China's College Applicants: What Defines 'Cheating'?

By Lucia Pierce

SHANGHAI, China -- Thank you to those who have commented on my blog of February 28.

One reader made a thoughtful point about letters of recommendation and my use of the word "cheat."  The writer points out that in writing a letter of recommendation, the student has a chance for self-evaluation and that there is also transparency if the student writes and the teacher signs -- both know what was said.

While I agree that self-evaluation and transparency are both good qualities, letters of recommendation for colleges are supposed to be confidential comments by a teacher about a student. In the States, it is rare for a teacher to agree to write a letter of recommendation if it will be negative, but a thoughtful letter that gives some detail about the work of a student, how a student interacts with others in the class, the degree of maturity shown, and the strengths and even some weaknesses as a way of showing  where a student has worked hard to improve, are things that admissions people want to see; it's one of the many efforts to get to know many aspects of the applicant.

Therefore, for a U.S. college application, when a student writes his or her own recommendation it is cheating -- because the request is clearly for a confidential letter from a teacher. This being said, I believe many admissions offices know this is an issue in China and usually don't judge the Chinese students in a way they would judge American students if it was clear that an American student had written his or her own recommendation.  My concern is that the Chinese recommendation letters are pretty useless and students start their application process by doing something that, in this particular context, is considered cheating.

Which leads me to a second comment asking about agents. I work with individual students as a consultant/counselor, not unlike an independent college counselor in the U.S. There are several people and companies like me in China.

Then there are agents. In general, agents are hired to do the entire admissions process for a student.  Agents will select the colleges/universities, will fill out the forms, either write the essays or hire others to write the essays and handle all the other information for the application.  Like the person who sent the comment, I too have run into students who seem surprised that they will be writing their own personal essay, or are surprised that I ask them to do their own research on a number of colleges (more on this in another post).

My talks with my students give me an idea of their interests, their and their parents' dreams/plans, financial situation, academic scores, and test scores.  I have developed a questionnaire to help students do their research and I make an initial suggestion of about 20 colleges and universities for them.  They send me their completed questionnaires and we meet and and discuss the school, revise the list, and eventually settle on nine schools.  This process surprises them because they are more familiar with others making the choice for them.

The National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) addressed the issue of agents in a panel at its September, 2010 conference; a major concern being agents who are paid both by clients and by schools to help recruit.  It's a charged topic overall.  However, in China, it is also an issue of how much a student is involved in his or her application -- often it is little involvement.

Lucia Buchanan Pierce is an educational consultant living in Shanghai.