Society

How I got into Harvard

Getting Chinese students into the Ivy League is big business

Admissions consultants charge $9,000 to fill out Harvard applications

When Dong Kaiqian, a 17 year-old student from Beijing, was applying to colleges in the US, poor results on a practice SAT and a dearth of extracurricular activities convinced her that she needed a scholastic makeover. How else would she achieve her dream of making it into an Ivy League school? So her parents hired a college admission consultant who claimed to be able to get her into her first choice school.

The first thing the consultant did was to polish up Dong’s resume. In her original application she had talked about her interest in jazz dance. But the new version talked that up into a performance at a school gala.

“They told me it’s just a minor ‘touch-up’ and that they have had to do a lot more for other students,” Dong told Southern Weekend.

With China sending more students to American colleges than any other country, the competition for spots at the top schools has soared.

During the 2009-10 academic year, 39,947 Chinese undergraduates were studying in the US, a 52% increase from the year before and about five times as many as five years earlier, according to the Institute of International Education.

But students from China often find themselves ill-prepared for the admissions process for American colleges.

The problem is that the Chinese education system focuses on the gaokao, a university entrance exam that pays little attention to extracurricular activities, says the New York Times. Even some of China’s smartest kids can be rejected on these grounds.

Regular readers may recall the case of Li Taibo (see WiC69) who got one of the highest university entrance scores in the Beijing area but was then rejected by Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Li told the Global Times that he’d failed to highlight the right things on his application forms.

Not surprisingly, the price to hire the consultants is steep (it always is). Expect Rmb60,000 ($9,000) for Ivy League schools and Rmb25,000 for lesser schools.

Most offer tutoring services for the SAT, the US college admission exam, and provide training for meet-and-greet sessions with alumni. But others go further, modifying student transcripts and forging recommendation letters, said Tom Melcher, chairman of Zinch China, a consulting company.

Industry insiders say about 90% of recommendation letters for Chinese students are fake and 70% of essays aren’t actually completed by the applicant. “We usually ask a student to write the essay in Chinese and hire a translator to turn it into English,” says Meng Jiasi, a former employee of USA Daxue, a college admission consultancy. “But more often than not, even the Chinese essays are not written by the applicant but by trained professionals.”

These tactics are commonplace. One former employee of an agency in eastern China told Bloomberg that, more often than not, teachers’ names were also added to recommendation letters without their knowledge, and extracurricular credentials were made up.

Some admissions consultants also set up “internships” with local banks if the applicant was missing some work experience.

“Sometimes we would change the length of the internship from three weeks to three months. We have also found that it’s more effective if the applicants’ parents open an account at the bank. It’s easier to obtain proof of the internship and even a letter of recommendation,” an employee at Oxbridge International, another consultancy, told Southern Weekend.

Consultants say that most parents are fully aware of the practices. “The most basic driver behind the fraud is the intense competition [to get into good schools],” says Liu Peng, who has been working in the college consulting industry for over five years.

“Ultimately, the ones who make the decisions are the students and their parents.”

Sometimes the efforts can backfire. Back in 2008, Newcastle University in the UK expelled 49 Chinese students after their documents were found to be fake. Officials became suspicious when some of the students failed English language assessments, mandatory for new arrivals who cannot claim English as their first language.

Then again, even if they’d passed, the Chinese newcomers would then have had a lot more trouble understanding Geordie, Newcastle’s local dialect…


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