Under Pressure: Chinese Students Go to Extreme Lengths to Get into Top American Schools

Under Pressure: Chinese Students Go to Extreme Lengths to Get into Top American Schools
Mar 10, 2015 Translated by eChinacities.com

This article discusses the increasing popularity among Chinese families of sending their children to American universities. Many families will go to extreme lengths to try and ensure their child a place in the college of their dreams, to the extent that there is now a growing industry for TOEFL examination ticket-touting.

There are more Chinese students than any other kind of international students studying in the United States. Chinese students want to gain admission into top schools in the United States but the numbers are often against them. It has become increasingly difficult for Chinese students to enter American academia and Chinese students have begun to think up more creative and outside the box ways to overcome this challenge.

It has become increasingly difficult for elite Chinese to study abroad in the United States. Many Chinese students want to study abroad to avoid having to take the Chinese college entrance exam or the gaokao. In China, students are often very competitive with each other when it comes to the Chinese college entrance exam. They may be friends, but they are enemy combatants when it comes to the gaokao. The Chinese college entrance exam also means high pressure for Chinese high school students. Some students are even caught cheating while taking the exam.

Photo: Kevin Dooley

Chinese university graduates are also facing a very difficult job market. Many high school students see this and decide to look overseas for university. At this time, 31 percent of international students in the United States are from China.

In contrast, the number of students who have taken the college entrance exam has fallen. In 2008, 10.05 million students sat for the gaokao but in 2012 only 9 million students took the test. The Economic Times reported that in addition to these numbers, a million more students opted out of the gaokao shortly before the test in 2013.

Parents Will Do Anything to Send Children Abroad

Skipping the gaokao does not mean that life is a breeze for Chinese high school students looking to study abroad. Students applying to study in the United States must take the SAT, ACT and TOEFL tests. American Scott Wang, who tutors high school students preparing for these tests, said that the tests for entrance at an American college are very highly pressured. 

“Five years ago, it was very difficult to convince a student to take the ACT exam. I would tell the students that if they took the exam, I would even pay their examination fees for them. However, in recent years, half of my students take the ACT.”

Wang said that many wealthy families will do almost anything to send their children to American schools.

Families only want one-on-one tutoring and will not accept anything else. Wang said that he once had to hold a tutoring session from 1:00 am to 3:00 am because it was the only time that a particular student was free.

There is even a summer camp that students can put on their resume as a cultural tourism camp in Korea, which is actually secretly just an SAT boot camp.

Parents often hire several experts in order to help their child apply to an American university. Wang said that one of his students participated in three different tutoring programs before taking the SAT.

Wang asked the student why he had prepared so much for the SAT. The student said, “My parents want me to do everything possible, they do not want to leave any stone unturned.”

Applications and Resumes are Factory Made

These stories are just a small microcosm of the world of Chinese students attempting to study abroad. What is clear is that there is an intense level of competitive for admission at an American university.

Traditionally, Chinese students’ minds are “tough,” and shaped by vigorous exams and a challenging curriculum. However, this is not enough for admission at a top university in the United States.

Huo Cheng, a Harvard graduate living in Beijing has interviewed many Chinese students who wish to study at his alma mater. Huo feels like the students he interviews often seem like they all come from the exact same mould. When a student says that he went to Africa to volunteer, there are thousands of other students with almost the same thing on their resume as well.

“Chinese students often try too hard. They are taught from an early age that, 'You have to do this, and you have to be the best at it.'”

It is often challenging for American schools to accurately assess all of their Chinese applicants. Guy Sivan is the Chief Operating Officer for Vericant, which offers a specialized video interview to screen Chinese candidates for American universities and boarding schools. It is more difficult for Chinese students to mask their true level of English in these interviews.

Sivan and Vericant district manager Kelly Yang have many interesting stories from their time offering applicant screening interviews.

Once, an interviewer was Skyping with a Chinese student and thought that it seemed like the student was holding a black cat on his lap during the interview. The interviewer thought that this was very strange. After a few minutes, the interviewer realized that the hairy black shape was actually the top of the student's mother's head. The mother had been crouched down, listening to the entire interview.

Another interviewer said that he once interviewed ten students from the same school who all claimed to be the top student in their year.

Sivan said that this kind of behavior is normal. “However, the stakes are very high. This is your own path that you must make. People should not do and say certain things just to try and make themselves stand out or to be different.”

Students occasionally go overboard and send customized booklets to admissions officers, detailing their individual achievements. Sivan said that he remembers seeing a hardcover book about a student's trip to the Arctic. These experiences are difficult for admissions officers to verify and are of little interest to them. They are usually stashed away in the corner of the office and not taken into account.

“Students may think that it is important to attract the attention of admissions officers, but unfortunately, these kinds of ploys do not usually work. Admissions officers are not stupid and can see through an applicant’s actions quite easily. They do not consider gimmicks like this.”

Agencies Help with Challenges, Make Heavy Promises

Coming from a wealthy family has inherent advantages in the competition for admission to an American university. Students from wealthy families can afford the cost of the necessary exams and can pay for support for the student to make him or her, a more competitive applicant. Agencies marketed towards wealthy families have emerged because of this.

In order to get the best score possible, some students sit for the TOEFL several times within a few months. This also makes it difficult for students to purchase a ticket in order to sit for the test. Students will even travel to remote cities in order to take the test, because it is easier to get a ticket.

Kelly Yang said that the demand for test seats has created a crooked market for the reselling of exam seat tickets. Scalpers purchase exam tickets and then resell them to students at a higher price. While scalping is common in China for shows and sporting events, it has only recently spread to the field of examinations.

Yang said that she tried to help a friend register for the TOEFL test in September, but could not find an available seat until December at the exam location.

She turned to the internet to solve her problem. The only advice she found was to, “find a scalper!”

Some parents and students applying to universities in the United States go through the process on their own, but others prefer to pay high prices to agencies, in order to circumvent many of the challenges faced by applicants. Agencies have become a shortcut for many parents and students.

Wang said he has seen parents who push their children who are only mediocre students into applying to top universities. It is almost impossible for them to get in; however, agencies will continue to give these students and their parents the illusion that they can help them win admission.

“In this city, there will always be people who say that they can ensure students will get into this school and that school. Students and parents will flock to them. We just hope that they can actually do the impossible task that they promise.”

Source: wenxuecity

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Keywords: Chinese applying to American universities Chinese Students American Universities


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For Rich and wealthy Chinese family, money talks. Chinese ppl thinks money is EVERYTHING. It is life. They will sell shit to get more money. For example, scammers

Nov 06, 2016 08:57 Report Abuse



What did Wilde say about the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible? So many mediocre students without a creative bone in their bodies sheepishly chasing their parents dreams of biting the big apple that has long since gone rotten. As long as face triumphs over progress through knowledge, creativity, and pioneering spirit this country will forever be a nation of imitators and also-rans. You can't buy a Nobel prize or fool people into thinking you deserve one!

Mar 31, 2015 10:47 Report Abuse



Notice the boy in the foreground sleeping. I can't wait for that scholar to go to an American university and flunk out.

Mar 29, 2015 00:41 Report Abuse



Well, they're working hard, I don't know so much about working smart.

Mar 13, 2015 17:10 Report Abuse



Dumb as bricks...and this is the future of China ? Hahahaha!!!

Mar 12, 2015 13:58 Report Abuse



how about resorting to cheating schemes, such as hiring surrogate test-takers, using clever electronic devices—for instance receivers disguised as “watches, belts, erasers, and ballpoint pens”—and purchasing stolen test questions and answers? —“[a]n estimated 90% of recommendation letters are fake, 70% of essays are written by someone else other than the applicant and 50% of high school transcripts are manipulated”

Mar 11, 2015 09:09 Report Abuse



Hongbaos open virtually any door in china.

Mar 11, 2015 12:24 Report Abuse



Survival of the most unethical.

Mar 10, 2015 08:13 Report Abuse



Why don't you get out?

Mar 10, 2015 13:05 Report Abuse



Hurt? No. But I am annoyed by all the whiny little fenwai bitches who complain non-stop about China and yet continue to live here, take up jobs and generally degrade the perception of foreigners. If you don't like it here, do yourself a favor and leave.

Mar 11, 2015 09:15 Report Abuse



No, most of us will stay here just to piss people like you off. Besides, my Chinese wife doesn't want me to leave. We bought a house in Wuxi.

Mar 29, 2015 00:39 Report Abuse



Ummm. . .I bought the house before we got married. I said "we" because we're married and it's ours now. But thanks for playing. Reported for the personal insult.

Mar 30, 2015 22:57 Report Abuse