Admissions Officers Need Direct Contact With Chinese Applicants

At elite Chinese high schools the counseling market has been largely dominated by agents and they are often at the root of many unethical practices.

December 10, 2017

At a recent admission workshop conducted by a group of admission officers on this year's China Liberal Arts College Tour in Beijing, student volunteers from the audience were asked to write down all the required documents that they think admission offices want to see in their applications. They then shuffled themselves in order from the most important to the least while each holding a white board paper with the item written in bold letters. The order they came out with was nothing short of a surprise to many admission officers present. The essay, a required application component for most, if not all highly selective colleges in the US, was pushed to the very top of the line without any hesitation, followed by supplemental essays, language proficiency test, standardized tests, etc., with financial aid being the last in line.

Four admission officers from Amherst College (myself), and three other highly selective liberal arts colleges rearranged the order based on each institution's unique approach to evaluating applications in an effort to show the audience that not all schools evaluate the same way when reviewing applications. Amherst for example, has a need-blind admission policy for both domestic and international students and only offers alumni interviews to its handful of Chinese finalists, so I asked both students holding the ‘financial aid’ and ‘interview’ signs to step out of the line. One of the participating colleges, located in California, does not require interviews, but does take into consideration a student's demonstrated interest through an interview either on campus, with an alum or a third-party interview provider. Being need-aware in the admission process, three institutions consider an international applicant’s ability to pay before making their final decisions, so the student holding the ‘financial aid’ sign was moved much closer to the front of the line. The fact that the 14 volunteers ranked financial aid as the least important among their concerns really gives you a sense of how economically committed families are in China.

Differences in the application evaluation process are common among small, highly selective liberal arts colleges, but they tend to be more nuanced. While the essay is an important part of the holistic review process, first and foremost will always be the applicant's academic performance in high school. The rigorous academic environment that all four participating colleges provide requires that our first-years can readily engage in classroom discussions and produce scholarly writing. As a result, the rigor of an applicant’s courses in high school, fluency in the English language, strong recommendation letters from academic teachers and counselors, as well as solid writing skills demonstrated through the essay(s) are among the most important qualities that we all look for.

How is it that the 14 student volunteers on stage so confidently and unanimously voted ‘essay’ to be the most important? I threw the question to the audience in Chinese to hear from parents who are often an influential force behind their children's college choices and applications. When I asked whether this belief is the result of agents’ advertising, most, if not all of the parents nodded energetically.

For veteran admission officers who have been engaged with the China market for a number of years, this is no longer a shocking revelation. Before school-based college counseling became a common fixture at elite Chinese high schools, the market was largely dominated by agents.  They are often at the root of many unethical practices, such as ‘double dipping’ where agents charge fees to both students and institutions, often without either of them knowing that the other is also charged. They promise extravagant results. An agent's ad mighty read, "Guaranteed admission to top 30 universities in the US" or "Fully refundable if not admitted to top 50 universities.”

Agents' businesses largely survive on the information gap between western institutions and their clients. They overly emphasize the importance of the essay - an unfamiliar concept to traditional Chinese school students - and create anxiety that eventually motivates parents to pay top dollar for an agent's intervention. The applications are often inaccessible to students and their parents, often not providing access to their own username and password. For some parents, the thought of simply paying and receiving guaranteed results are why they paid for the service. This is why, when school-based counselors tell them that admission to one or more of the top 30 colleges is unrealistic for their children and that the school will not issue altered transcript or exaggerated recommendation letters, the real battle begins.

Three years ago, during a visit at the International Campus of the Second High School affiliated with Beijing Normal University where the majority of seniors seek higher education outside of China, I hosted an information session to about 80 students and parents at its newly designed counseling center. As a wrap-up, I reemphasized the importance of working with, and trusting their school-based counselors. Afterwards, when the room cleared out, both counselors came up to thank me for saying precisely that, as they had been challenged by parents for efforts that contradicted the recommendations and support provided by agents and, as a result, sadly, families who paid agents were inclined to mistrust the school-based counselors.  

This is not an isolated case. In a recent anonymous survey designed by the international admissions team at Amherst College, 52 school-based counselors in China who are also members of International Association for College Admission Counseling shared their experiences confronting challenges on a daily basis. “Some agents ask students to convince their schools to change their GPA and if we refuse, they use that as an excuse to blame the school when students are not admitted. Some students couldn’t care less about their applications because they have paid big bucks to agents and expect everything to be done for them,” one counselor lamented.

Another counselor expressed similar frustrations, "I feel hijacked by agents this year and this makes me feel powerless. If colleges and universities trust us, they really need to say it out aloud in front of parents and students." A number of counselors have also pointed out that “some agents lie about their special connections with some universities saying they can guarantee successful acceptances.”

On the other hand, agents who do ethical and professional work when advising and supporting their clients do fill the market gap as recognized by another counselor who noted, “For-profit agencies and consulting firms fill the market gap and meet the demand; some good ones can provide professional counseling and help students find their best fits. But for now, I believe the majority of them are only using the so-called consulting title to take over the work for their clients—they are the root of fraudulent activities.”

As if these problems are not challenging enough for school-based counselors, recent trends in China add to their predicament. A new regulation recently passed by the State Council of China has canceled the once lengthy and reserve-fund-heavy administrative approval process for study abroad agencies. The regulation is intended to govern the industry through market competition, but opens the floodgate for any individual —qualified or unqualified—who hopes to grab a slice of this lucrative pie to enter the market and add complexity to the already murky education consulting industry. 

There needs to be a solution. When asked what US college admission offices can do to minimize the information gap between their institutions and Chinese students and parents, 73% of school-based counselors said that it is extremely important for admission officers to visit China and meet with students and parents in person; 62% of them suggested that it is important to establish official Chinese social media pages to get the message across to parents who may not understand English.

“It is so vital for US admission officers to visit our high schools, because we are under tremendous pressure from parents when they are getting a lot of mixed messages from us, agents and consultants,” a counselor commented. Another counselor offered a more cost-effective method, “In addition to Skype, use WeChat, or live broadcast to show a class, an information session, lectures, or a campus tour.”

As complex as this may seem, changes are in the air thanks to the consistent efforts made by both the US admission and school-based counselors in China. “As counselors, we spend a lot of time interacting with parents and are happy to have gained trust from most of them, but a few of them still mistrust our work. To address that, we host counseling sessions and have admission officers come give information sessions to better educate them.”


Xiaofeng Wan is an Assistant Dean of Admission and Coordinator of International Recruitment, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, USA. 




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