If American universities want the best international students, it’s time to rethink the college essay

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Over 300 universities take part in a University fair in Chognqing, China.
Over 300 universities take part in a University fair in Chognqing, China.
Image: Photo by TPG / Getty Images

The cachet of a US college degree has never been greater. This, despite economic growth and new opportunity in emerging markets and Americans’ handwringing over the state of their education. Last year, almost 750,000 students arrived on US shores. Most pursued studies in business and engineering, and more than half arrived from just seven countries, all but two in Asia.

International students offer American campuses enormous social and financial benefits but they also present universities with great challenges. Professors have to adapt teaching styles and wrestle with different definitions of plagiarism. Campus administrators must contend with students arriving with different educational assumptions, social mores and inadequate language skills. International students, in turn, are often bewildered by a different classroom dynamic, perplexed by a system that requires classroom participation, and alienated by a cultural gap with their classmates.

Standing guard between these new campus realities and the army of eager prospective students are admissions officers who have to evaluate international applications. In some ways, it is business as usual—there are always new institutional goals to consider in evaluating applications, and internationalization is just the latest. But admissions officers, for whom holistic evaluation and individual fit are at the core of their work, know that almost 60% of Chinese students, for example, use agents to help them navigate the admission process. For a fee that can be less than $5,000 but also as high as $25,000 (often with an additional cost per application and a percentage of any scholarship money a student receives), the agents’ help ranges from preparing visa applications to the wholesale writing of essays and letters, and even taking TOEFL and SAT tests on students’ behalf.

In a study published in the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s Journal of Admission, a Chinese student described how an agent “wrote the recommendation letters for me. I just need to provide three names of my high school teachers or college instructors, and he took care of the rest … I don’t know what’s in the letter.”  Similarly, a much-discussed report prepared for American colleges by the consulting company Zinch China, found that 90% of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations; nearly three-quarters have other people write their personal essays; half forge high-school transcripts; nearly a third lie on financial-aid forms; and 10% list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive.

Many Chinese students “will have rarely, if ever, been given free reign to write a thoughtful essay,” notes Jilly Warner, the coordinator of international admissions at the University of Vermont. Instead, they are “used to having all important aspects of their lives handled for them by doting parents.”

Their prep work starts early. Joyce Slater Mitchell, an educational consultant in China and author of two books aimed at Asian applicants, received a note on her sina.com blog from the parents of a six-year-old saying, “We want him to go to Harvard and need to know what we should do so that his TOEFL and IELTS will be in the 100 percent category by the time he is 12 years old.” The TOEFL, Test of English as a Foreign Language, and IELTS, International English Language Testing System, are international standard language tests that have become college admissions requirements for non-native speakers.

Chinese parents, writes Zinch China chairman Tom Melcher, “make American helicopter parents look laid back.”

A student from China:

“As a teenager living in this century with advancing technology and a fast changing pace, I agree that critical thinking is very important … I am trained to think more critically and intensively, make decisions that integrate my intelligence and character, and look into matters from more creative angles.”

The college essay is in many ways at the heart of an American college application, and the terrain on which cultural differences play out most visibly. Many students are applying from countries with university systems in which the personal insights of teenagers are simply not part of the admissions equation, and they, as much as their parents, have a hard time appreciating that admission officers are interested in those perspectives. This can result in essays that very often miss the point of the exercise, referencing—in the words of one UK admissions official—wonky concepts as “emergent properties of situations” and “individual-based, capitalistic behavior.” Most colleges require self-reflective statements on personal experiences from which they hope to gauge a student’s intellectual depth and social fit.  Instead, they will often get international essays devoted to topics such as the Indian real estate market, China’s global superiority or the Greek euro crisis, all of which inevitably fail to capture their interest—or their applicants’ true selves.

Another applicant from China wrote:

“Like large firms, besides the goal of earning money for the company and shareholders, we too should also use the resources available and reputations developed, to save more lives and help more people in the world.”

Of course, admissions officers have always read international applications with a different game book.  The understated phrasing of foreign recommendation letters contrast with the exuberant exaggeration of American teachers; the essay evokes a degree of self-absorption that many international students find uncomfortable; and European students are taught to write in a discursive style ill-suited to a 500-word statement (“I have many things to say about my life. Many things I did, many things I am very proud of but nothing that you haven’t heard of before,” wrote a student from France). But such “shortcomings,” unique to students schooled in different philosophical and educational environments, can help make applications distinctive. As more international applications are generated with the help of third parties, over-involved parents and an abundance of online advice, however, they can increasingly seem as homogenous as domestic applications. Brown University’s admissions dean James Miller says the applicant from Shanghai now offers the same extra-curricular activities as the student from Sacramento, and the senior from Delhi will as earnestly lay claim to creativity and compassion as the one from Dallas.

A student from Europe:
“My training has a rigorous schedule and occupies a big portion of my time. I must manage my time with schoolwork very carefully so that I do not fall behind. I intend to play during my time at the university.”

When they impart a unique voice and sense of place in their applications, international students can offer American colleges evidence of the rich diversity they will bring to campus. But as admissions officers find themselves spending more time fretting about widespread cheating and the role of third parties in preparing applications, they have less room to marvel at the extraordinary journey of a villager from Nepal or Zambia. Their skepticism and exasperation may seem unfair—but it is less so than a foreign student stranded at great cost to her family at an institution for which she is ill-suited and ill-prepared.