Chinese find ways of cracking top US colleges' doors open

Agencies have sprung up to help Chinese students admissions, often through questionable practices

It was addressed to Lu Jingyu, a top student and member of her school’s student government. As she read the disheartening words, Lu immediately began to panic.

Where had she gone wrong? How could she fix this?

For answers, she turned to ThinkTank Learning, a college admission consulting company from California that had recently opened an office in Shenzhen, next door to Hong Kong.

“I wanted American professionals to look at my application and shed some new light on how I could make it better,” she said.

The price was steep: 1,00,000 renminbi, or $15,000. But it came with a 100 per cent money-back guarantee — if Lu was rejected from the nine selective US universities to which she applied, her family would get a full refund.

Lu brainstormed with a ThinkTank consultant on ways to redo her admissions essay, which had originally been about playing badminton. The new version she came up with focused on a cross-strait dialogue conference that Lu had organised with high schoolers in Taiwan. Happily for Lu and for ThinkTank, the approach worked. She has just completed her first year at the University of Pennsylvania.

As a record number of students from outside the US compete for a limited number of spots at the most selective American colleges, companies like ThinkTank are seeking to profit from their ambitions. In the US, students have long turned to independent college counsellors, but in recent years, larger outfits have entered the market, offering full-service designer courses, extracurricular activities and focused application assistance. These services have spread to the fast-growing and lucrative market in China.

With China sending more students to American colleges than any other country, the competition for spots at the top schools has soared. During the 2009-10 academic year, 39,947 Chinese undergraduates were studying in the US, a 52 per cent increase from the year before and about five times as many as five years earlier, according to the Institute of International Education.

But students from China can find themselves ill-prepared for the admissions process at American colleges. The education system in mainland China focuses on assiduous preparation for the national university entrance exam, the gaokao, often at the expense of extracurricular activities.

Capitalising on the increasingly globalised education system, ThinkTank Learning has tapped into the market in the US and China. The founder of the company is Steven Ma, 32, a former Wall Street analyst who started the company as a business for preparing students for college entrance tests in 2002 before expanding into application consulting in 2006, starting with seven students. In 2010, that number had risen to 300, including 75 from China. The company said it made about $7 million last year, with 50 per cent from admission consulting.

ThinkTank said it was able to distill the college admissions process into an exact science, which Ma compared with genetic engineering. “We make unnatural stuff happen,” he said.

Students, whose parents often pay tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, are moulded by ThinkTank into well-rounded, socially conscious overachievers through a regimen often beginning as early as the year before entering high school. The company designs extracurricular activities for the students; guides them in essay writing; tutors them for the SAT, the US college admission exam; and helps them with meet-and-greet sessions with alumni.

“There’s a system built by colleges designed to pick out future stars and we are here to crack that system,” Ma said. LuShuang Xu provides an example of that approach. Xu, who was born and raised in China before emigrating to suburban California at age 9, had high hopes that she would be the first in her family to go to college. But poor results on a practice SAT and a dearth of extracurricular activities convinced Xu, 17, that she needed a scholastic makeover if she were to make it into a school her parents could brag about to relatives.

Branches in China

ThinkTank’s success with students in California’s Asian-American community, which accounts for 90 per cent of the company’s American clients, has drawn interest from wealthy parents in China. Ma opened an office in Shenzhen in 2009 and another in Beijing last year.

The company entered China at a time when the college consulting industry on the mainland was booming, with numerous agencies promising to make Chinese student’s academic dreams come true, often through questionable practices.

One company, Best Education, has offices across China and charges clients an average of 5,00,000 renminbi for writing clients’ essays, training them for the visa interview at the US embassy in Beijing and providing career guidance.

“The students just supply their information and we do all the work,” said one representative, who requested anonymity to protect his job. Best Education offers a 50 per cent refund if an applicant is rejected by the student’s chosen schools.

Chinese agencies may not want to alert colleges to their involvement, because applications that clearly appear to come from agencies are rejected by US colleges, but the agencies promote their success in Mandarin.

Reached by telephone, an agency representative said the company did a lot more than just polish resumes. “If a client’s English is poor, our trained professionals can write the essay to make sure it looks perfect,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions from her employer. The industry’s aggressive practices have been condemned by many American colleges, which say they disapprove of students’ families hiring consultants.

“Students have a responsibility to identify their own path toward future goals, rather than keying in how to get into a certain school,” said Barbara Knuth, the vice provost at Cornell University in New York State, who oversees undergraduate admissions.

Harvard said in an e-mail that it “reviews every application individually and has no interaction” with college admission consulting firms, “though we are certainly aware of their existence.” The University of Pennsylvania, which accepted Lu from Shenzhen, did not respond to requests for comment.

Helping students from China clear the college entry hurdles has presented ThinkTank with a fresh set of challenges. Often they have poor English language skills and have done little with their free time beyond homework. Yet their parents often demand the Ivy League.

“We really have to hold their hand and do everything along with them,” Ma said, including deliberately leaving spelling mistakes on college essays so they look authentic, training them for the Test of English as a Foreign Language and building extracurricular activities from the ground up.

ThinkTank has founded Model United Nations groups, built a website for a Shanghai student’s photography project to get news media coverage and helped another obtain funding to build a hydroelectric generator. For ambitious Chinese parents, ThinkTank’s sales pitch is difficult to resist.

After learning about ThinkTank from a neighbour, Ms. Li persuaded her husband to sign a contract for 90,000 renminbi, which focuses on nine selective US schools. ThinkTank will train her son for the SAT and help him pick internships and even college courses once he becomes a freshman. Li sees the cost as an investment in her son’s future.

“Whatever it takes to reach his maximum potential,” she said. “It’s worth it.”

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