University challenge

Education writer Olivia Halsall looks at ‘background enhancement’ services


If he is looking for some ‘background enhancement’ for his application, there are Chinese firms that can assist...

“To enrich your family, there is no need to buy good land: books hold a thousand measures of grain,” advises a Confucian maxim. The sage’s teachings would later become the core of imperial China’s civil service examinations. These evolved over many centuries but many historians credit the Tang Dynasty with formalising the process around the year 655. The exams were an innovation in governance: they enabled people from less well represented regions to bypass the patronage of the capital and get jobs as officials on their own merits. They became a catalyst for social mobility and established the value (and potential political power) of a good education.

The imperial civil service exams were abolished in 1905, but a better education remained a major source of social mobility and family prestige. Fast forward to 2019 and there’s a related phenomenon: a preference among affluent Chinese families to send their offspring to some of the world’s most prestigious overseas universities.

Cambridge, for example, welcomed 458 undergraduates and 830 postgraduate students from China during the course of the 2018-19 academic year. Earlier this year it even began accepting results from the gaokao, China’s equivalent of British A-levels, as part of its undergraduate admissions.

A consulting industry has blossomed to help this rising tide of Chinese students find places.

Services include: tuition for the International English Language Testing System; pairings of prospective candidates with mentors already at the targeted institutions; help with writing personal statements; and offers of internships that strengthen the students’ applications.

For a fee these companies handcraft golden admission profiles for the wannabe students.

Locally the services are described as ‘background enhancement’. One Chinese student I spoke to offered to shed light on the need for these services. Lucy, a Beijing-born NYU undergraduate and Imperial College postgraduate student, said: “University application services are a very normal practice in China. They offer a total package, meaning the consultants help you with everything – from filling in application forms to creating stories for your personal statement. Most students using this service simply don’t know where to start: their parents probably don’t understand English and their high schools or undergraduate universities in China don’t know what they need to do either. Companies take advantage of the market gap and provide these services. Generally, the fees are high as they know how desperate parents are to have their children admitted to this kind of institution – the whole family benefits from social mobility, not just the student in question”.

Chinese students abroad routinely admit to having used such services as “everyone else does it” and “they explain step-by-step how to perfect your application to give you the best shot at successful admission” I was told.

Payments vary from Rmb30,000 to Rmb300,000 ($42,228), based on the success rate of the agency and the full suite of services on offer. Companies select the university and study programme the candidate could realistically get into, buffing up student credentials by sending them on summer courses at other universities, and using mentors, tutors and professors to perfect their applications.

ViaX, one of the education firms, even matches prospective students with world-class academics to enhance their writing and research skills. It claims that “students will produce a research paper that will be submitted for presentation at an academic conference or for publication in an academic journal”.

Of course, there is a strong advisory component to what the agencies offer. Ye Jingyi, who previously worked for Birmingham-based GetSet Education in the UK as part of its placements team, told WiC: “Many Chinese students are unrealistic and would come to us with unreachable targets for their postgraduate options. GetSet Education would convince them only to consider the courses that match their strengths and abilities. Each year between 80-100 students would come to us around 8-10 months before the September entry.”

Another strand of application ‘services’ for Chinese postgraduates focuses more on mentors. Palm Drive matches prospective students with people already attending some of the world’s elite institutions. Claiming to have secured 8,000 postgraduate offers since its establishment, Palm Drive says it has an 82% acceptance rate at some of the world’s top 30 schools. Previous clients have reported in online chat rooms how supportive their mentors were throughout the process. One student applying to US universities said: “When I first started applying, I suffered emotional defeat. During the application process, my mentor served as an emotional life tutor, listening to me, comforting me and enriching my application process.”

Another mentoring scheme, Dear Mentor, offers personalised advice from a pool of more than 1,000 tutors from 300 elite institutions, all of whom have secured prestigious offers in the past themselves.

Among this group is a postgraduate student in finance at a top UK university, who charges Rmb1,050 for a 60-minute mock interview, Rmb840 for a 60-minute application consultation and Rmb2,310 for two 60-minute reviews of applicant CVs – all conducted via Skype.

Derek Wei worked for different Chinese education consultancies for five years, predominantly as a crafter of personal statements and essay writer. He recalls having an epiphany when he consulted for a talented high school girl whose parents were both senior executives at foreign tech firms. He wasn’t asked to produce the essay for her but tasked with proofreading and giving feedback on what she wrote.

“Her essay had the power of authenticity – and it made those essays written by me and my peers look stupid by comparison, nothing but clumsy imitations trying to sound like a teenager. No wonder my manager said that application officers can tell an authentic essay from a manufactured one easily. So I encouraged her to write more (which she enjoyed) and picked the most suitable ones for individual institutions. What I offered was mainly encouragement and some polishing on the wording. In the end she was admitted by her target college in the US,” Wei said.

“That made me doubt the value we sometimes add to the students’ application,” he admitted. “Of course, to those who just want to find a place to study abroad with the minimum effort, finding an application agent is the perfect choice. I understand how overwhelming the website information is, if you try to figure out how to apply for a programme abroad for the first time. And most Chinese students are already occupied with their schoolwork and background-enhancing internships and projects, so they don’t want to spend that much time studying application strategies. But for the more capable and discerning applicants, I think the best way to help them is not helping them to do everything.”

Of course, some of the advisory firms that have developed a specialisation in applications to US higher education may be reviewing their business models.

Headlines about Chinese students being denied visas to attend American colleges – and even being prevented from re-entering the United States midway through their courses – have been much discussed this year, prompting a lot of parents to encourage their kids to apply to universities in the UK and other countries (see WiC459).

Just last week nine Chinese students at Arizona State University were denied entry to the US at Los Angeles airport and sent back to China (see WiC466).

Gabbitas Education has positioned itself for this kind of changing preference among anxious parents. Its China operations manager Jack Cui told WiC: “Many of the Chinese children we work with are currently attending boarding schools in the UK and aiming for places at the most prestigious universities such as Oxbridge. Most Chinese students who are already studying at UK boarding schools are from wealthy families. They strongly believe that if their child can attend a prestigious university, it could be a milestone for the family name and that it’s an honour for all in the family.”

Of course, there are also parents who have more modest ambitions – and simply see sending their offspring abroad to study as a success in its own right.

One consultant told WiC that away from the prestige end of the advisory process there are instances in which some agencies have come to arrangements with lesser-ranked universities in the UK – often the newest colleges that are under more commercial pressure to fill places and keenest to attract higher fee-paying Chinese.

“In these cases the company works like an admissions contractor that helps the university pick qualified applicants from its Chinese clients. The students that use these channels are typically those who treat overseas education casually or just want to experience life abroad, without much academic ambition,” the consultant explained.

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