Chinese Undergraduates in the United States (CUUS) is the Chinese equivalent of College Confidential. Started as a modest chat room in 2001, when computers were just entering urban households and studying in the U.S. was barely conceivable, CUUS became the go-to forum for the rare species of mainland student gunning for admission to top-tier U.S. colleges. As those fledgling applicants barely had any external guidance, they created a collaborative community on CUUS, helping one another to prepare application materials, navigate financial aid portals, polish personal statements, and ace admissions interviews.
Now, times have changed. The number of Chinese high school students seeking a college education in the U.S. is at an all-time high. According to the Institute of International Education, China has been, for the past seven years, leading the charts for feeding students into U.S. colleges. In fact, almost one in every three international students in the U.S. is from mainland China. The demographics of Chinese applicants have also changed drastically. As the level of affluence rises, the middle class expands, and the cachet of a U.S. degree increases, more families from tier-two and even tier-three cities are willing to invest in their children’s education abroad and eager to begin the process earlier. A U.S. high school diploma is becoming highly sought after for its perceived a competitive edge in college admissions. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, fewer than 1,000 students from China were enrolled at U.S. secondary schools in 2005 but 10 years later, the number skyrocketed to approximately 32,300.
The irony, however, is that with a burgeoning Chinese application pool, membership and readership of CUUS hit rock bottom. This phenomenon can be attributed to the numerous college admissions consulting agencies that have sprung up over the years. Such agencies provide packages that CUUS cannot. With fees of up to 300,000 yuan (approximately $43,500), high-end counselors will lead students through their entire high school careers from selecting the right courses to applying for prestigious summer schools and crafting compelling admissions essays. Many agencies also provide a plethora of enrichment opportunities, from learning East European cinema in Serbia to researching snub-nosed monkeys on Baima Snow Mountain, for students who would otherwise not have the extra-curricular experiences needed to craft stellar essays. Nowadays, agencies have evolved into the clutches of not only college applicants but also current undergraduates. With specialized career-coaching companies eyeing this lucrative market, Chinese students, starting from their freshman year, can hire agents to beef up their resumes for recruitment to “bulge bracket” banks, or to ace the LSAT and gain admittance into prestigious law schools.
However, the prevailing mindset that getting into a top 30 institution according to the U.S. News National University Rankings is the be-all-end-all can backfire on students. In order to be admitted, some unscrupulous agencies desperately resort to morally dubious shortcuts such as selling SAT answers and faking school transcripts and recommendation letters. In October of 2016, Reuters exposed how Dipont, a Chinese education company, bought access to admissions officers at almost twenty top U.S. colleges to help students get into to those schools. In the end, students are the ones who suffer. Because of the black sheep in the crowd, the credibility of the entire application pool in mainland China is severely marred.
Moreover, as many parents and agencies overly emphasize getting into the best-ranked colleges, instead of the best-fitting ones, well-packaged applicants get into schools beyond their actual caliber. Coupled with factors such as culture shock, high family expectations, and relationship issues, many are reported to suffer from mental problems. The University of Houston conducted a mental health survey of 203 Chinese international students (144 from mainland China), which found rates of 47.5% for depression symptoms and 48% for anxiety symptoms. Shortly after the 2016 Commencement at U.C. Berkeley, an article by a Chinese graduate’s mother went viral on WeChat. She expressed her deep regret about interfering too much with her son’s college and major selection, resulting in his depression and unsatisfactory academic performance. As one particularly poignant line goes, “For the entire four years, my son has never adapted to Berkeley and Berkeley has never recognized his worth.”
Right now, there are groups going against the current, hoping to change the status quo for the better. Panopath, a student-run organization initiated by three Chinese undergraduates at Claremont McKenna College, has become a sensation. Starting in May 2016, Panopath has organized numerous online and offline activities where current Chinese undergraduates in the U.S. share their insights into the college application process and reveal the dark secrets of certain agencies. The momentum of Panopath is unstoppable – its recent article on xenophobia and cultural identity after many Chinese students’ name tags were torn off their dormitory doors at Columbia University resonated deeply with the Chinese student community in the U.S., garnering more than 100,000 hits overnight. The Panopath app, designed entirely by volunteers, offers an extensive network, where more than 3,000 applicants can reach out to over 500 current students at almost 80 U.S. colleges and universities and ask them questions directly.
With almost a double-digit annual increase in the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S., undergraduate applications from China will become more frenetic in the future. The bars will rise and the competition will be fiercer than ever. CUUS is now poorly managed and gradually declining in quality. The rise and fall of CUUS mirror the sea-change that has taken place in technology, education, and society in mainland China. With new social media outlets emerging and pragmatic values prevailing, peer-to-peer support on CUUS that is purely based on goodwill is becoming increasingly inefficient and unsustainable. However, CUUS will remain a repository of experiences, knowledge, and insights. Many still reminisce about the genuine exchange and long-lasting camaraderie shared by members during its heyday. As more jump on the bandwagon of studying abroad after the age of CUUS, the forum will always be relevant to any Chinese undergraduate in the U.S. searching for advice on how to make the most out of their college years.
Yunke Liu is a senior at Dunman High School in Singapore. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.