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Evaluating Chinese Students: Round Pegs, Square Holes

Andrea OHearn

by Andrea O’Hearn, IECA Member (China)

As I sat in the audience recently at Tsinghua International School in Beijing, listening to admissions representatives from some very prestigious U.S. colleges and universities, I was completely struck by the need to readjust my thinking, and the thinking of my colleagues at boarding schools and universities in the U.S.. I was semi-listening to the presentation, as the information was extremely basic concerning the American application process using the common application. One eloquent speaker was presenting the normal talk on what makes a recommendation effective and how important the recommendation is to the admissions committee and how they trust the teacher’s evaluation of academic ability, amongst much else. As I glanced around the room filled with approximately 100 principals and teachers from Chinese public schools, I was suddenly embarrassed by the lack of understanding of both the Chinese culture and the Chinese educational system. Clearly it was not intentional on the part of the admissions representatives—they know about Chinese public schools—they just did not recognize the repercussions of requiring recommendations of the students.

As one principal addressed the panel, he stated clearly, “I run one of the top Chinese public schools. I have 10,000 students. Our class size is 45-60 students per class. We do not know the students in a manner that would enable us to describe them as you would like.” I was struck instantly by his words, quickly assessing in my mind how many times I had rejected a Chinese student because the recommendations were either non-existent or not strong. It then occurred to me: We have to re-think our required admissions criterion for these students. The panel of “experts” continued to emphasize how important recommendations are and how they need to be specific to the student. They did not hear what they were being told.

If you do not know a student, you cannot write a personal, meaningful recommendation. It is that simple. A teacher sitting near me mumbled to her friend, “I just check the middle response for each question in the recommendation form for every student.” In most competitive colleges and boarding schools, that recommendation would be the kiss of death in the admissions process. I also began to wonder who has written recommendations that I have read that seem personal. Is it the agent? Has the student written them? What choices are we giving these families?

As the flood of Chinese applicants to the United States continues, this is just one problem that needs to be addressed. If we wish to judge the students coming out of the government system, we have got to understand the make-up of the classrooms, education system, and schools. We also need to realize that the relationship between teachers and students is quite different by culture. Students are quiet and respectful in Chinese classrooms. They do not interact with the teachers.  The teachers lecture, the students take notes, and the classes end. The fifty or so students remain in their seats while the teachers move to their next class. Test scores determine grades and it is the ability to memorize that earns high scores. While I do see this changing in China, along with a developing interest in western education practices, at this moment in time most recommendations are meaningless.

If the colleges and universities want a real sense of these hard working young people, they are going to need to evaluate them in a different manner. Because my school in Beijing can enroll Chinese students that hold Chinese passports, I know this is a problem I need to solve rather quickly. I will no longer require teacher recommendations. This new understanding will force me to think outside of the set admissions criterion and discover a better way to evaluate these students in a manner that is respectful of their educational circumstances, their culture and is as fair as is possible.

 Andi recently accepted a position at Beijing City International School as their Director of Enrollment Management and University Counseling


5 Responses to Evaluating Chinese Students: Round Pegs, Square Holes

  1. Beth Fuson says:

    So are colleges now supposed to create completely different application procedures for every country or are the Chinese students supposed to get different (preferential) treatment simply because they are from China? It’s bad enough that under the current system we are educating foreign students and then sending them back home to use that education to compete with us (and take our jobs). If the “powers that be” in China want US colleges to admit their students, maybe they should make the effort to work within the system. My students from Honduras don’t get special treatment. Why should your Chinese students get special treatment?

    • Andi O'Hearn says:

      Hi Beth – I respect that it is difficult to respond to the needs of children from different countries – my point is that the information being used to make decisions by US schools is fraudulent. Just this week I met with the top student from Highschool #4 (considered by many to be the top high school in China). When I asked her about her recommendations, she told me she wrote them herself and her teachers signed them. Her agent wrote her essay (this is a different problem). IF schools want to make decisions based on this type of information, it is their choice. I, for one, do not want to make admissions decisions based on made up information so yes, I will design a different process. IF I was working with a child from any country where I understood the limitations of the information I was receiving, I would adjust the process or the weight of that object in the process.

      I am concerned that many schools in the US do not understand the limitations and are enrolling record numbers of Chinese students. As an IECA consultant, I have personally had a lot to say about “agents”. It was enlightening to me to realize, in fact, it is our process that is causing families to have to use agents as the parents can not navigate the process, complete with language barriers, and the requirements for admissions.

      I am not asking for special treatment, and by the way they are not my Chinese students, I am asking schools to understand it is not possible for the children to give the schools meaningful recommendations. If they want to really understand if the child is a good fit – recommendations (and many times transcripts) are not giving them the information, and they may want to consider a different method of evaluation.

      Recent research in New Zealand indicated 273 Chinese applicants had false data in last year’s pool. This is causing a huge stir in China and the government is strongly considering making it illegal for foreign educational consultants to work in China. I personally hope they also regulate the Chinese agents as I think they are more at fault, but the agents are falsifying data because there is not another way for the students to complete the requirements…I am not suggesting any student receive special treatment – I am suggesting schools understand the problem and adjust their process. I apologize if it seemed hurtful to you.

  2. Nancy Black says:

    Your observations are vital to how Chinese students are viewed and how recommendations are evaluated by US schools.
    My husband has lectured in China at four major universities, and only after feeling he “missed reaching” his audience of students at the first university in Beijing, did he realize that their respect prevented them from commenting, or asking any questions, or challenging any of his points. Thanks for your insights. Nancy

  3. Hao Lu says:

    Hi, Andi,

    I am an IEC currently living in GA and serving Chinese students. You have presented a couple of great points such as lack of recommendation and false data, and I appreciate them very much.

    Among many other things I really want to discuss with you, I want to share my own experience about recommendation. After I decided to come to the States for graduate school when I was sophomore, I did two things. One was to interact actively with my course teachers who I knew I would ask letter of recommendation from. This is no different from the advice I now give to my students who are studying in the States. I also joined a professor’s lab to do some research there so that I had lots of interaction with the research group professor. When I was applying for graduate school in the States, I asked these teachers and professors to fill out the evaluation forms and recommendation letters and they know me very well. Actually, when I went back to China early this year, I visited them. Maybe you can give these tips to the students you are counseling.

    Btw, I am from Fudan University, Shanghai.

    • Andi O'Hearn says:

      Ni hao, Hao Lu,

      Thank you for your suggestions. From a curiosity point, how do the universities compare to the national high schools? Are the classes smaller? More interactive? Is it easier to develop a relationship with a professor?

      My thoughts are that the students themselves prefer to write the recommendations and that the agents are encouraging them in that direction. I personally work more with Chinese National students in the admissions process here at BCIS. For college counseling, the students here are in an International IB school. At the same time, there are many requests from local students to hire me. Thus far, I have been very selective in working with many students as I try to get my own feet on the ground and adjust to Beijing! I hope you will reply as I would love to hear your thoughts.

      Thanks –


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