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School Admission and the Chinese Student: Challenges We Face

Jack Cao

by Jack Cao, IECA Member (China)

Part I: by Jack Cao

The Reality
The number of Chinese students in U.S. secondary schools increased one hundredfold in five years, from 65 Chinese enrollments in 2005 to 6,735 in 2010. This dramatic increase is historic. Due in large part to China’s recent economic success, the current Chinese generation has more and better educational opportunities both in China and around the world than ever before.

Since Confucianism was established in China over 2,500 years ago, education has played a decisive role with Chinese families. All parents want their children to have access to the best possible education. Following this line of thinking, China has produced many ‘tiger’ parents. Those parents who favor American education persist in looking primarily at elite schools, whether or not these are the right choices for their children. They believe that elite school graduates more readily gain acceptance to the top colleges, but they are unaware that outstanding graduates of other schools are also very successful with college admissions. In short, they lack knowledge of quality educational institutions outside the so-called elite schools and colleges. As a result, they can be tunnel-visioned, unrealistic, and shortsighted.

This is a controversial topic in the admissions world. With the surge of Chinese applicants, the intense competition, and the unrealistic expectations Chinese families place on their children, independent educational consultants, test prep companies, parents, and students are facing ethical challenges and temptations.

Cultural Gap
The U.S. and China have very different cultures; that explains in large part why Americans and Chinese have different moral codes. In terms of education, in China the schools that children eventually get into depends on the political and economic relationships (guanxi) the parents have, not on the ability of the students. That is why children from upper class families have the advantage of entering the top schools from an early age. Officials easily find political connections, and entrepreneurs invest money to open doors of the top schools. This is quite common in Chinese culture. In line with such practices and philosophy, when Chinese parents decide to send their sons or daughters to the U.S. to study, they automatically think that these Chinese practices apply to American school and college admissions as well. They believe in guanxi (relationship) in which they place a high expectation on agents who make exaggerated promises. They believe they can buy admission even if their child is not academically qualified. A client once asked me if one million dollars (his monthly income) could help his son with poor school grades to get into Princeton. Education, from his point of view, was the same as business. I explained my role and how American admissions works with its emphasis on meritocracy. I lost the client immediately. This happens in China every day; parents are unaware of how American culture differs from Chinese. IECA consultants must educate Chinese families so that they accept realistic and ethical thinking and practices.

Test Prep Business
The business of test prep in China has never been stronger. Chinese students possess strong test ability. The test prep industry raises the scores of Chinese students even further. But there are a number of ethical issues in this booming industry. Some schools provide the VIP services to wealthy families, guaranteeing students’ scores. As long as families pay, say $15K or higher, the organization guarantees the scores they want by arranging for look-alike ringers to take tests on behalf of their clients. This is one reason why some students with TOEFL above 100 are incapable of writing thoughtful essays. What these students may lose is not just admission, but their life as a role model and a leader.

When a mother asked me if she should ask the school to change her daughter’s scores (other parents were doing this), I said no. Frankly speaking, most Chinese schools are rather flexible on this, though some schools are not. I then told the American school the girl was applying to, based on my judgment, that while she was not strong in terms of scores, she had the potential of being a good student in terms of character and personal qualities, and in light of her passion for art or athletics which were ignored in her school report. She was admitted to her dream school. The reason for many parents’ unethical behavior generally comes from their misunderstanding of the admission philosophy of American schools; and it stems from their experience in China, where schools and colleges select students by scores only. Again, we must educate families interested in American schools, starting with an emphasis on authenticity and honesty.

The Loyalty Issue
I have found in my practice that many parents, preoccupied with school rank (based on the average SAT scores of school graduates), show much less loyalty to the schools their children apply to. This leads them to drop a school they have contracted with early in the process, in favor of a higher ranked school that has just admitted their child. It leads some parents to sign multiple contracts with different schools before April 10, while notifying only in late summer the school they have dropped. Families who treat schools this way undermine the future admission chances of their child and all Chinese applicants, building a bad reputation for all in this American school world to which they have entrusted their children.

Educating the Next Generation
The aim of speaking out for ethical consulting, and advocating for new ways of thinking, is not just so families willingly accept and comply with the expectations of American schools and colleges. More importantly, our mission must be to educate the next generation in China to adopt very different moral codes relevant to their education in America, and to the future life they will face. In light of the rising economic climate and the declining moral standards in today’s China, the independent educational consultant can play a key role in helping the younger generation adopt and live by new ethical standards. This current generation is China’s future and it must lead China to meet worldwide challenges in the global community as a responsible nation. My consulting experience convinces me that, increasingly, Chinese families are actually willing to accept ethical counseling and advice for their children. Last month, a mother asked me if I would write the essays for her daughter. I explained that my role was to discuss, brainstorm, and advise, but not to write on her daughter’s behalf. She thought about it and decided that this was what she wanted for her daughter. With this culturally different understanding of ethical advising, all new to her, she became my client. China needs more ethical IECs to advise and educate families.

[Part II of this article, by William Morse, can be found in IECA’s December/January issue of Insights]

6 Responses to School Admission and the Chinese Student: Challenges We Face

  1. Mark Sklarow Mark Sklarow says:

    A reminder that on Tuesday 12-11-12, our Webinar will deal with the cultural awareness necessary for working internationally. It will be live at noon, eastern. It will be available starting 12/13 ‘on demand’ at your convenience.

  2. Margo Cohen says:

    Thank you for the clarifying cultural perspective, Jack. I am posting this article on my social media sites. You explained several issues regarding Chinese family expectations based on experience in a social and economic environment very different from our own. Education is key. Margo Cohen

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