Assembly-line journalists: how J-school admission became an industry

With no math requirement, humanities’ graduates are lining up to avoid work for another year or two.

Photo by Kuang Da

Photo by Kuang Da

By CHEN Zhenfang


LIU Yatong is an undergraduate at a small university in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. Of the 40 students in her journalism class, eight, including Liu, took the postgraduate admission test, known as kaoyan, in December 2022.

Hundreds of thousands of candidates try for a few thousand journalism school spots each year, some out of journalistic passion, but many were simply fearing job hunting and want to postpone it as long as possible. Few actually get in.

‘Because there’s no math’

Kaoyan takes place every December over two days and consists of standard tests of English, math and politics, plus subjects administered by admitting institutions. 

Nationally, 24 percent of the 4.6 million test takers last year passed the exam - the candidate pool ballooned to 4.74 million this year - but the odds for J-schools are about only one in ten. For good schools, it’s even tougher. The admission rate was 1 in 23 for Zhengjiang University, 1 in 31 for Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and 1 in 37 for Hunan University.

There is plenty of demand for skilled journalists, but salaries are not great and there is certainly not enough demand to justify as many as 40 applications for one place. J-school graduates are not nearly as sought after or well paid as, say, chip engineers or data scientists. But the subjects are deemed “soft” and easy. For one thing, math is not tested. Very few applicants have any intention of becoming journalists but have every intention of avoiding China’s brutal job market for as long as possible.

“Some want to be journalists, but most apply because there’s no math exam,” said CHEN Yueliang, a first-year J-school student.

By some estimates, revenue at China’s kaoyan prep schools increased by about a third to 11 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) in 2020, and the market has grown since then. Liu Yatong has spent thousands of yuan on prep classes and she doesn’t know anyone who hasn’t.

A dozen schools dominate the scene and start looking for students even before the December exams are over. These schools run on a skeleton staff. Most - lecturers, teaching assistants, social media managers, homework graders – are freelancers.

‘Nothing more than peace of mind’

SHAN Qi, teaches part-time at Kaoyan-school, even though she is only in her first year in J-school. She teaches four subjects – communication, journalism history, journalism theory, and reporting techniques. The courses were delivered online, with seven to eight students in each session. The pay was 2000 yuan a month, for four subjects combined.

The school has about 100 teachers, though a staff of only 10. It charges 7,000 yuan for a six-month program. Single courses cost between 1,300 and 2,500 yuan.

“The value of prep classes is nothing more than peace of mind. You can easily search the teaching materials online,” Shan said.

Liu is so dependent on help that went so far as to hire Momo, a “kaoyan supervisor” For 350 yuan. Momo provides a study plan, daily check-ins and follow-ups, and Q&A on request. Every day, Liu checks in with Momo at 8 am and checks out at 11 pm. Besides Liu, Momo is “supervising” four other students.

Momo started offering her service when she was packing up her old kaoyan plan. There were daily tasks, monthly goals, and periodical milestones.

“I thought they could be of use for people who were less capable and independent than I,” she said. “I provide emotional support and make the strong ones stronger. Honestly, for the unmotivated, I’m not the best person to work with.”

J-school teachers are certainly not thrilled about the industrialization of kaoyan. DENG Jianguo, a professor at Fudan Univerisity, wrote on Weibo that what is supposed to be creative writing has become mechanical rote. When grading kaoyan papers, he could almost tell at a glance which prep book each student was trained on.  “There are many different styles and practices within journalism. The test takers could and should write from different angles and in various tones. It’s a pity that students are all ‘standardized’ by a few prep schools.” 

‘I should really find a job’

“If I don’t get in anywhere this year, I won’t try again next year,” said Liu. “We don’t have much to do in the last two years of college. If I get in, good. If not, it’s an experience.”

For those who recently graduated from J-school, the job market has gone downhill fast. Liu’s humble wish, after months of 15-hour days in the library, is to find a comfortable job at her hometown government newspaper.