Students interviewed here are using fake names.
Cathy, 21, recalls walking into the education office in Beijing, sitting down and feeling worried.
“I want to study in the USA,” said Cathy. “I don’t have a preference on schools. It would be better if it’s a top 100 university, but I do want to study in a safe and convenient area.”
“Of course,” said the agency representative. “Let me know more about you first.”
The woman who offered help to Cathy is a consultant. She listened attentively to Cathy’s background and requirements and narrowed her choices to 10 universities.
“They let me make my own decision. I wrote a personal statement and resume by myself, and they helped me correct mistakes and apply for the universities,” said Cathy. “But I also applied four universities by myself when I got to know the application procedures.”
Four months, five offers, plus days of deliberation and discussions led to her final decision — a university in Massachusetts.
“It’s a wonderful combination, both academically and geographically, ” Cathy said.
Cathy is not the only one who came to study in the States with the help of education agencies. In fact, most Chinese students resort to intermediaries to shepherd them through the admissions process.
“Students in the United States have counselors for the most part in schools that can help them,” said Marco A. Chávez, senior assistant director for international recruitment at the Ohio State University, “But students in China don’t have counselors that can help them navigate the application process of U.S. universities. That’s why they turn to agencies for help.”
With China sending more students to American colleges than any other country, the competition for spots at the top schools has soared. There were 157,558 Chinese students studying in the United States in the 2010–2011 academic year, a 23.5 percent surge since 2009, according to the Institute of International Education.
But in China’s test-centric culture, students, especially those at high-school level, usually find themselves ill-prepared for the admissions process at American colleges. Instead, they spend most of their time preparing for the gaokao, or the national college entrance exam, often at the expense of extracurricular activities, to secure a coveted spot at one of China’s over-subscribed universities.
John, now 22, started to study in a New Jersey college in the spring of 2009. He took the National College Entrance Exam along with his peers after graduation in 2008, but did not achieve a high enough score for admission in China. So he decided to study in the USA.
“I know little about U.S. schools at that time, and my academic background was weak,” John said, “So I hired an agency to do the application and help me polish my background.”
However, the so-called “background polishing” involved faking the background.
“I said I didn’t study well in high school, and I had nobody to write a reference for me. They said don’t worry, they would figure that out,” John said, “And it turned out to be a fake transcript and references.”
For research for this story, I posed as an undergraduate student and talked to Echo Liu, an agency consultant, online.
“Look,” I typed, “my situation is like this: GPA 3.0/4.0, no internships, no references, poor English level, don’t have time to get application documents done, but I want to study in the USA in fall, 2013. I know it’s kind of late right now, but can you help me?”
“No problem,” said Liu, “We have like a ‘package service’ for you.”
I asked if it was possible to get a “better” transcript and internship certification, and if they could write a personal statement for me. She became cautious but did not decline.
“Why don’t you leave your name and telephone number so we can talk in details?” she said.
A 2010 report by an education agency Zinch China could better illustrate this issue: 80 percent of Chinese undergraduate students use an agent to file their applications; 70 percent of college application essays are not written by the students, and half of all high school transcripts are falsified.
It is all about money. The more you pay, the more time you save, and the more “comprehensive service” you can get.
John said he paid more than $2,000 to the agency, and was satisfied with the result.
“The agency took care of everything for me, even of visa application, and booking a flight ticket,” said John. “All I need to do was sending money to them regularly, and they would let me know if I was admitted or not.”
But Cathy complained about being over-charged.
“I paid almost $5,000, but got little help with my materials,” said she. “I mean it did save me a lot of time, but I don’t think it’s worth of the money.”
She also added that there are agencies that refuse to provide details for the application status and prevented students from getting access to their applications.
“I heard from some of my friends that some agencies would create an email address for your applications, but they didn’t tell you the password. They only let you know the result, like which university rejects or admits you,” she said. “So you don’t even know what happened in between.”
The industry’s aggressive practices have not escaped the universities’ notice.
“It de-values the degree from the university,” Chávez said. “If everybody comes in with a fake document, then the integrity of the admission process is definitely compromised.”
But Chávez said if Ohio State finds students have fake documents, their acceptances would be revoked. Although he could not disclose how the admissions office discerns counterfeit applications, he did say that Ohio State has various means to determine which students are really good, or which are too good to be true.
“But there are accidents,” Chávez said. “If we find out there are students who are already here but with fraudulent documents, we will revoke the admission and expel the students,” he said. “But for those students we don’t know, what can we do? We don’t know, and we can’t take actions.”
The students who are “over-cared” by agencies often take longer time to adapt to the American class and society. John recalled the loneliness and perplexity when he first arrived with no one to rely on and speak to.
“My English was extremely poor at that time. I sat in the corner of the classroom and had no friends,” he said. “I could not understand what the professor said. When he asked me a question, I was even unable to utter a word. All I could respond was by shaking my head. My classmates thought I was dumb or a fool.”
He said he longed to go back to China. “I missed my family and friends so much, but I couldn’t tell them,” he said. “I couldn’t tell them I was having trouble. They would be worried and disappointed.”
It took him more than six months to adapt.
“I knew I couldn’t be like that anymore,” John said, “Life goes on, and I should be tough. So I encouraged myself to speak to Americans, make friends, and I even marked ‘making my first phone call’ as a milestone.”
Now, after almost four years of living in the States, John’s English has dramatically improved. He was even the leader of an association in the university.
Chávez said the ever-increasing numbers of Chinese students did pose some challenges to the university, including having proper resources on campus to help them.
To better reach and take care of Chinese students, Ohio State has a Global Gateway Office in Shanghai, China, which provides pre-departure orientation for students in that region.
“Chinese culture is different than American culture,” Chávez said. “We need to make sure that our numbers of Chinese students are increasing. We’re addressing their needs and their concerns in regards to eating on campus, having roommates, classes, everything.”