How Chinese Students Struggle to Apply to U.S. Colleges

By Lucia Pierce

SHANGHAI, China -- As I've worked with Chinese students who want to attend college or university in the US, there are some, not surprising, generalizations that apply to the process and there are also constant and gratifying distinctive stories that keep me from being too stereotypical in my assumptions.

Today the generalizations.

The US college application preparation is 180-degrees different from preparing to attend college in China.  At the most basic level it is a difference between one test score (in China) and a process of many forms, the occasional interview, and each school's idiosyncratic process (in the States). In China, "universities" are the desired place for undergraduate education; "colleges" are three-year institutions more like our vocational schools.  This difference can lead to some confusion at the outset of talking with Chinese students and parents about undergraduate education in the US.

For Chinese students wanting to attend university in China it is clear what they must do: get a score high enough in the gaokao (the end of high school examination) to attend the school they most want to attend and be able to study in the field of their choice. A student might make a score good enough to get into the university of his or her choice but might not have a high enough score to study in the field they wish. They will be given a choice:  attend the school of their choice but study in a field assigned to them based on their gaokao score; or study the field they wish to study at another university -- which has been selected for them based on their gaokao score.

The ranking of universities is a strong determinant in both getting jobs after gradation and future professional success; where you go to university also plays a role in marriage prospects. In addition, it is most common for graduates to get jobs in or close by the geographical area where they went to university.  Your place of study most often becomes the place you will work, live, and raise your family.

When Chinese students look at the application process in the States, it's a minefield of cultural discontinuities.  First of all there are the many parts, even with the most often used Common Application.  Within the main body of the application students fill in a lot of basic information, write a short (150 word) piece and a longer (around 550 words) personal statement. They need to put in their awards (not a big problem for many Chinese) and their extracurricular activities (increasingly common because it is expected in the States, but not something that is necessarily encouraged by schools or parents who feel that test scores are the determining factor for success). Most schools have supplemental sections with additional essays. In the essays, it is often less the English ability than the writing style that causes problems for Chinese students.
Chinese written language is often spare and indirect using vague, often poetic and soaring words and phrases to get meaning across. Using "four-character phrases" (not unlike English cliches) is encouraged and shows erudition; the final paragraph of a good Chinese essay should end with a lofty message.  This is all beautiful in Chinese. Unfortunately, it reads horribly in English where the best writing is direct, uses clear (not SAT) words, and where large meanings are gleaned from intimate stories.  Thus, writing a personal essay requires a Chinese student to think very differently about style and content.  (Native Chinese English teachers are masters of grammar but they tend to teach English writing using the Chinese writing style.)

The most common question I get from the students is "What is the right answer?" It is pretty much inconceivable to them that there is no "right" answer since even in their humanities courses in high school there is always a "right" answer.  Often the assumed "right" answer is someone else's successful essay subject and every year there is a rash of common themes used by Chinese students in their essays based on what they have read, heard, or discussed with their friends regarding successful essays the year before.  This is not unlike students in the States, but there is considerably more specificity in China.  Recently, a strong theme has been "wanting to be different from everyone else."

Accompanying the basic Common Application are forms for a counselor letter of recommendation and for teacher letters of recommendation.  Chinese public high schools do not have counselors. Teachers teach classes of 50 students per class and, with the exception of the stars of a class, know students by their test scores. Students usually choose their class teacher to be their "counselor."

In most cases counselors and teachers ask the students to write the recommendations and then the teachers sign them.  This can be for several reasons: 1) the teachers don't know how to write the kind of recommendation letters expected by American schools; 2) teachers don't have the time and it is not considered a part of their job; 3) there could an element of face (pure conjecture on my part, but possible in a land where guanxi -- connections -- is the grease that makes things happen); 4) teachers can't write in English and the students send the Chinese letters to an official translation service -- this is fairly easy to do but still teachers resist (there are sometimes exceptions if a teacher is comfortable writing in English, this usually means the teacher also has a better idea of what to write).

Whatever the case, the recommendation system in the US has no relevance to Chinese students and teachers and ends up being a sham.  Students know they shouldn't write the letters but usually have not choice if their teacher refuses.  (My goal is to have letters of recommendation excluded from Chinese -- or international -- applications; they serve little purpose and force students to do what they know they shouldn't do: cheat.)

Of course, tests are considered a major part of the application by students, but it is considered the major part of the application by parents. Students who may want to do volunteer work in the summer often are told by their parents that they must take SAT or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) study courses. Everyone looks at the total SAT score (a perfect score of 2400 means 800 in Critical Reading, 800 in Math and 800 in Writing).  Most Chinese students score well into the 700s in Math, and have a hard time understanding that most colleges and universities will pay far more attention to their Critical Reading score than to an overall score.  They also have a hard time understanding why they may not be accepted at a school when someone with a lower score is accepted.

Most of the students I've worked with very much want to understand the "right" way to complete applications. They know they shouldn't be writing their own recommendations.  They work so hard at re-thinking their writing styles (reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald can be useful, reading 19th century British literature tends to re-inforce their flowery, great meaning tendencies).  They are excited about a new way of learning.  Nonetheless, it is a cultural roller coaster and, like a roller coaster, the ride happens very fast.  Their parents have a harder time and students often balance their parents concerns with my concerns.  Going through the process is far more than filling out forms, it's starting a journey of a new way of approaching a different culture.

Lucia Buchanan Pierce is an educational consultant living in Shanghai.