How Wealthy Chinese Students Game the System

Burgess Mandella offers an inside look at how the favored in China impress American admissions officers.

July 10, 2017

Fake. From drugs to handbags to U.S. college applications, “fake” is a common theme in China. Essays are ghostwritten. Grades are fabricated out of thin air or based upon something like a TOEFL or SAT score, not on the actual grades earned in courses. TOEFL teachers are even hired to take the TOEFL exam for a prospective student. But this op-ed isn't about what is faked; instead, it is about what is gamed and the inherent unfairness, not to mention the potentially unethical behavior, associated with gaming, gaming that breeds inequality.

What do I mean by “gaming” and how is gaming different from “faking”? Gaming means those activities that are done simply to give an edge, an advantage, to one's application. They are not illegal in any sense, sometimes not even unethical. The most common form of gaming is test-prep -- for the TOEFL,  for the SAT,  for Advanced Placement exams, for SAT Subject Tests. It's rare to find a Chinese applicant who has not had at least some test-prep. At best, many Chinese consider it a necessary evil; at worst, it's a way to fool one's way into a higher ranked American collegel, because in China rank means everything, especially the U.S. News & World Report ranking of national universities. Indeed, it's as if the U.S. News rankings were carved onto a tablet by God.

The idea of test-prep as it's practiced in China is familiar to American readers, after all, Kaplan and Princeton Review and many others are pervasive throughout the U.S.. Yet, in China it's often possible for a student to take test-prep in lieu of their regular courses, something that can't easily be done in the States. Some students will go to intensive one month test-prep centers, others will take “VIP” test-prep several days each week, and might also travel to the headquarters operation of a major test-prep company, sometimes paying as much as the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars. Who needs high school coursework when you can devote yourself full-time to test-prep? 

Given the pervasiveness of this practice, is it any wonder that many Chinese students get such high scores on their standardized tests?

Those aiming for so-called “famous” American colleges, once again defined in China as the highest ranked national universities by U.S. News, often take several AP exam test prep courses.

Another way of gaming the system that is pervasive throughout China is through internships that are essentially meaningless. Daddy has guanxi (family connections and clout) and arranges for his son or daughter to do an internship at a Chinese corporation. More often than not nothing is learned and the only byproduct is a recommendation letter that is highly exaggerated at best, totally faked at worse. However, I view this as gaming rather than faking since the internships are often real; however, what a recommendation letter says that a student did as an intern is more often than not fictional.

Next up are competitions. High school students are going to competition prep, something that is far more than what would be thought of in the States as training. The difference in China is that competition prep could very well be by yet another test prep center. Still, the competitions are usually real, but what isn't well understood by American admissions officers is that there isn't one first place prize, one second place prize, and one third place prize. No, not in China. There may be several in each category, even as many as 100 third place prize winners.

But a so-called third prize for a province in China may be perceived as of high value, at least by Chinese students and their parents. The warning here is that American admissions should only consider international competitions run by globally respected associations and societies. So-called “international” competitions held in China should be viewed with a wary eye.

Last, but certainly not least, are extra-curriculars. Many agencies -- agencies that fake a good portion of a student's application -- thrive on providing extra-curriculars. My guess is that most are seen by admissions officers for what they really are: activities to game a student's application. But in this case it's far more serious since students living in "tier 1" cities, and especially in Beijing and Shanghai, have an advantage in participating in activities that may in fact be real. This gives those living in larger cities an advantage and promotes inequality among Chinese applicants. 

Take a close look at the activities of a student living in Beijing and Shanghai and compare them to students living in tier 2 cities, and compare the activities of students living in tier 2 cities with those of students living in tier 3 or 4 cities. A lot of the activities are fictional, many are too short to matter (although Chinese parents are convinced that they matter), but some are real, yet only available to those students living in the largest Chinese cities. It is what I call, “pay-to-play,” whereby money affords a student to do things a student living in another city simply can't afford to do.

This “pay-to-play” problem is at its worst when it comes to summer programs, especially those held at American colleges and universities. In essence, American colleges are promoting inequality by giving an advantage to those students who attend summer programs in the States. Of course, the $64,000 question is whether admissions officers do, in fact, look favorably toward such summer programs. Does a recommendation letter from a college professor whom a student has had for only several weeks really matter? 

If so, then colleges should be ashamed of themselves for encouraging “pay-to-play” simply for the purpose of making money. The issue isn't that summer programs are useless; the issue is that summer programs are nothing more than “pay-for-play” and promote inequality, giving an obvious advantage to those students who are aware of such programs and can afford to participate in said programs. I would go so far as to say that summer programs are the ultimate in pay-to-play and in promoting inequality among Chinese students.

Sadly, there is no perfect way to evaluate Chinese candidates. I firmly believe that the Oxbridge method, focused almost solely on academics, is less susceptible to gaming. One key component of this is the role of interviews in the admissions process. However, the way most American colleges handle their interviews in China is highly flawed, something else I hope to address in a future column, with examples and ways to address the blatant flaws.



Burgess Mandella is the pen name of a college counselor at a high school in China that serves many wealthy students who aspire to attend top U.S. colleges.


Back to Top