Ask Chinese students what worries them about studying in the United States, and there's an almost universal answer: food.
"Chinese food is much better than American food," says Cai Xuege, a braces-wearing 17-year-old who goes by the name Franklin. His friends and classmates vigorously agree.
But cuisine is far from Chinese students' only concern. They're puzzled about the ins and outs of the U.S. college-application process and hesitant to contact American admissions officers with their questions, fearing that any grammatical errors they might make in an e-mail message could hurt their chances of acceptance. Finding the right college from so far away, they say, is confusing.
International enrollments at U.S. institutions are growing, but some educators say there should still be more emphasis on diversity.
China is by far the largest sender of international students to the United States, with more than 157,550, according to figures released this week by the Institute of International Education.
A Chronicle reporter sat down last month in a Beijing coffee shop with a half-dozen Chinese high-school students who are applying, or planning to apply, to American colleges. Over lattes and cappuccinos, they talked about why they had set their sights on studying in America.
The group, it should be said, is not entirely representative of the typical Chinese student who studies abroad: These students attend the capital's best high schools; some are enrolled in Advanced Placement courses, a relatively new phenomenon in China. Franklin, a junior, has already taken a tour of American colleges with others in his class, visiting Harvard, Stanford, and Yale Universities, among other campuses. Another of the students speaks English so flawlessly that one might assume she'd grown up in Boston, not Beijing.
That student, 19-year-old Chen Xiangzhi, had just rushed to the coffee shop from a foreign-college fair that had attracted 30,000 students to one of the city's largest exhibition halls. Ms. Chen, who calls herself Michelle, helped translate for students at the University of Colorado booth, where at times the line was more than a dozen people deep.
In the few quiet moments there, Michelle says, she peppered Colorado's recruiter, Natalie Koster, assistant director of international admissions, with questions, such as what should be included in a personal statement. "That stuff isn't on admissions Web sites," she says.
But Michelle, who has a confident, mischievous demeanor, says she would hesitate before e-mailing Ms. Koster or another admissions officer. "If I make grammar mistakes in the e-mail, I might make a bad impression," she says, admitting that she's not a stickler for details. "Everything counts."
'Choosing a Community'
For advice, Michelle and the others say they turn to friends who are already in college in the United States, and to Web sites where students regularly pose questions about the admissions process.
They—and their parents—also pay attention to college rankings, like those put out by U.S. News & World Report. "I don't know much about universities in America," says Zhang Xuechen, a freckle-faced 16-year-old who goes by Serena. "But my mother told me to go to a top-50 university."
Michelle applied to U.S. colleges when she graduated last year, and "it totally didn't work." Her mother, she says, pushed her to apply to places like Harvard and Yale, and she didn't get in or didn't get financial aid. So she's continuing her college search for a year.
"I'm not blaming my mom," she says. "I didn't do enough research." Now Michelle thinks she might like to attend a liberal-arts college, because she believes her search is about "choosing a community."
"I really don't care about rankings," she says. "All I care is that the college is in the top 100."
At least one of the students, Li Yinan, says she is getting outside help in navigating the admissions process, through one of China's many recruitment agents. The 17-year-old senior, whose English name is Lena, recently took the SAT; after she gets her scores back, she expects that the agent, a company called EduWise, will suggest a dozen or more colleges where she might apply.
"I go to an agency because all the work will be very troubling if I do it on my own," she says. "My parents don't have experience in doing this, so they trust the agency."
Others, though, say they will do their applications without help. Zhao Xiawxwe, a tall, serious girl who also goes by Michelle, is waiting to hear back from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she applied early-action in mid-October. Guidance counselors at her school, Beijing High School No. 4, have warned students about agents who cut corners or who engage in fraudulent behavior, she says. As a precaution, the school now sends all its recommendation letters directly to American colleges; students never see them.
A Light Course Load?
Like Beijing No. 4, Renmin University High School, where Franklin and his classmate Ding Juyuan, or Laila, are juniors, has classes for students who plan to go abroad, separating them from those who are preparing for the grueling gaokao, China's high-stakes college-entrance exam.
"It's much more relaxed," Laila says of her track. Americans, however, might not consider the course load light—Franklin and Laila are taking Advanced Placement courses in physics, calculus, and economics. Laila has chosen AP chemistry as an elective and flips open the dictionary-thick textbook to scribble homework during breaks in the conversation. Later this academic year, they both plan to take a raft of SAT II subject-matter tests.
Until recently, the workloads of both students also included prep courses for the SAT and for the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or Toefl. Franklin still is enrolled in sessions twice a week, but Laila, who just took the PSAT, has dropped the prep class.
"They were tutoring us on skills, on how to take the test, not on English," she says. "The teacher there told us, 'If you want to learn English, read a book!'"
Lena, too, is dubious about the test-prep methods. "The SAT teacher told us to read the first sentence and the last sentence in a section and then answer the question," she says, noting that she's been taking English since she started school. "But I have to do the whole reading. I don't think it's helpful at all."
Compared with some of the others, Lena decided late—at the end of her sophomore year—that she wanted to study overseas. "I studied for the gaokao for two and a half years, so it's really a pity for me to give it up," she says.
Still, Lena and her parents believe that an American education will be better than what she'd get in China. Chinese universities are very competitive to get into, she says, but after students enroll, they don't study as hard. And with interests ranging from business to environmental science, she likes the idea that American colleges will give her the time and freedom to decide what to study.
"I kind of worry because I will have to do everything on my own," she says. "But that's partly why I want to study in America."