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Education

After SATs: why Chinese students need to rethink US university applications strategy

US universities are scrapping SATs amid cheating scandals and the proliferation of cookie-cutter applications from rote-learning Chinese students

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2018, 8:03pm

When the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) was held this month in Hong Kong, hotels and restaurants near the exam venue in the AsiaWorld-Expo braced for waves of candidates coming from over the border in China.

Traditionally used by US universities for making admission decisions, the test is not held in China, so every year more than 10,000 students flock to Hong Kong to sit it.

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However, US universities have been shifting away from standardised tests as a yardstick in their selection of students. The University of Chicago announced in June that it would stop requiring SAT results from applicants. Additionally, Ivy League universities including Harvard and Yale have dropped the essay component of the SAT.

This trend could send shivers down the spine of students from China who, having been educated in schools that emphasise rote learning, tend to excel in exams.

One reason the SAT is losing its credibility among US tertiary institutions is the number of cheating scandals involving the test in recent years.

In 2015, more than 10 Chinese nationals were swept up in a federal investigation of a Pittsburgh-based cheating ring. The students were accused of paying up to US$6,000 for others to sit the exam for them.

A 2016 investigation by Reuters also called into question the test’s integrity. The news agency found that not only were leaked papers pervasive, but that the College Board – which administers the test – used papers that it knew had been leaked online.

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In August this year, a class-action lawsuit targeting the College Board was filed in Florida’s District Court by the father of a student who had taken the SAT that month. American students claimed the test included questions from a 2017 SAT administered in Asia, which had been shared on social media.

Education professionals say the scandals are not the only nail in the coffin for the SAT. It is natural for universities in the US to move away from standardised tests because the country traditionally prizes critical and free thinking, they say.

Anne Corriveau, director of Boston University’s Office of International Admissions, which received 15,000 overseas student applications out of a total of 64,000 in 2018, says there’s no guarantee that students with perfect SAT scores will be admitted.

“We look at students holistically,” she says.

The diminishing importance of standardised tests as an assessment yardstick, and universities’ need to get a full picture of applicants, has spawned an industry in China to help with the screening process.

Corriveau says that with such a large applicant pool, video interviews have become helpful in screening candidates. Endorsed third-party providers in China, such as Vericant and InitialView, can help conduct interviews with fee-paying applicants.

“We look at [the videos] if students submit them, so we get an opportunity to see how they speak and interact, and their comfort level with English,” she says.

Guy Sivan, co-founder of Beijing-based Vericant, says the company has relationships with more than 110 US universities, which feature Vericant on their websites.

It’s very easy to see if somebody is giving memorised answers in interviews. Universities want applicants to be genuine
Guy Sivan, co-founder of Beijing-based Vericant

“We have a database of all US universities and have direct contact with their admissions officers. We contact them every year and find out what their admissions strategy is,” Sivan says.

“We send the interview videos to any North American university, as moreof them make it an important part of their consideration.

“The students can record their own interviews, but universities will not trust those. If the interview [paid for by the student] is provided by a trusted third-party source, the universities will know that the students are not trying to hide anything from them,” Sivan says.

According to Corriveau, the number of students submitting video interviews to Boston University is growing rapidly, and the institution received “several thousand” videos last year.

US universities also rely on their vast alumni network overseas to conduct interviews for them.

Tomer Rothschild, an alumni of Wesleyan University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, conducted such interviews for more than a decade in Taiwan and China before he co-founded Beijing-based education consulting firm Elite Scholars of China (ESC) in 2010. The company coaches Chinese students applying to enter a range of prestigious US universities. Rothschild says third-party interview providers essentially fill an information gap.

On the declining use of SAT exams, Rothschild says: “[US universities] think the information they’re getting from the tests and the essays isn’t enough to make the fine distinctions between the top applicants. There was a crisis of trust [due to the test scandals] – probably two or three years ago. There is still scepticism.”

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According to Sivan, standardised tests have shortcomings other than being open to cheating.

“People focus too much on scores. Students and parents spend a lot of energy and money to better their test scores,” he says.

“Since a lot of people are getting high scores, [universities] don’t know how to choose. Lots of schools look for more to differentiate between the candidates. It’s very easy to see if somebody is giving memorised answers in interviews. Universities want applicants to be genuine.

“The US system cares about individual development as an independent thinker. [However], rote memorisation is very common in China. Chinese students need to get out of the habit of looking for the ‘correct’ answers to questions.”

Frank Mok, co-founder of the Shanghai-based Chinese Overseas Parents Association, says US liberal arts colleges in particular place more emphasis on interviews, either conducted by webcam or face to face by alumni groups living in the applicants’ home countries.

Mok agrees with Sivan that since many applicants will earn high scores in standardised tests, it’s difficult for the universities to find areas of differentiation.

“So the move by University of Chicago to do away with SAT altogether is hardly surprising,” he says.

“US universities only adopt the standardised test as a yardstick for mass screening due to the large pool of candidates. The Commonwealth system places more emphasis on test scores,” he says, referring to member countries of the British Commonwealth. “But the Canadian and US systems are more flexible, as they want to nurture students with critical thinking and a global outlook.”

Of the more than one million foreign students who enrolled at universities in the US in the 2016/17 school year, 350,755, or about 35 per cent, were Chinese, according to a study by the Institute of International Education, a non-profit organisation supported by the US government.

Corriveau says Boston University prizes authenticity more than any other factor during its undergraduate selection process.

“Students apply to eight schools, and they submit the same essays to us and Harvard. [We don’t want them] to use enormous words that even I have to look up. We want an authentic piece, instead of a cookie-cutter version. We want to know whether students have done homework on Boston University, and how Boston University resonates with them.”

Hong Kong’s focus on exam scores not in children’s best interest

Rothschild says Chinese students and their parents have to change their mentality in their quest to enter a US university.

“The parents have memorised the ranking [of the top US universities]. They know all the school names. [I have to make them] realise that rankings by themselves are not that indicative of true value or inherent excellence of the school,” he says.

“They also think that test scores are absolute, rather than relative. Many want to do an activity that they consider to be fancy … They’ve started sending kids to the North and South Poles to do scientific research, to Africa to do volunteer work. I often jokingly ask the parents, ‘are you trying to go to the moon next?’

“Students should do things that will help them to learn something, where that learning will be authentic and enable them to grow and develop. I think students can learn a lot from doing even mundane things.”