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Tips for Chinese Students Applying to US Universities

In recent years, there has been a steady growth of Chinese students enrolling in US universities and colleges, with nearly 300,000 coming to the US for the 2013-14 academic year.Although this is a fairly small number compared to the nine million university students studying in China, the country has also seen a steady decrease in students who sit for its national college entrance exam, the Gaokao. This indicates that international education is unquestionably on the rise.

With more students around the world seeking degrees abroad, the value of an international degree has increased in countries like China and India, where the common expectation is that students will return upon graduation so their home countries may benefit from their new skills and knowledge.

However, gaining acceptance to elite US universities is still a great challenge for many Chinese students. Before joining IvyWise, I spent a year in China providing college counseling to Chinese students looking to gain admission to top US universities, so I know first-hand how challenging this process can be for Chinese and international applicants.

Unlike the reward of a top score on the Gaokao, a perfect score on the SAT or ACT does not guarantee admission to Stanford, Harvard, or the like. To help them navigate this foreign process, many Chinese students enlist the aid of expensive agents who promise to secure students admission to a top university. However, these admission guarantees are often unfounded, as these agents rarely have the networks or knowledge to make such promises a reality. Even with the most robust network, no reputable consultant will guarantee admission, and students should be very wary of anyone making such guarantees.

With or without the representation of an agent, Chinese students can expect their applications to be scoured for signs of misrepresentation. Stories of doctored high school records, application essay ghost writers, and even widespread cheating on the SAT have spread quickly in the tight-knit world of college admissions. University admissions committees have become especially attuned to finding clues of this kind of cheating on Chinese students’ applications.

So, what is a genuinely accomplished and honest student supposed to do to make his or her US college dreams come true? Aside from representing themselves fully and truthfully in all aspects of the college application process, I offer a few additional pieces of advice to Chinese students looking attend college in the US.

1. Understand the holistic review process. What many Chinese students fail to understand is that, unlike in the Chinese admissions process where everything rides on the Gaokao score, in the US, perfect grades and test scores don’t guarantee admission to top universities. US admissions offices use “holistic review,” meaning they look at all aspects of an applicant and what he or she can contribute to the campus community, not just academic performance. It’s important for applicants, especially those from China, to set themselves apart from other applicants through extracurricular involvement, essays, demonstrated interest, and recommendations. US universities want to admit students with focused interests, so find an activity or topic you are very passionate about and become an expert in that field. Grades and test scores are important, but so is an interesting and compelling application.

2. Know your English. Don’t be afraid to use it and practice it daily.Nothing says you are a curious and adventurous learner like testing your English skills with native English speakers. Make mistakes, learn the slang, grasp a joke, think in English, and, in short time, confidently share your skills. This will help you advocate for yourself in the college admissions process, help you write your application essays, make friends when you move to the US, and communicate in your classes and with your teachers.

3. Understand that US News and World Report is NOT a government publication. The US does not have a governmental agency that ranks academic institutions. Publications that release college rankings are independently-owned and use vastly different criteria to make their judgments, which are primarily used to sell newspapers and magazines. You should educate yourself with many different resources to determine the right universities to which you should apply. The university that has the perfect major for you might not be in the Ivy League. Be a savvy consumer—learn, shop around, and build and rank your own list of colleges based on your own criteria and interests.

4. Learn to advocate for yourself in the application process. Granted, it isn’t easy to travel to the US to visit college campuses and meet face-to-face with admissions officers, but in this age of technology you have many other ways to introduce yourself and make a positive impression. Take advantage of online interviews when they are offered, or even ask for them if they are not. Ask for a Skype meeting, send an email, or perhaps even place an international call.

5. Find a reputable college counselor. Even though most US universities frown upon the use of agents, a good high school counselor or private college counselor can be welcome help. Make sure to work with a counselor who subscribes to NACAC’s Principles of Good Practice and who is accepted as reputable and trusted by colleagues in the field. A good counselor can coach and support you through the application process, as well as prepare you for life in the US and on a college campus. You can find American or Chinese counselors in China, or you can find and work with a counselor based in the US.

6. Carefully consider your test-taking plans. Most US college require students to take either the SAT or ACT to be considered for admission. The College Board has announced an overhaul of the SAT, which will affect students starting with the class of 2017. Many of the changes being made to the test are positive, but during the first year of administration there will be limited materials students can use to prepare for the exam. If you are a 2017 graduate, you may want to consider taking the SAT in its current form before it is retired at the end of this year or prep for and take the ACT instead.

While there are challenges for Chinese students in the US college admissions process, please don’t give up! US universities want you and value what you bring to the academic table. They want diversity in thought, language, and culture as they are intent on creating micro-world communities on their own campuses. When applying to US universities make sure to use specific examples of how you plan to make an impact on the campus community as a unique individual and how that brings added diversity to the college environment. It’s important to not only show your accomplishments inside and outside of the classroom, but also demonstrate that you know how this will bring value to the university.

For more information on the US admissions process for international applicants, be sure to download our free International Guide to US Admissions!

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