Fake It Till They Make It: Chinese Agencies Manufacture Phony Applications to US Colleges

While gaining admission to a top US college is an arduous and daunting process for most students, for Chinese applicants, navigating the essays, recommendation letters, and personal statements presents an especially foreign challenge. The growing number of Chinese students hoping to attend universities abroad has created a huge market for college counseling services, willing to do whatever it takes to guarantee students' admission-in many cases, including inflating test scores and writing essays from scratch.

Chinese families have long considered an overseas education to be the beacon of academic achievement. For the wealthy, studying abroad is practically a given-85% of rich Chinese parents planned to send their children abroad to study, according to a survey by China's Hurun Report. However, the Common App, with its sections for extracurricular activities and personal reflection are a far cry from the gaokao, the national university entrance exam for which Chinese students groomed from a young age.

Thus, many in China have turned to agencies specializing in international college admissions that advise students on all aspects of the process, from applications to interviews. As the number of Chinese applicants has soared, though, so has the competition-and not everyone plays fair. "Cheating is pervasive in China, driven by hyper-competitive parents and aggressive agents," wrote Tom Melcher, Chairman of Zinch China, a consultation service on China for US universities. "The parents of today's applicants grew up in an environment where bending (or even breaking) the rules meant success."

In fact, when in comes to Chinese applicants to US universities, an estimated 90% of recommendation letters are fake, 70% of application essays are not student-composed, and 50% of grade transcripts are falsified, according to 2010 report by Zinch China. The report asserts that nearly 80% of Chinese applicants to American undergraduate programs are assisted by agents, most of whom do not use ethical practices.

But tune-ups to a student's GPA, a manufactured essay, and made-up awards come at a price. Chinese agents charge between $6000 to $10,000-sometimes twice that more if the student is admitted to a highly-ranked school. Some even have agreements with American schools earning the agents a commission for each student enrolled.

Students from China have arguably cushioned many schools from the recession, as China sends more students to the States than any other country. Still, many on both sides are calling for more accountability. The Chinese government recently launched an initiative to verify high school transcripts for applications abroad, and the National Association for College Admission Counseling is investigating foreign recruiting to determine whether universities should be allowed to have recruiting agreements with overseas agencies.

Until that question is resolved, the solution is still unclear. In the meantime, the cheating persists. Writes Melcher, "If they are cheating a Chinese school, company, or the government, there is some risk of getting caught and punished. This same risk is not perceived to exist with American schools. So why not try?"