What’s the connection between China’s gaokao-centered education system and the application fraud phenomenon outlined in “The China Conundrum”? Did the cheating slow down or stop when “The China Conundrum” was published? For a student perspective on the China conundrum, Helen Gao, the author of “China’s New Love Affair,” questions the inherent contradiction in the means and ends of study abroad for her fellow Chinese students in the essay “Why Do You Want To Go Abroad.”

“Why Do You Want to Go Abroad?”

In 2005, the year I left Beijing for a private boarding school in the US, some of my classmates were walking around campus with TOEFL vocabulary books and quietly exchanging information about American universities. Aside from Yale, MIT and Harvard, names like Amherst, Middlebury, Duke, and Purdue were just becoming buzzwords in their excited conversations. None of us, however, had quite anticipated the way things would look in merely five years: in 2011, close to 200,000 Chinese students would be studying in the US, making them the largest group of foreign students on US university campuses.

The eagerness of Chinese students to embrace Western liberal arts education, combined with the desires of American schools to diversify their campuses, however, have created a situation that is equally confusing for both sides, as described in a 2011 New York Times article titled “The China Conundrum.”

For the Chinese, the complicated application process to US schools is nothing like their own college entrance system, in which a student’s enrollment is based solely on his or her score on an annual exam (the Gaokao). Without any idea of what schools want to see in an applicant, Chinese parents and students have gone to extreme lengths in order to “brand” themselves for a foreign school. Many seek help from “professionals” – education consultants who complete US college applications for them, usually for an exorbitant fee. In doing so, students have often had to invent and reinvent themselves into the “perfect applicant,” often forging application documents in the process. The phenomenon of rampant fraudulence has made it exceedingly difficult for American universities, already facing hurdles such as language and cultural barriers, to select students from China.

[pullquote style=”left”]In doing so, students have often had to invent and reinvent themselves into the “perfect applicant,” often forging application documents in the process.[/pullquote]

When “The China Conundrum” was published, it was translated into Chinese, widely circulated on the Internet, and discussed among Chinese students. While some joking lamented that their “secrets” have come into open light, most defended themselves by saying that they felt they had no choice but to work the system – how else would they come up on top in such a competitive game? Though troubling, this view is extremely common among Chinese applicants to American universities, and is part of the root cause of the widespread fraudulence in Chinese applications to American colleges. In the essay below, I offer my response to this attitude, as well as the thorny situation it has spawned at large.

– Helen Gao, Feb. 1, 2013

Why Do You Want to Study Abroad?
By Helen Gao
Originally published in New York Times China, Oct. 30, 2012

One night after returning to China two months ago, I was on a Skype call with a high school senior who was busily preparing to apply to American universities. A total stranger, he was bursting with questions for “someone who’d just returned from studying abroad.”

“Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?” He asked, when I didn’t respond immediately to his flurry of questions.

I opened my mouth, but didn’t know where to start. It felt similar to a night seven years ago, when I sat helplessly at the same desk, staring at the application forms to American high schools in my own hands. At the time, I was a junior at a Beijing high school near my home, and I spent my time on little else. The application questions had seemed as distant as the school in far off Massachusetts from which it had come: “What was the most useful advice you’ve ever received? How has this influenced your life?” “Please describe yourself in a short essay.”

Immediately following, as if written specifically for a confused applicant like myself, were the directions, “What you write is more important than how long it is. Remember, we want to understand what makes you unique.”

[pullquote style=”right”]A world without standardized answers was like trying to be sure-footed on the spongy, uncertain surfaces, now high, now low.[/pullquote]

To someone accustomed to solving calculus sets and memorizing political education textbooks for short-answer questions, approaching these open-ended prompts was like stepping into a bale of cotton. A world without standardized answers was like trying to be sure-footed on the spongy, uncertain surfaces, now high, now low. “Am I using this word wrong? What impression will an admissions officer get from that sentence?” “How should I describe myself in the essay – as a person of initiative who thrives in extracurricular, or a hardworking student glued to her desk?” “Which ‘flavor’ will appeal to the palate of an American high school?”

Just as the foreignness and vagueness of these application questions confused me then, the familiarity and directness of the questions over Skype now caused me to be silent. Like standing at the end of a long tunnel, I was hearing echoes of my own questions from seven years past: “Which majors are the best at this university?” “How should you compose the ‘personal statement’ in the application? Which of my qualities should I highlight?” “What’s the interviewer like? What should I be aware of?”

Among the growing Chinese middle class, admission to a prestigious university abroad is coveted by many as the symbol of success. Yet, embedded in thick New Oriental pamphlets and the advertisements of education consultant, the nature and purpose of “studying abroad” seems to have been forgotten. Western academic institutions wish to evaluate applicants as “an individual,” but have Chinese parents and students given themselves this opportunity?

In all fairness, Chinese students have had to embrace the idea of studying abroad very quickly in a very short period of time. In 2005, before I went to study at an American high school, many of my friends and their parents were surprised at my decision. “You can apply to study at an American high school? That’s unheard of!” a classmate said, eyes wide. “Is it alright for her to go off to such a far place by herself?” was another common sentiment.

But in the few years following, while I walked the quiet suburban campus of my New England high school, the study-abroad business on the other side of the Pacific underwent a drastic transformation. The explosive growth of Chinese student numbers in the US even became a hot topic in American media. When I was doing research for “China’s New Love Affair,” I’d learned that my alma mater had received nearly 400 applications from China, compared to the 18 from the year in which I’d applied.

[pullquote style=”left”]What kind of applicant do you mold yourself into in order to impress a seemingly unreadable American admissions officer?[/pullquote]

Too many new vocabulary words to learn, too many new concepts to digest. Haven’t memorized TOEFL vocabulary words? You’re out! Know all the core vocabulary for the SAT? Don’t forget to familiarize yourself with the SSAT testing structure. Figured out how to translate your report card, or how to apply for financial aid? What about facing your interviewer and explaining why, having grown up in metropolitan Beijing or Shanghai, you can’t wait to study at a boarding school in rural Pennsylvania, in the hills of Vermont, or in the forests of Seattle? What kind of applicant do you mold yourself into in order to impress a seemingly unreadable American admissions officer?

As part of this fiercely competitive pool of talented applicants, perhaps there’s good reason to stop and think for a moment, “What exactly does ‘studying abroad’ mean?”

On my first day at Deerfield, I sat in Economics class, with the teacher’s words flowing past my ears, slippery as eels. Alone in the classroom after my first English class, I was still trying to complete a writing exercise my classmates had finished ten minutes earlier. In the dorms, I argued with my American classmate over a question of basic grammar (is it the subjective or objective personal pronouns that comes after the word “than”). At the dinner table, I stole glances at the girl next to me to mimic the way she held her knife and fork, just so I could cut my steak and eat my salad.

[pullquote style=”right”]In today’s studying abroad application process, the methods and attitudes of applicants are inherently at odds with the original intent of studying abroad.[/pullquote]

Class schedules, extracurricular sport activities, essays, making friends – nothing about studying abroad was orderly or familiar. Yet in retrospect, I made my best friendships while chatting in the dining hall, my favorite classes were those I was put in because my first choices were full. Many of the rewards came about unexpectedly in the encounter between myself and a disorderly world.

In today’s studying abroad application process, the methods and attitudes of applicants are inherently at odds with the original intent of studying abroad.

Students writing personal statements just as they would try to conquer the Gaokao essay questions has turned the application process into one of beating an education system that “values independent thinking.” They digest book after book of vocabulary words for the purposes of getting top scores on the SAT, just so they can “experience a learning environment that doesn’t measure your ability based on scores.” They rely on agents and outside help to create application materials, in order to get into an academic system that prizes honesty and punishes plagiarism.

A few months ago, when I contacted my alma mater for my article about Chinese students heading to American boarding schools, I spoke to Mis Gimbel, the same admissions officer who had interviewed me. Over the phone we discussed the Chinese wave after 2005. “There’s never been anything like it,” she said.

“If there’s one thing you can say to Chinese applicants, what would you say?” I asked.

“Please express your true selves. Through your talent and potential, we will find you.”

Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing. She is the author of China’s Love Affair, published at The Atlantic in March 2012. “Why Do You Want To Go Abroad” was published in New York Times China last fall as a response to the student reactions towards “The China Conundrum,” as well as to the Conundrum itself.


  1. says

    My name is Peter Guy, I have been an English mentor in China for 11 years. As part of my responsibilities to our students we advise and assist them on entry into foreign schools; we have assisted countless young Chinese in this regard. we are not “agents” and neither accept “exorbitant” fees from families and/or schools.
    I want to congratulate you on your essay; it is refreshing to read a well written first-person explanation with out trying to gloss over the facts. The issue you raise are the same that we have to deal with daily.
    Again congratulations.
    I refer you to our web site should you any interest in what we do.

    My best regards,
    Peter Guy

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