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