What Students in China Have Taught Me About U.S. College Admissions

The policies of American universities often encourage extreme test-preparation strategies and distort the high school experience of many Chinese applicants.

I talk to more Chinese high school students than anyone else in the world.

At least I think I do: I operate — along with my wife — a company in China that interviews students on behalf of selective U.S. colleges and boarding schools. Instead of taking a standardized language test, a prospective student can participate in an unscripted conversation with one of our interviewers. We videotape the interview and then provide it “as-is” to admission officers. Admission officers like our interviews because they provide a trustworthy and unfiltered look at an applicant’s communication skills.

A fascinating aspect of this job is that we have a front-row seat to one of the greatest migrations of talent in history. Our thousands of conversations with students often include some variation of the question, “Why do you want to go to the U.S. for school?” Almost every interviewee responds with a version of the following: They don’t like the gaokao (the national college entrance exam), and even more they dislike the prospect of their major being determined by their gaokao score.

The pervasive disdain for the gaokao is understandable. In most high schools, the last year or two is reserved exclusively for cramming for the test. Not only do students forgo extracurricular activities, they also forgo their individual academic interests, focusing only on the few subjects tested by the gaokao.

At first glance, China’s almost maniacal focus on one test seems to be the ideal cautionary tale for American critics of standardized testing. However, when one hears first-hand from Chinese high school students about the gaokao, it is difficult to imagine the U.S. educational system—with all of the ways that high school students can develop their individual talents—ever approaching that of China’s harsh, one-test-means-all approach for the almost 10 million students who take the gaokao each year.

While the utility of the gaokao system is regularly debated in China, an outside observer needs to appreciate that old habits die hard: The origins of the gaokao are dated closer to the birth of Christ than the birth of the United States.  The practice of using exams to locate talent and distribute scarce educational opportunities began as early as 650 AD, when imperial China began to use tests to recruit civil officials. While the gaokao’s shortcomings are widely known, many in China see the exam as a grueling  yet quasi-fair process that provides students all over China with a chance to go to college, regardless of their socioeconomic status. For many families, a child’s success on the gaokao is the only hope they have of avoiding a future of manual labor and entering China’s middle class.

It is within this context that more and more Chinese students, particularly those with the financial means to do so, are now turning to U.S. colleges. Cramming is cramming, so the shift to preparing for the SAT — the “American gaokao,” as students in China call it — and the TOEFL is a relatively easy one to make. Plenty of test prep companies in China, some small and some very large, promise to provide the tools and tricks to increase scores and gain acceptance to a “Top 50” university.

Some test prep companies even assist with cheating. Scores have been postponed two, and potentially three, times in Asia this fall, delays that wreaked havoc with the applications of ambitious students awaiting their results so they could select their schools. Many students during their interviews with us have even made comments about this on camera. Off camera, they would often nonchalantly mention which test prep companies they thought were involved.

Parents waiting for students outside of a gaokao testing site near our offices (Terry Crawford)

SAT cheating scams make the press, but discussions about how to fix blatant cheating obscure the larger issues with which U.S. universities should be concerned. Admission officers will tell you that it isn’t all about standardized tests: They undertake a “holistic review” and consider many factors in the application.

Unfortunately, outside of the U.S. many parts of an application are easy to forge. The bulk of a U.S. student’s high school learning is reflected in the high school transcript, and extracurricular activities, while they can be overstated, are usually kept in check by communal guidance counselors and colleges’ institutional memory of high schools. In China, the integrity of the transcript is rarely assured. With the exception of a few high schools, there is also no system of guidance counselors who receive a stable income from the school itself.

When these aspects are combined with parents who cannot speak English and are unfamiliar with the U.S. college application process, an opportunity arises for agents who promise to “package” the students in a way that admission officers will accept. Since most agents are paid at least partially on a success-fee basis, there is a strong incentive to succeed by any means necessary. Agents fill out all of the forms for the student, adding essays and extracurricular activities, and handle all correspondence with the schools (after all, why risk one’s fee to a high school student unfamiliar with the process?). This in turn frees up additional time for students to focus on the SAT and TOEFL (hopefully in classes also run by the agent’s company).

Admission officers might say they conduct a holistic review of China applicants, but in hushed tones at admission conferences they admit that a competitive admission process without dependable documentation is like an emperor without clothes. Students know that time spent cramming for the SAT and TOEFL is usually time well spent, regardless of how admission officers talk their about holistic admission process.

One uncounted casualty in all of this is the upright high school educator who wants to be a teacher for the right reasons. As any teacher in an “international” high school program will tell you, there is usually strong opposition from parents to any part of the curriculum that takes away from prep time for the SAT or TOEFL. (These “international” programs are privately run, typically sitting inside the gates of a reputable public high school, and specifically prepare Chinese students to go abroad.) In our interviews, we often ask a student about their current class schedule only to discover that they have spent two years of high school focused on cramming for standardized tests. Students in the gaokao track of prestigious high schools will simply stop going to their regular classes and instead enroll in private cram schools, which are often run by the same companies that run the “international” divisions. One student recently let it slip on camera that she wasn’t going to class and instead was just doing test prep, and then sat pale-faced afterwards as she admitted that her interview answers weren’t consistent with her transcript.

Guessing the percentage of fraudulent transcripts in applications from China is a popular parlor game among educators over here. Unscientific estimates abound: One prominent agent who works with students at some of the best high schools in China recently estimated to me that at least half of the transcripts in China are doctored to look like the students have done well in a robust high school curriculum, when the reality is one of almost constant memorization and practice tests. Unfortunately, no one in the college prep industry in China would be surprised if the actual percentage was significantly higher.

This contract shows that an agent's pay is often tied to a college's ranking. (Terry Crawford)

One might think these practices are cut from the same cloth as other types of corruption that the central Chinese government is trying to eradicate, but the reality is more sobering: Much of this behavior is incentivized by the very admission requirements put in place by U.S. colleges. Chinese students (and their parents) know the value of a degree from a top U.S. institution, and they are willing to pay top dollar for access to it — as are many Americans. The only difference is that China doesn’t have school-based guidance counselors who are entrusted with protecting the reputation of their high school—and of themselves—each time they sign off on an application.

The public and formal role that they play in the U.S. admission process helps reduce discrepancies between the content of a student’s college application and his or her real life. In the case of an applicant from China, one college might reject a student because of something fishy in the application, but the student will still likely be accepted by another school, to the delight of the student, the parents and particularly the agent who collects the fee behind the scenes.  

This dynamic results in the world’s largest prisoner’s dilemma: Students in China could endeavor to be honest, provide an accurate transcript, and take care of all aspects of the application process themselves, but most feel that not tapping into an agent’s “expertise” would leave them uncompetitive against their better-advised classmates. Everyone knows of the smart kid who decided to apply “DIY” and then wasn’t accepted—and they don’t want to risk being  the next one. Unfortunately, there’s a sense in China that the honest applicants are the chumps.

* * *

Since starting this business, I have become both more skeptical and more sympathetic. The fraud and extreme test prep is on a level greater than most admission officers realize, but at the same time I now better understand the plight of the Chinese student. Many in the U.S. view the influx of Chinese students as evidence of China’s increasing economic might; however, the trend is equally evidence of the incredible soft power of U.S. universities, influence which extends even to high school curricula in foreign countries.

While this soft power is a tremendous card for the U.S. to hold in international competition for talent, it also—to borrow a line from a great American superhero—comes with great responsibility. I’ve had admission officers tell me that they cannot do anything about the toxic test-prep environment in China. This stance fails to recognize that admission officers are the ones who created the rules of the sandbox in which everyone else plays. When it comes to foreign policy, America is often criticized for acting unilaterally, without regard for how its domestically driven actions affect other countries. U.S. admission offices should endeavor to avoid the same criticism. Even more so, universities shouldn’t complain about the lack of intellectual curiosity or engagement of international students when their selection process rewards those who focus on standardized tests.

So what’s an international admission officer to do? These individuals admittedly have their work cut out for them in a way that domestic admission officers do not. Domestic admission officers have mounds of historical data upon which they can project matriculation percentages, future GPA, and graduation rates. International admission officers—in order to do things the right way—must get comfortable making decisions with incomplete information and exercising their discretion. They have to look past documents, which can be easily falsified. They have to look past standardized test scores because the emphasis on these numbers distorts the entire high school experience. They have to spend time in China and other foreign countries, and employ all means of modern communication technology to try to get a sense of each student. In short, they have to practice true holistic admissions.

The result will be a process that better reflects the aspirations of U.S. higher education and honors the very reasons that it is a beacon of academic freedom, openness, and transparency. Not only will the admission process be seen as fair both inside and outside of the U.S., but it will also work for the good of high school students everywhere.