In one of the coldest weekends this winter, classrooms where applicants sat for an entrance exam to postgraduate courses were hot spots.
The three-day examination starting Saturday attracted a record number of applications. Most applicants finished their tests yesterday, but some take additional tests today.
The fever for the exam - where 1.4 million appeared - reflects a sluggish job market amid the global economic downturn, experts said.
"When the economy is down, people hide in schools and wait till the world is warmer," said Ge Xiaoling, professor of mechanics at East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai.
Enterprises shed 8 percent of the jobs during the hard times, with unemployment hitting a six-year high in cities, according to the Society of China Analysis and Forecast 2010 published last month by Social Sciences Academic Press.
The job losses in cities have hit college graduates the most, the report said.
The crisis is compounded with more than 6.3 million students graduating from universities nationwide this year, according to the Ministry of Education (MOE).
Many, especially fresh college graduates, consider graduate school a buffer zone to put off the pressure on jobs.
Economics, management, law and computer sciences are the most sought-after courses.
A third of college students who graduate this year believe further studies would translate into better career options, according to a recent poll, Xinhua News Agency reported.
"I will get more credits in my job application after another three years in school," said Zhu Shujun, a senior student at Jiangsu Polytechnic University.
"It means more time to prepare for my accountancy exam and get more internships."
Yang Hui, 24, an administrative employee in Shanghai, said failure to get a good job has pushed her to apply for a higher degree.
"I don't like my current job but I am not qualified enough to get the job I really want," said Yang.
"I hope people will find me more capable after graduate school."
But getting into graduate school is not easier than getting jobs.
The candidates are competing for 465,000 seats, which means only one in three examinees would succeed.
"This is even harder than the college entrance exam," said Ma Li, 22, after finishing the morning session on the second day at University of International Business and Economics (UIBE).
"Now, we have to do everything on our own, like collecting information on schools and looking for exam materials," said Ma, who wants to major in finance, which he thinks offers better job prospects.
Working while preparing for the exam is even more grueling, said Zhu Jiajia, 24, a lecturer in English at Shanghai Institute of Technology. "I sleep only five hours a day," said Zhu, who started preparing for the exam in the summer.
However, whether the postgraduate degree is worth the effort has generated debate even among employers.
"All my postgraduate students have found jobs at a salary of around 7,000 yuan ($1,025)," said Ge Xiaoling, professor of mechanics.
There was a higher employment rate for postgraduate students than undergraduates last year, said Yang Yong, who is in charge of recruitment at a top university in Beijing.
He said only one out of 20 law graduates of the 2009 class found a job in Beijing courts while 12 of 52 postgraduates got a job.
But bachelor-degree holders can also be competitive and team players, said Su Qixin, learning specialist at Unilever's HR department.
Shi Jing contributed to the story.