Is the Admission Process Broken?
A Counselor's Perspective from China 


By Hamilton Gregg
HGIEC - Educational Consultant

The following is a submission from a long time OACAC member expressing his view on the current state of admissions as it pertains to students in China, and beyond.  Hamilton offers this reflection as the start of a dialogue, and with any discussion there is surely to be different points of views. OACAC invites readers to provide their views and perspectives in the Comments section at the bottom of the article. 

This year has been a bit tumultuous with month after month of SAT cheating scandals, continued reports of unethical agents or companies manufacturing outstanding student portfolios, intense “coaching” on essays and all sorts of other behavior to throw out the question “what’s going on?”

We have all heard the drill but it seems that there needs to be some action taken. Most college counselors in schools are constantly being held to the challenging effects imposed by parents, agents, testing and other manifestations of the college admission process. I always find it interesting that the only people who really talk about ranking are 1. Parents and 2. The magazines that post them. Yet, of all the professionals in the world, rarely does one start a conversation with a Grade 11 (or equivalent) student about ranking. 

So in light of a year of testing scandals, wait lists at seemingly virtually every school, the purpose of this dialogue is to suggest that the process is broken and hopefully begin a dialogue on how to mend the dike. Because it is a dike, springing leaks wherever a plug is put, a new issue arises. 

Here is what we do know: 

1. Most Chinese public schools do not have counselors or the support to provide the basic materials used in applying to US universities. 

2. There is neither transcripts nor a central location within the school to create them (in many public schools).  Transcripts get manufactured by agents or a variety of different people within a school with no oversight. 

3. Rarely, if ever, will a teacher ever write a letter of recommendation. Teachers don’t have the time, don’t have the English language skills nor understand what is sought in a letter of recommendation. 

4. The system as it stands in many schools here is actually forcing families to use agents to help them down the golden path to US or overseas university placement. 

In discussion with other colleagues about what is happening here, the overwhelming response was “The system is broken in China.” Please be aware not every student cheats or gains an unfair advantage. The numbers of students getting too much help is disparaging to those who do, in all honesty, try to apply following basic ethical means, creating an environment where students are questioning which way to turn.

This brings me to a critical point of this article - Everyone needs to admit that the American process of admission does not fit in an international setting, particularly in China. There is a need to dialogue to reimagine what key elements are necessary to evaluate student achievement and success at university. At this stage it is imperative. It will take both colleges and counselors, having an honest series of conversations to examine the issues. It will also require some hard decisions on both sides – though I suspect most of the decisions will reside with universities. 

So with not being too Jerry Maguire-ish, here are a few possible impossibilities (unfortunately most of these are for colleges):

  1. Stop engaging in ranking. Ranking skews the perception of what is a “good fit” school for even the best student. Ranking prevents students and their families from investigating and researching the rich qualities of individual schools, their diverse academic offerings and unique cultures. Do top schools really need to be told they are top schools? Does ranking really justify the means by which they are attained?

  2. Be honest about students’ chances of admission. In a room of 200 eager applicants is it really true that every student there who applies will be given a “holistic” review? Does a student with a 450 CR and no evidence of success really have a chance at HSPY? Do reps really want to read 60,000 applications filled with trite over produced essays?

  3. Is it really that impossible to interview every appropriate candidate from China? If a top school is only going to admit a small number of candidates, why not take the time to do due diligence with those students? Ask for a writing assessment as part of the interview process
    1. As part of the interview ask students about their application, even basic information about email addresses, home address, essay topics and extracurricular activities
    2. There should also be a read and interpret section for the interview. Have students read from a common textbook and provide critical thinking responses. This could be used in any interview process – through alumni, admission representatives or Third Party interview companies.
  4. Why provide means for students to present false documentation? Allowing students to upload transcripts seems to be naïve. 

  5. Acknowledge the fact that most Chinese schools do not provide transcripts and letters of recommendation. They just DON’T, unless the student attends schools where there are counselors and teachers able to provide the necessary information

  6. Take SAT I and English testing off the table. The test scores are grossly inflated anyway. Use third party interview companies to provide the stage for a clearer understanding of the student, their interests and their English. Too expensive? Students have to fly to Hong Kong or some other country, spend a night or two, eat and by taking the test off the table you may actually save the students money

  7. Require students to take SAT II tests in a range of subjects with at least one in English or Social Studies. Don’t allow students to present three quantitative tests – is it really helpful? 

  8. TOEFL scores are inflated as well. Set the bar high. There is most likely little argument that a student with a 110 TOEFL has significantly more ability than a student at 100. 

  9. Common Application should change the essay questions every year – save a college rep from boredom year after year but more importantly push students to examine different issues each year. Furthermore, new essay topics keep everyone off base. Repetition only encourages plagiarism!

  10. Have Common Application, Universal Application integrate a Turn-it-in function that automatically flags essays and notifies universities

  11. College Board should notify students that there is evidence of cheating, cancel their scores and notify universities. 

  12. In the era of agents, again do due diligence. Visit them often and unexpectedly, spend time talking to students about the process they are going through with that company but also don’t support those companies known to manipulate the system. 

  13. Attend the OACAC Regional institute or East Meets West to continue the dialogue with counselors and principals.

However unrealistic or naïve these ideas may seem, they are just talking points that may or may not strike at the matter at hand. While the culpable may be few or many, the process is being highjacked. It seems to be that those with decision-making power should take strong action to institute positive and effective change. It is no longer acceptable to avoid the topic or blindly assume that students are not finding ways of getting into schools that does not promote what US schools say they are committed to.

OACAC encourages readers to contribute their thoughts and perspectives on this topic.  Please add your comments below 

Interested on this topic ?  An article shared by a member that others may also wish to read on the topic on Education Fraud in China :
   Black Cats on Skype: An Introductory Guide to Fraud in China Admissions and the Factors to Consider

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Comments 0-5 of 4

Laila Alamuddin - Friday, July 10, 2015

Hamilton, I just saw this. Your piece is excellent. You have captured the frustration many of us feel. I am pleased we have "old timers" on the spot to help NACAC, OACAC, and even IECA members push the issues forward.

Matthew Thomas - Thursday, June 11, 2015

Thank you Hamilton for this very interesting article. I myself work in Japan and we do do everything we can to play by the rules in regards recommendations, essays, SAT and all other aspects of the admissions process. We are very concerned about the system by which college applications are put together in China as we know that we compete for places with students from around Asia. I have been heartened that in past OACAC conferences there has been open discussion of this issue and hope that we who work in the region can continue to raise these issues at OACAC and related venus. Thank you again for your very interesting and relevant article. Matthew

John Shull - Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Hamilton - excellent article and thank you for all your excellent suggestions. Change is slow but it is possible and I am pleased that OACAC will hold the very first OACAC Regional Conference this August in Shanghai.

Parke Muth - Sunday, June 07, 2015

Hamilton, Thank you for posting this wonderful piece. You have given a lot of information that will be news to some around the world. You and I agree that interviews should be a far more important part of the process of selecting students from China (and in my opinion from anywhere else too.) I would also underscore that US schools can effect change in ways that will improve things. Schools that require recommendations need to know that for many in China this is not possible. In other words the students then have to either get someone to ghost write a rec or write one themselves and get the teacher to sign it. Forcing students to comply with something that does not exist in the country-culture means the students feel forced to do unethical things. Once this happens the door opens for other sorts of things too. I would also add that schools need to do more due diligence on what student are actually doing in their final year of high school. Many students who are in the international track are not actually attending the classes that are listed. They self study for IB/AP and take the tests. They are doing SAT prep and getting the ap ready but they are not really taking classes. More efforts should be made to reach out to student who are enrolled in national schools. Many of the best students in China are enrolled in programs that prepare students for the gaokao, an exam that has tough essay questions, asks about US history and government and is regarded as one of the toughest tests in the world. Students who are doing well in this track tend to be stars in China or the US. I have an article coming out in Nacac's journal for college admission, due out in July, which supports much of what you say here and I hope will add to the discussion. Thank you again.

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