In this post, I’m going to talk about my experience of studying at Tsinghua University as an international student which I had the opportunity to attend from 2019 to 2021. I was enrolled in a post-graduate full-time program in Computer Science with a focus on Machine Learning and Deep Learning. For those who don’t know, Tsinghua University is one of the most prestigious universities in the world and it is consistently ranked top 1 in China. Tsinghua is also known for its extremely low admission rate for local students: less than 0.1%. This is because, in China, admission to top universities highly depends on the score obtained in the national university admission exam called 高考 (gaokao) where, each year, students are called to compete for the few available spots in their ideal university against all the other students in the same region.
Tsinghua University established in Beijing back in 1911 grew steadily until become one of the leading research institutions in the world. It is also a founding member of the C9 League, an elite alliance of nine universities in China with the goal to promote research and development. The university is currently ranked No. 1 in China and in Asia and is recurrently ranked top 20 in the world according to various universities rankings.
With a motto of “Self-Discipline and Social Commitment”, Tsinghua University is committed to academic excellence, social responsibility, and global development. Tsinghua University’s notable alumni include influential politicians, including two Chinese presidents, as well as renowned scientists, engineers, Nobel laureates, and candidates.
Tsinghua University is located in the North West of Beijing in the Haidian District, where many other top universities and companies are located too. The campus is situated between Peking University and Wudaokou which is the center of the University District. It is not uncommon to see many foreign students from different universities meeting with some locals in Wudaokou for a drink or a pizza together.
Undergraduate admissions for local students are decided through the gaokao, which allows students to compete for admission to their preferred college against all other students in the same province who have chosen the same college. Hence, this results in an extremely low acceptance rate, especially in the most populated regions. On the contrary, international students have simply to compete against other international students who are willing to enroll in the same program, thus ranging from a few hundred students to a few thousand as in the case of the prestigious Schwarzman college.
Since most programs are taught in English language, an English level certification is required to be enrolled (in my case the entry threshold was IELTS 6.5/TOEFL 85), but students who graduated from other universities under an English-taught program are exempted from it. Consequently, this means that your final thesis and dissertation will be in English as well. A Chinese language certification is not required provided that you are not enrolling in a program with lessons taught in Chinese.
Other common documents required for enrollment include a valid passport, a personal statement, your degree certificate or a proof of imminent graduation, recommendation letters, and an academic transcript. However, each department has its own admission procedure which may have slightly different rules.
In my case, thus in the case of admission to the Computer Science department, applicants are first selected through a programming test which consisted of a set of programming problems, proposed in increasing difficulty, to solve in a limited amount of time, and the score is based on the correctness of each solution. The second round consisted of an interview, in English, with some of the department professors, a phase that is present in almost any department application. This phase may sound a bit scary at first look, but in practice, you will have just to introduce yourself, your background, and express your motivations for studying at Tsinghua. To make you feel more relaxed, you should know that you won’t be asked anything technical in this phase.
Students who should pass this second phase can finally confirm their application and will receive their admission letter directly home. The next steps simply consist in claiming your visa and getting a ticket for Beijing! (This could be challenging during the Covid-19 era, but better times hopefully will come).
One of the aspects I liked most about Tsinghua is the campus. You can imagine it as a small town, built for students with all the necessities they need. The north part, which is called 紫荆 (Zijing), is where most of the student’s dormitories are situated, with the international student’s dormitories located on the west side, near the northwest gate.
This area also includes 4 canteens: 芝兰园 is known for hotpot, and 玉树 is a Korean food canteen. Both have a very high influx of international students given their proximity to their dormitories. The other two canteens, namely 桃李 and 紫荆 are one of the two biggest canteens on campus, both extend over different floors full of Chinese cuisine flavors, and have also a restaurant on the underground floor.
Most of the campus life is centered around the center of the 紫荆 area which includes the C楼 (C-building) and many sports facilities. It is hard to spend a single day without entering the C-building: it includes literally everything a student needs: a big supermarket, a bank, a souvenir shop, a hairdresser, a photography studio, printing machines, plus various offices and classrooms.
Situated in the center of the area there is a rectangular running track which is full of students running every hour: from 6am to 23pm, in winter, and in summer. The grass area at the center of the playground often hosts football and rugby games, other team sports, or collective workouts. Conversely, in the evening it can serve as an entertainment area for parties and shows. Other common sports practiced in the central area also include basketball and tennis.
The southeast part of the campus accommodates the residences for the professors, thus is not very frequented among students, but still worth to spend a visit once. The east part is mostly occupied by a beautiful Qing dynasty garden, also known as Tsinghua Garden. The garden features a small island accessible by a few bridges surrounded by a lotus lake. It is a nice place for a relaxing walk, especially in spring and summer during the sunshine.
The campus is also known for its many canteens: there are over 10 canteens scattered around the campus featuring all the main styles of Chinese cuisine as well as western foods. Most canteens serve three meals per day: breakfast is served as early as 6am, lunch starts at 11am and in some canteens, dinner is served as late as 23pm. There are also many libraries and common study rooms, some of those are really huge, with nice architecture and intern, but it might still be arduous to find a sit in the proximity of the exams. All international students’ dormitories have several study rooms, kitchens, and a gym on the bottom floor.
The only drawback is its size: it is almost 4 square kilometers which is almost 6 times bigger than the Forbidden City. For this reason, a bike always needs to be with you when commuting as the majority of the students do. Fortunately, there are a few places to buy or repair your bike on campus all over the year, and there are some locations to buy one at the beginning of each semester. During the morning, the campus is characterized by congestion of students riding to go to their class and might be hard to find a spot to park your own bike. However, there is also a free shuttle service on the campus that stops at all the most frequently visited locations.
Another place worth mentioning is the school’s Main Building which is located in the southeast part of the campus and hosts the administration offices of the university. It is composed of three sections covering a total area of 76,871 square meters, and it was jointly designed by the Tsinghua students and teachers from different departments after the liberation of China. Finally, the most symbolic landmark of Tsinghua University is the Old Gate. Located on Tsinghua Road, a road connecting the east and west part of the university was built in 1909 as the entrance to 清华学堂 (Tsinghua Xuetang), the university’s predecessor. Restored in 1991, the Old Gate now attracts hundreds of students and tourists every day to witness Tsinghua’s rich history and its long-standing virtues of diligence, pragmatism, and unrelenting determination.
Lessons and exams
International students, at the start of each semester, have to choose some courses to add to their curriculum to meet the minimum credits required to graduate. In my case, two courses were compulsory while the others could be chosen among all the other courses provided by the department. In special circumstances, it is possible to choose courses from other departments as long as the content of the lessons is related to your research subject and your supervisor agrees. Usually, classes for international students are taught in English, but if you want, you can attend classes taught in Chinese as well. Moreover, even if a class is taught in English, also a significant number of local students may attend it.
Most classes have weekly/monthly assignments and/or a final project which contribute to the final score of the course. In some cases, if a course is more practice-oriented, such as Deep Learning in Computer Science, the assignments and the final project alone account for the whole final score of the course, and the exam is not present at all. The project can be carried out both individually or in groups of 2-3 students, and often also includes a project report and a presentation. Whenever present, written exams are taken twice each semester: the mid-term exam is taken after the first half of the semester and the final-term exam at the conclusion of it. One of the evaluation methods that I found to be one of the most innovative, which I encountered in a Machine Learning related course, consists of a final machine learning challenge where the group that obtains the highest score gets full grades for the course and the other groups receive a grade proportional to their score respect to the winner’s score.
All courses have at least one TA (teaching assistant) whose purpose is to assist the professor with routine tasks a course needs such as, but not limited to: presenting and correcting the assignments and the final project, responding to the questions asked by the students and sometimes preparing a presentation on topics requested by the teacher. Also international students can be TA as long as they have strong knowledge about the content of the course, and that they are currently post-graduate students. Hence, it is common for international students to be TA of foreign language courses according to their native language.
Some programs may also require international students to attend and complete a Chinese language course. A preliminary exam held at the beginning of the semester aims to group foreign students into different Chinese language classes according to their level: from beginner to advanced level. The Chinese language exam includes listening, reading, and writing part, but during classes also speaking is practiced. This exam, shouldn’t represent an obstacle for students, on the contrary, it is a great opportunity to boost own level of Chinese and get to know other international students coming from different departments. Moreover, on campus is full opportunities to improve Chinese through the various activities and parties organized by student organizations, or simply by talking and making friends with local students. As you are willing to know them, they are excited to have some international friends as well!
Most international students in a 2 year program will usually finish most of their classes in the first year and conduct their research during the second year. However, it is highly suggested to find a supervisor during the first year so as to have more time to acquire enough knowledge in the thesis field and prepare your thesis proposals. Being accepted by a supervisor is usually not a big problem, but some supervisors might require an entry project to test your skills or to show them your curriculum or some of your past projects.
Once all exams are passed, the second year is mainly focused on doing thesis research and hopefully trying to publish in some related conferences. Hence, most of the time is spent in a lab which works as a small office: the supervisor acts as a leader and students do their own research under his supervision. Tsinghua is a very research-oriented university: no matter whether you are a bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD student, everyone is constantly striving to publish his own paper. Most labs also have weekly meetings where students can share presentations about interesting topics related to the common research direction of the lab or they can share the progress and result of their own research. During these meetings, usually food is provided as well, and it is also a good opportunity to talk directly with the supervisor or ask questions to the senior students. Normally, these meetings are held in Chinese language, but if asked to the speaker or the supervisor to talk in English, your request will be surely welcomed and accepted since most students in the campus have also a good English level.
Considering that Tsinghua is literally a pool of talents, students in your lab will be very skilled and available to discuss with you when they are less busy or even doing some joint research projects. They could be your lab-mates, and friends while you are students, but they could also become valuable connections in the future. You will get to know exceptional students with already plenty of publications in their background, but this should not be a reason to discourage you, it is rather your chance to learn from them and challenge yourself.
Associations and activities
It is almost impossible to get bored on campus: students are encouraged to participate in various extracurricular activities and join the student associations of the university. Tsinghua University has more than 110 student associations covering five domains: science and technology, sport, humanities, arts, and public welfare.
The International students office also organizes extracurricular activities for international students, including welcome parties for new students, New Year’s Gala party, Halloween parties, Chinese Bridge competitions, Lantern festival, Chinese painting, and calligraphy, preparing dumplings, Dragon boats, tourist visits to Chinese cultural and historical destinations, and many more.
Tsinghua campus is large with many high-quality sports facilities including: swimming pools, gyms, tennis and badminton courts, volleyball, basketball, and football fields, and athletic tracks. Many of these are world-class facilities that were constructed during the 2008 Olympic Games. Thus, the practice of sport is very important at Tsinghua University as the famous motto suggests 无体育不清华: it means that there is no Tsinghua without sport. Once a year almost any sport has its own tournament or competition, also known as 马约翰杯 named in honor of the professor who brought a huge contribution to the sports culture of Tsinghua in the past. There are both individual competitions and competitions among departments which every year attract a lot of students to watch and cheer on their own department or favorite athlete.
For those who enjoy nature and don’t mind hiking in the mountains, I would recommend the mountaineering association which organizes weekly on campus physical training, hiking and camping during the weekend, and long excursions during the summer with the goal to conquer the highest peaks of China.
Campus life is not only about classes and studying, thus I would strongly recommend international students to join any of these associations in order to learn some new knowledge and skills, meet more local students, and most importantly, have fun!