How do Chinese international students choose where to study? And, what kind of problems do they face?

I recently interviewed a handful of Chinese students who are studying abroad. I wanted to learn about their study abroad journey: their initial plan, the application process, and how their studies began.

In this video, I’ll briefly share three of their stories with you. Each story is a little bit different. Please check the video or read the full video script below.

 

I’ll spend one to two minutes on each one, and then I’ll sum it up and sprinkle in some insights from our experience promoting a bunch of different schools.

I hope it’s useful for marketing or admissions staff that are considering

  1. how to reach Chinese students, and

  2. what to say.

I’ll keep the students and schools anonymous, as they requested.

 

#1 – The Pro 

Let’s call the first student “The Pro.” She was the most independent. She knew what she wanted and didn’t need help from agents to get it.

This student wanted to emigrate to Canada—probably—and live there permanently. She loves new challenges and wanted a different life and a career change.

She already had a degree but wanted to get a new degree in a new field.

Her major is something very specific and career-oriented. Once she gets the degree, she’ll have a very high chance of securing a job, regardless of whether she stays in Canada or goes back to China.

Before looking at schools, she researched the various provinces of Canada. She liked the look of three, so she narrowed her search down to schools in those provinces.

After that, she researched several different schools in those provinces.

She did her online research on Baidu, Google, YouTube, and other places. She’d seek out Chinese information first and then resort to English when she couldn’t find Chinese.

During her research, she made notes and kept things very organized. She applied to several schools directly and was accepted by most of them.

Then she did the visa application herself too by following the advice of a YouTuber.

She said it would be a waste of time and money to use agents because they cost money and probably can’t do anything special for her anyways.

This is a very independent student who reminds me of myself now.

Whereas the next student reminds me of myself when I was younger.

 

#2 – The Adventurer

The second student reminds me a bit of myself when I went to study abroad in China.

She’s only about 20 years old now and is studying at a European university.

To her, the cultural side of studying abroad is very valuable. She makes friends, especially with foreigners, and enjoys being away from her parents. She’s working towards an undergrad degree but doesn’t have a crystal-clear direction for the future yet.

She didn’t have a straight path to study in Europe at all. Like many students that went to study abroad recently, the pandemic has had a big impact on her. In fact, she has even changed her major already.

This is how she got there:

First, she moved to another city in China (far away from her parents) where she started her studies.

It was here that she started to look for options to study abroad.

She found some options via her school and then decided to dig in more through her own research. She described the process to me in detail:

  1. She went to Zhihu first. Zhihu is a Q&A platform. There, she searched for the school’s name and read everything she could find. She wanted a broad perspective, so she considered information from official sources, other students, and a teacher.

  2. Then she went on Baidu and found the official Chinese website, read it, and moved on to the official English website.

  3. Next was a WeChat search, where she found the official school account to read and follow.

  4. She also came across content on Bilibili and YouTube.

This part of her process is a textbook description of how we expect students to behave—she gobbled up content from multiple Chinese platforms and sources.

To apply, she went through her school. There’s a teacher she could talk to that is also an agent. I asked her why she applied that way (instead of applying directly), and she said it just seemed like the thing to do.

 

#3 – The High School Boarder

This student started his study abroad experience in high school.

As a parent, when I hear of teenagers moving away to another country to study, it makes me imagine how much I’d miss my kids if they did the same.

Anyways, he was already abroad when he started planning for university. His English level was really good too, so his search habits showed a combination of Chinese and local styles.

He’d been abroad so long that he wasn’t even up to date on all the Chinese social platforms out there now.

This is how his school search process went.

First, he found schools close to where he lived in the US. He already had some friends there and generally liked the area.

He also knew which major he wanted to get into.

Then, he compared the rankings of potential schools, filtering out some that weren’t quite good enough, but also not being too picky.

Like virtually every Chinese person I’ve ever talked to, he was also somewhat suspicious of the motivations of others. He said, “I know some of those rankings are fake. Schools just pay for good rankings, but I still considered the rankings anyways.”

He also received some advice from a college placement officer in his school.

When it was time to apply, he applied to 10 different schools, some through a common application system and some directly, but with the help of an agent.

 

What Can We Learn?

Each student is different. There’s no exact set of steps they take in the research phase.

 

STUDENT PERSONAS

In marketing, we use the term “personas” to describe the imaginary people we target with our marketing efforts. When creating content, we imagine those personas engaging with the content.

The first student was very independent and makes a good persona for graduate students. She’s a pro.

The second student makes a good persona for undergraduate students. Her process was more chaotic.

The third student is often forgotten by marketers. He has lots of experience abroad, so he’s not quite like a local student, but also not a student traveling from China for the first time.

 

COUNTRIES, PROGRAMS, AND SCHOOLS

Students will approach selection from a few main angles:

  1. Which country?

  2. Which program?

  3. Which school?

 

EDUCATION AGENTS ARE OPTIONAL BUT HELPFUL

Some use education agents, and some don’t. So our marketing needs to help them process the application on their own.

But, all the Chinese content we create for schools is also useful for agents. If an agent has loads of high-quality Chinese-language content about your school and none about a competitor, it makes it a much easier sell for them.

That being said, it’s definitely possible to attract students with no agents at all. In fact, we even have a client that does not allow applications via agents at all.

I predict that weaker agents will be out of business in 5–10 years. The agents remaining will be the ones who can provide the best value to students, as opposed to simply helping them process applications.

USE CHINESE-LANGUAGE CONTENT ON CHINESE PLATFORMS

Students use Chinese-language resources first, then English second. They also tend to do thorough research, trying to triangulate the information they receive.

If they sense something fishy, they get apprehensive. Examples would be lies from agents, overly-rosy official content, or obviously untrue content from influencers.

Key platforms are:

  • the official websites (English and Chinese)

  • Baidu

  • Zhihu

  • WeChat

Supporting platforms are:

  • Weibo

  • Xiaohongshu

  • Bilibili

  • Douyin

Chinese students will also use

  • Google

  • YouTube

 

I teach more about those platforms and how to use them on the YouTube channel and our China Marketing 101 guide.

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