As the number of Chinese students in U.S. colleges outpaces that of any other country, the journey to get into an elite American university has only gotten more cutthroat and students are rising to the challenge in strange ways.
Think: Scalping tickets for tests, making up exotic adventures, and getting tutored at 1:00 am.
China is already known for one rigorous exam that students spend years preparing for – the gaokao. The determining factor in a high school student's college placement, the gaokao is the cause of pressure, stress, and occasionally cheating among test takers.
But as graduates emerge from Chinese universities without jobs, more high school students are directing their efforts overseas. Chinese students now make up 31 percent of all international college students at U.S. universities, according to data from the Institute of International Education.
In contrast, gaokao test takers reached a low in 2012 of about nine million since its peak of 10.5 million in 2008. The Financial Times reported that an additional million students backed out of the test last minute in 2013.
The pressure that once came with the gaokao now falls for some students to the SAT, ACT, and TOEFL.
Scott Wang, a high school teacher who works with students applying to U.S. universities, said the amount of studying that goes into these efforts has intensified.
"Five years ago, I couldn’t convince a single person to even consider taking the ACT," Wang said. "I begged, I was like ‘I will even pay for your testing fee if you take the test and get a good score, because I know you can,’ – nothing. This year, half the students are ACT takers."
Wang said wealthy parents especially have become more zealous about getting their children admitted to U.S. universities.
One family refused anything less than a one-on-one tutoring session, asking Wang to tutor from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. – the only free time the student had. Another family sent their child to an SAT boot camp under the guise that they were going on vacation to Korea, Wang said.
Parents have also hired multiple college application specialists at once. Wang said one of his students from last year went to three different tutoring companies for SAT training alone.
"Why are you bothering?" Wang had asked him. "He said, 'Well, my parents just want to be thorough."Trying to stand out
The intense measures Chinese students go to during college applications is only representative of a fraction of the population. However, stories traded around the education industry highlight the competition that comes with wanting an education abroad.
Traditionally, Chinese students have always been rigorous when it comes to academics and test-taking. For those that are doing everything to get into a U.S. university, the sheer number of high test scores has made standing out even harder.
Cheng Ho, a Harvard graduate who has interviewed Chinese prospective students in Beijing, said he talked to tons of students with similar qualifications. If one student said she went to Africa to volunteer, a thousand other students will soon have the exact same thing on their resumes as well, Ho said.
"Chinese students are no different, they all have great grades," he said. "All they were ever taught was, 'You gotta do this, you gotta be number one, you still have to be number one.'"
Another challenge facing students and schools is the difficulty in accurately evaluating all applicants. A student's aptitude for test taking may mask deficiencies in actual English or other capabilities, Guy Sivan said. Sivan is the COO of Vericant, a company that offers video interviewing services and identification verification for U.S. college and boarding school applicants.
In their time at Vericant, Sivan and China director Kelly Yang have heard many reasons why such a service is necessary.
One admissions officer, while speaking with a Chinese student over Skype, thought it was strange that the student had a black cat in her lap during the interview. Several minutes into the interview, the admissions officer realized that it wasn't a cat, but the hair from her mother's head as she whispered answers to the applicant.
Another admissions office received ten applications from students of the same school, all claiming to be the top student at the school. Sivan said this kind of occurrence is very common.
"It's very, very high stakes, it's basically your path of life," Sivan said. "And people have different senses of what's possible or not possible to do."
Giving admissions officers personalized books cataloging students' achievements has also become a common practice. Sivan remembered seeing one hardcover book that charted a student's arctic expedition. Unfortunately, because these additional materials are hard to verify, they often only carry entertainment value, piled into a corner of the admissions office.
"From the student's point of view, this is a way to get the attention of the admissions officer, to show something very, very impressive," Sivan said. "It's sad, but I think in most cases it's not really honest, and that's why the admissions officers ... they already kind of figure out, 'We can't really take it seriously, we can't really consider it.'"Money for the middleman
Wealthier families have an inherent advantage in the landscape, since they are able to afford the test fees and services that will make a student more competitive. Because of this, there's a lot of money to be made by those in the industry.
In the frenzy to get the best scores, some students ends up taking tests like the TOEFL multiple times in a few months. This makes it very difficult to get a testing seat, so students have to travel to remote areas of the country in order to take the exam.
Kelly Yang said the demand has turned into a market for scalping test seat tickets.
Referred to as huangniu, literally translated to 'yellow cow,' ticket scalpers buy up seats for tests, then sell them at a higher price, Yang said. Although she said it was most common with sporting event tickets, the operations had recently moved over to student exams.
Yang discovered the trend while helping someone look for a September TOEFL test seat, and couldn't find any earlier than December.
"We searched online and said, 'What if I can't get the test date I want?' she said. "It said 'Go to huangniu.'"
While some parents and students have become very well-versed in U.S. college admissions, others are willing to pay high premiums for agents and consultants to do all the work. This has created an environment in which it is very easy to take advantage of hopeful students and parents.
As a result, some companies may end up over-promising.
With expectations rising, teacher Scott Wang said he's seen parents demand their child get into a top school with an average GPA and SAT score, even though the likelihood is very low.
"The problem is that in this city there’s always going to be somebody out there who’s like, 'Yeah, we can make that happen,'" Wang said. "And they’ll go there, hoping against hope that something’s going to be possible when it’s not."
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