The Cultural Divide Hurting China's Personal Statements

By Lucia Pierce

SHANGHAI, China -- In my February 28 post, I wrote about the 180-degree difference between applying to colleges in China and the U.S. For Chinese students, it is not just an introduction to a different process but is also a paradigm shift in how to communicate.

A recent New York Times article did a terrific job in pointing this out, and I laughed when reading it in recognition of my first meetings with many of the students I work with.  They arrive with earnest faces and with a file holding all their award/prize certificates. In China, presenting the original documents (in this case award certificates) is expected. When getting a job with a Chinese company foreigners are expected to present their original diplomas -- not a copy but the original. Thus, it comes as a surprise that U.S. college applications just ask you to list your prizes and awards, and it is assumed that you are telling the truth.

One student came with a carefully prepared 37-page, four-color booklet about her life.  It included pictures of her playing instruments, giving speeches, and being with friends; it included pages with pictures of her major awards; it included quotes from teachers and friends; there was a Table of Contents. Careful thought was given to the graphics, and both she and her parents were really happy with it.  

I could honestly tell them that it showed her very wide range of interests and her ability across all of them (she plays instruments, has won many science prizes, has won English language prizes, is president of a number of clubs, spent two summer studying in quite competitive programs in the States, and has close to perfect SAT scores). Her friends and teachers loved the book. I felt like Scrooge when I then told her that it would be a big mistake to send it in with her application.  We worked our way down from 37 pages to a five-page overview of the most important things, and then to the point when she said, "I don't think it's a good idea," which is exactly what I had hoped she would decide.

Similar conversations happen with the first drafts of personal statement.  A student and I will talk at length about what he or she may want to write about.  Not unlike U.S. students, it's  hard to find something fresh to say that will stand out.  Admissions officers have read every conceivable kind of personal statement.  I tend to think it best to write about something small which at the same time gives a large picture of the kind of person you are -- and do so by showing through your story rather than telling the reader what he or she should take from your experience. This is not easy for any 18-year-old, but in China the small personal stories are seen as totally inappropriate to use as a means of standing out.  Standing out means showing drama, suffering for a good cause, and always ending with a noble purpose.

From experiences with these four-color books and first drafts of personal statements, I've learned the following: if one of my student's best friend, teacher, or parents really likes a personal statement, then the material is probably not great for an application to the U.S.  This is, of course, not easy for my students, but it's a wonderful opportunity for us to talk in some detail about how language reflects culture (see Deb Fallows's Dreaming in Chinese) and begin to explore how to negotiate classroom and social interactions when they arrive on a U.S. campus.

I've just completed visits to 11 campuses in the U.S. where 14 of my students are studying and we have continued the discussion started in Shanghai.  I'll write more about this in my next post.

Lucia Buchanan Pierce is an educational consultant living in Shanghai.