengzhou and Kunming. Returning year-after-year to these locations also reaps large rewards.

  3. says

    Hi Langston,

    One major aspect you’re not covering here is the hugely disproportionate concentration of leading universities in Beijing and Shanghai. Also, the “National Entrance Exam” – Gaokao – isn’t national. Its administered provincially and municipally, and hukou residence holders get preference in their home province.

    Add to that much lower populations in municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing) and Beijing and Shanghai students have an enormous advantage.

    The pass rates for Science gaokao in 2013 in Beijing was 66%, with over 60 universities (27 deemed key universities). Shandong has only 2 key universities (Shandong and China Ocean), though a similar number overall, with nearly 40% private minban.

    Add the huge population difference with Shandong the second largest in population at 96m, while Beijing has only 20m (2010 figures) and the chances of getting into a good university if you are a Shandong student are significantly reduced.

    Guangdong is similar to Shandong. Large population, low number of top universities.

    Also, some of your commenters seem to be involved in uni international offices. There are regulations and guidelines which forbid recruiting in schools by foreign representatives. The agent industry has worked to ring-fence the whole sector of advising on overseas HE in recent years.

    Kudos to Vericant. The costs and issues surrounding Chinese student recruitment are significant, but the risk to the institution through not pushing for rigorous admissions is damaging to the reputation of the institution. Interviews and proctored writing samples are a great idea.

    Having said that, I don’t envy the task. Parents, agents, international officers in some universities who want numbers over quality. These are all big things to overcome. As usual, the students get the blame, but in my experience, they need guidance THROUGH the application process, not advice on how to CIRCUMVENT the challenges that it represents.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *