By Grace Li
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Chinese students form the largest overseas group at U.S. universities and their numbers are rising as families spend a fortune in the quest for an American education to pry open the door to career and social success.
For some parents, overseas education is also seen as a way to avoid China's fiercely competitive national college entrance exam known as the "gaokao", which is taken by millions of teenagers who see it as a make-or-break way to get ahead.
"We don't know if it's right or wrong," said Zhao, a mother from the capital, Beijing, who wanted to be identified only by her surname. "We just feel it's better to get an education in the United States than in China."
The stress to get into university in China is severe but tighter job prospects for hordes of graduates are also causing anxiety as the world's second-largest economy slows.
Nearly 7 million Chinese graduated from university this year - a new record and a jump of 190,000 from last year. This has stepped up employment pressure, education authorities say.
To pursue his dream of going to a U.S. university, Li Shiyuan, 17, quit high school in May.
His parents had given him three options - stay in his home province of Shandong, where the college entrance exams are very competitive, move to Tianjin, which has one of China's highest acceptance rates for key universities, or study abroad.
He began in Beijing, by attending three courses to train for tests required by U.S. universities, including the SAT and the TOEFL English-language test.
This month, he sat the SAT exam for the second time in an effort to better his previous score and he plans to return to the Hong Kong test center in December.
"It's much better than in high school, where teachers put too much pressure on us," Li said.
His training for the exams has cost 100,000 yuan ($16,400), almost five times the annual disposable income of the average Chinese city-dweller.
"As long as the family can afford it, I would like my child to go abroad for university to learn some real stuff," said lawyer Li Xuezong, who accompanied his son to Hong Kong.
Nearly 200,000 Chinese students were at U.S. universities in the 2011/12 academic year, almost double the number from India, the second-largest group of overseas students, the U.S.-based Institute of International Education says.
While most Chinese study at graduate level, the 2011/12 academic year saw a surge of nearly a third in undergraduates from China, to about 75,000, institute data shows.
SATs are available only at some international schools in China, where fees are out of reach for most families. Hong Kong holds six SAT sessions a year.
AN OPPORTUNITY - FOR THE WEALTHY
Li Xuezong was one of hundreds of parents waiting patiently outside at Hong Kong's AsiaWorld-Expo, the city's biggest test center, where his son was among the 7,000 exam candidates.
Situated conveniently next to the airport, AsiaWorld-Expo hosts about 60,000 SAT takers a year, more than 90 percent of them from mainland China, Chief Executive Allen Ha said.
Many students take the test more than once.
"Because our examination-oriented system doesn't have many criteria to judge student performance, they focus on exams," said Zong Wa, an official of the government-linked China Education Association for International Exchange.
Studying abroad is an option mainly for the rich. Families typically save at least 1 million yuan ($164,000) for four years of college in America, but about 12 percent of China's 1.35 billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day.
Zong said as many as 450,000 Chinese would go overseas for education this year, with the U.S. the most popular destination.
At the same time, the number of students taking China's college entrance exam dropped for the fifth consecutive year.
"Students are asked to do tons of exercises during the last year of high school," said Li Xuezong. "It affects their way of thinking."
($1=6.0968 Chinese yuan)
(This version of the story is filed to remove extraneous word "his" in paragraph 12)
(Additional reporting by Hui Li in Beijing; Editing by John O'Callaghan)