Though the annual national college entrance exams are still six months off, the test that will be more decisive in winning Sun Yuewen a place at art college is a week away.
The 19-year-old senior high school student from Shijiazhuang in north China's Hebei Province is preparing for the province's art exams scheduled for Dec. 21. Such tests, which evaluate skills like painting, dancing and singing, must be taken in addition to the college entrance exams, but carry far greater weight in qualifying for art school.
Because art colleges are seen as easier to get into than more academic courses, they have been proving extremely popular in a country increasingly obsessed with higher education as a means of personal development.
However, with art college exams taking place around the country, experts are warning that the situation is driving people with relatively little talent in the arts into courses in which they have no genuine interest. Many in fact risk leaving college with weak employment prospects.
Academics would likely see Sun as perfect example of someone facing this catch-22. Having taken a crash painting courses for five months featuring over 10 hours' training each day, Sun still can not develop much interest in her nominated major.
"I feel much pressure as I do not enjoy painting but I have to persist," she says, adding that it was her parents' choice for her to pursue art.
Sun's mum and dad, both vegetable vendors, hope their only daughter can further her education at a college after finishing high school.
"They have not received much schooling and have pinned all their hopes on me," Sun explains. Her parents paid 15,000 yuan (2,470.7 U.S. dollars) for her to attend painting training.
Shao Yunfei, painting teacher and the owner of Sun's training school, started running the courses in 2000. However, Shao estimates that only 10 percent of the students he teaches have a passion for painting.
"Most do not have any basic painting knowledge and they just have to start from scratch," he says.
During the six months of cram training with Shao, students put their academic courses aside and paint from dawn until dark in the hope of picking up the skills to get a high score in the art exams.
He has found that to realize their college dreams, even those with no natural artistic ability are prepared to strive to learn various skills even though they are unlikely to become a real artist or star.
Yu Miao, another art college applicant, says 20 of the 45 students in her high school class are receiving intensive art training courses so as to apply for art colleges.
For these students, they find it is easier to study presiding, performing or dancing than to keep their minds on academic courses, according to Tai Xinran, a teacher at the art school of Northeast Dianli University in Jilin Province.
A report on China's art education industry released in May showed that the number of art colleges in the country has surged from 597 in 2002 to 1,679 in 2013, while high school students applying for such colleges have risen from 32,000 to approximately one million during the past decade.
Tai says the overall quality of the art students in his school is likely to decline as they are admitted because of their results in the art exams. These can be achieved after intensive training, but students who lack natural talent face much more difficulty when attempting to further their artistic skills in college or develop a paying career as an artist.
"Artistic creativity can never be trained," Tai believes.
Wei Anjing, 20, a folk dance major at the Art Academy under Liaoning University in northeast China's Liaoning Province, admits she finds it difficult to practice basic dance exercises such as performing the splits as she only started to learn dance two years ago in order to apply for the academy.
Instead of becoming a dancer, Wei's ideal career is to work in a government department as a civil servant, which is considered a stable job.
"About one-third of my classmates tend to choose dancing as their future career. Others, like me, feel rather confused and embarrassed," Wei says.
Receiving crash training courses to succeed in art exams and become an art major does not make you a real artist, warns Liu Xiaoying, a professor at Beijing's Communication University of China.
Art majors also have to face limited job openings, according to Liu.
Survey results released on Thursday on college graduates' salaries in 2012 showed that those completing fine arts and music courses ranked among the 10 most poorly paid majors after graduation.
With such warnings ringing in the air, there are signs that prospective students are taking note. In Hubei Province, 24,841 candidates sat this year's art college entrance exams, 11.3 percent fewer than last year. And there have been reports of similar declines in Jiangsu and Zhejiang.