Asia's 'coached students' should be denied coveted college admission

Kelly Yang says the practice in Asia of hiring professional help to get a student into college is defeating the purpose of the exercise

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 1:57am

It has been a while since I've been excited about college admissions. In the past five years, I've watched it change from being a step of self-discovery to a billion-dollar industry complete with ghostwriters, agents and other hand-holders.

The forces driving this industry are insecurity, obsession and perfectionism. These are the fears admissions companies here in Asia play to. In the process, they are ruining admissions.

Admissions used to be a great equaliser, the one, true opportunity to catapult a bright kid out of poverty and into the halls of higher education and a better life. At my graduation from law school, I remember looking around at my classmates and thinking, it didn't matter where we came from - from this point forward, we were equal.

But now, with reports of 90 per cent of Chinese applicants submitting false recommendations, 70 per cent of them having someone else write their college admissions essay for them, and half forging their transcripts and grades, it's becoming harder for admissions officers to find the students from Asia who are likely to succeed.

To be fair, it's not just Chinese applicants who are lying to try to get into US colleges. However, the burgeoning Chinese middle class has pushed demand for US school and college places through the roof. Last year, China sent a staggering 235,000 students to study in the US.

Yet, thanks to all the coaches and agents, most of these applicants look virtually the same on paper. They all have high TOEFL scores. Their test scores are near the top. Their personal statements are now useless, thanks to the ample supply of ghostwriters. And forget about the recommendation letters; every one of them is glowing to the point of blinding.

A handful of educational start-ups based in China are attempting to fix the problem. InitialView, CIEE, and Vericant - to name three - seek to verify Chinese applicants by conducting interviews on behalf of schools and, in some cases, even administering supervised writing samples for submission to the schools.

Face-to-face interviews and supervised writing samples show true English ability better than standardised tests or prepared personal statements. More importantly, they also show an applicant's creativity, logic, spontaneity and interaction skills. Any US or British university professor will tell you how a student who never participates can cripple classroom dynamics. For many Western institutions, this is the biggest risk of admitting Chinese applicants.

The admissions process has to be changed, before all faith in the integrity and quality of Asian applicants evaporates. We need to get rid of personal statements and letters of recommendation and replace them with supervised writing samples and interviews. This shift may initially mean a fall in the number of applications, but the purpose of higher learning is not to preserve rankings but to educate the best-qualified students. To do this, we must first find these students.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.