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A Particularly Chinese Dilemma: Why Chinese Students Game College Admissions

05/18/2015 03:40 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

A new day, a new scandal -- such has been the rhythm of Chinese-U.S education exchanges for the last few years, as the number of Chinese students applying to American colleges and universities has skyrocketed. In 2014, 274,439 Chinese students studied in the U.S. -- that's five times more than in 2000.

Yet overshadowing this admirable cultural exchange between two global powers are the desperate lengths Chinese students go to ensure a prized spot at an American university.

Forged transcripts, ghostwritten essays and cheating on entrance exams have become such a common occurrence that college admission offices have accepted them as part and parcel with China. The SAT has been rocked by allegations of cheating in China, leading the College Board to delay releasing results twice this year alone. One case, when a university reported that an admitted Chinese student who arrived on campus did not match the video feed recording of the TOEFL exam months earlier, still had the shock value to startle some.

The repercussions accompanying this influx of students are real and scary: U.S. colleges and universities are finding that a large number of students they've admitted are unprepared for college life, so many students that professors are being forced to lower academic standards to accommodate them.

Over the six years I've been working with Chinese students on education initiatives, I've come to realize that there's a particularly Chinese perspective to the problem. Chinese students are equally the victims of a system of educational exchanges that disincentivizes honesty, and turns the whole process into a rat race.

For a minute, put yourself in the shoes of a Chinese student. You, a millennial born into China's burgeoning middle class, are part of the first generation truly separate from China's impoverished, often tragic past. You live in a world largely unlike your parents'. They lived without reliable electricity and dreamed of foreign watches and sewing machines. You hang out with your friends on streets lined with ads for foreign luxury brands and, complain about Starbucks being "too mainstream." A world of opportunities is open to you -- none larger than studying abroad.

For many Chinese students, the appeal of foreign education goes beyond glamor: it's a necessary lifeline. In China, the state education system funnels students through the gaokao, China's notorious college entrance exam, success on which demands memorizing extraordinary amounts of obscure facts. Students often spend a year or more hunched over books in preparation for a single test day. The outcome of the gaokao can single-handedly decide your future, and the process all but stifles creativity and chews out students without a preternatural talent for rote memorization. For students who don't fit the mold, there's only one viable option: study abroad.

However, the American application process poses its own challenges. The process is rife with idiosyncrasies -- which, while manageable for American applicants, are indecipherably foreign and arcane for many Chinese applicants.
Take the American college essay. Here's an essay prompt from this year's Common Application: "Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?" Whereas an American upbringing teaches students how to respond to questions like this with a characteristic mixture of introspection and individuality that burnishes their accomplishments without breaking the aura of self-humility, the average Chinese upbringing does not.

As a Chinese student, you spend 12 hours a day, at least six days a week in the classroom, and that's if you're lucky enough to avoid the often mandatory "late self-study" sessions that run well past 9:00 PM. The pressure of Chinese schooling militates against the type of internal dialogue that the American college essay demands. As a Chinese student, you've never had time to think about your failings because you've been too busy trying not to fail.

This essay prompt seems like an indecipherable foreign code. To crack that code, your parents employ the services of a domestic admission agent. The agent functions like hired a hired gun, operating under the assumption that getting you into college at any cost is the goal. Their service comes with a money-back-guarantee that you'll get into University X or Y. This sounds reasonable from your point of view; your parents paid a considerable sum of money. So you get to work. The agent intensely coaches you to write your college essay -- and if all fails, furnishes you with an already finished one. Next in line, the TOEFL and SAT. You begin preparing, but as the exams approach, your strategy shifts from preparation to preemption, from studying to "gaming" the test.

You know you're brushing up against a questionable moral line. You also know admission selection committees are inundated by Chinese applications. Colleges and universities are comfortable choosing the best candidates on paper: best test scores, grades, personal statements. They're unlikely to discount blemishes on an application, even if they seem human. Competition is fierce among Chinese applicants. The truth: there's a risk in the honest approach while trusting the agent seems safer.

If you're lucky, four months later tangible proof that the agent's methods have paid off: a college acceptance letter arrives at your doorstep. Your dream of overseas study has come true. However, what stands before you, like so many Chinese students who are woefully unprepared for American colleges, are four difficult years of trying to stay afloat in an English-language college environment.

Students are not the only ones getting hurt. University and college finances take a hit when students drop out, professors' lesson plans get frustrated when students in the classroom fall behind, and campus life as a whole suffers when a sizable part of the student body feels segregated.

The educational and cultural gap between China and the United States is exceptionally large, and the admission process, rather than bridging the gap, frequently exacerbates it. The problem is one of misaligned incentives. The standards that work for American students aren't serving the interest of students in China. It's time for a truly international college admissions process that rewards integrity and true "college readiness."