• September 1, 2015

Falsified Applications Are Common Among Chinese Students Seeking to Go Abroad, Consultant Says

As more Chinese students seek higher-education opportunities in the United States, universities must deal with a "tide of fraud" in undergraduate applications from China, said an education consultant and author of a new report on the topic.

Many Chinese college applicants are forging fake recommendation letters, personal essays, or otherwise gaming the admissions process, said Tom Melcher, chairman of Zinch China, a consulting company that advises American colleges and universities about mainland China.

"The findings from the report are straightforward, but pretty sobering; cheating is really pervasive in China," said Mr. Melcher.

To understand the depth of the problem, Zinch informally surveyed about 250 Chinese high-school students, and also spoke with some parents and college-recruiting agents.

Based on those interviews, Zinch estimates that 90 percent of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations; 70 percent have other people write their personal essays; 50 percent forge their high-school transcripts; 30 percent lie on financial-aid forms; and 10 percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive.

Mr. Melcher said fraudulent activities will increase in the future as more Chinese students come to the United States.

According to the Institute of International Education, the number of students from China studying at the undergraduate level surged during the 2008-9 academic year, rising 60 percent.

With this growth, other education observers have raised concerns about fraudulent applications and other issues. And there are reports of fraud being uncovered.

In 2008, Newcastle University, in England, reportedly kicked out 49 Chinese students and a Taiwanese student for falsifying their application documents.

In that case, bogus agents were blamed for the fraud.

But Mr. Melcher said that overly aggressive agents are not the primary problem. "The fundamental thing that's driving this is not the unscrupulous agent. It's the parents who are pushing the agents to cut corners," he said.

The Zinch report says Chinese mothers and fathers get involved in the application process in ways their Western counterparts would never consider. "Chinese parents make American helicopter parents look laid back," it says.

Many Justifications

The current generation of parents grew up as China's economy exploded, and they watched while many people became wealthy by "bending or breaking the rules, almost with impunity," the report says. Given this experience, they do not consider lying on a college application an ethical breach, especially when it means giving their children a shot at a better future.

Of course, agents do play a big role in the widespread fraud. They earn monetary bonuses, sometimes as much as $10,000, based on whether their clients' children are accepted at top-ranked institutions, so they are often all too willing to cheat by, say, ghostwriting personal essays.

"Many agents in China have folders of 'successful' essays, which they tweak each year," the Zinch report says.

High-school administrators also can contribute to the problem. In some cases, they are eager to have students get into prestigious universities and do not have a problem with altering transcripts.

"These adjustments aren't seen as being dishonest—they are seen as an attempt to make the school's students (and therefore the school) look good," Zinch says.

Mr. Melcher said American universities can take several steps to mitigate fraudulent activities. His main suggestion is that institutions hire a "covert" admissions officer from mainland China. This person can screen applications for potential inconsistencies that may indicate fraud. He recommends that this employee not be listed on an institution's Web site or announced in other public ways so as to avoid tipping off applicants.

Also, he said, universities should consider interviewing every Chinese applicant of possible merit and conducting such interviews in the native language.

The cost of such additional screening should not be onerous, Mr. Melcher said; interviews, for example, can be conducted fairly cheaply using the Internet these days.

What's more, he said, colleges and universities need to consider what it means if they do nothing and potentially accept a dishonest student or provide financial assistance to a person who doesn't deserve it. There is a "set of values" that higher-education institutions would like their students to have, and therefore doing a better job vetting foreign applicants "speaks to the core of the educational mission."

The Zinch report is part of a series of white papers that are published monthly by the company. They are available to colleges and universities that pay for its China Market Intelligence service.


1. mercies - June 15, 2010 at 08:49 am

Dear Don:

Let's see whether you get this note. Recently, I haven't had any luck getting enough of the screen to "develop" in order to forward anything from the Chrhonicle of Education to anyone.

June Rose

2. nowak - June 15, 2010 at 09:43 am

Based on my experience in China, and advising graduate students and visiting scientists in US and Canada, the best way of recruitement of graduate students is to conduct on site interviews in China.

3. skinprc - June 15, 2010 at 10:13 am

Sadly, I'm not surprised. I've taught in China for two years and I must be hyper vigilant with my students. My colleagues and I have found students who attend classes as imposters (for an entire semester) as well as those who plagiarize and cheat on exams. If I use the copy center to print a test, most likely extra copies will reach the students. There are some forthright students, but they have a hard time here swimming against the tide.

4. shums - June 15, 2010 at 10:30 am

An interesting article. So is Zinch saying there unable to guarantee the legitimacy of the documents their students are submitting to their university partners?

5. 11140525 - June 15, 2010 at 11:02 am


6. painter33 - June 15, 2010 at 11:10 am

This sounds a lot like on-line courses - who knows what's happening on the other side of the cyber world, just like who knows what's happening on the other side of the globe? Until safeguards are developed in both circumstances, we can only be suspicious, if not downright distrustful.

7. trust2011 - June 15, 2010 at 12:54 pm

It is really sad because many professors believe that asian students are smarter than any or all american students. I hope this is a wake up call for our university's to start putting thier faith and support in recruiting american students. But somehow I dont think they will.

8. 22286593 - June 15, 2010 at 01:40 pm

This is true even in graduate school applications. In out department, we routinely set aside applications from China and simply do not trust college grades, letters (application and recommendation), and especially test scores. The Chinese students who do get in have some verifiable accomplishment that we can check--grades from American universities while they spent a semester abroad, or a letter from a U.S. professor who taught the student in China, or students from the very top tier of Chinese universities (only three--Peking, Tsinghua, and Fudan) where there are established relationships that extend back few years. In most areas, the biggest problem China faces is that of corruption--while much is made of big and dramatic examples, just as corrosive are these small examples of cheating and lying that are pervasive. Instead of being defensive about it all, Chinese from all walks of life should stand up and address it. In many ways, fixing this problem in education is perhaps most productive--it's an institution that ordinary Chinese engage, it's outcomes are high stakes, and people who come out ahead are precisely the people who deserves the rewards.

9. davi2665 - June 15, 2010 at 02:54 pm

Wow! Shocker! From the land that gives us stolen intellectual property and cheap knock-offs as if IP theft were an art form, and from the land where plagiarism is utterly rampant comes falsified applications. And where is the all-controlling government that monitors everything else in China?

10. pittlaw - June 15, 2010 at 05:48 pm

To No. 5 who says: Slander. It may be slander, but truth is a defense to slander. So the appropriate question is whether this is truthful.

11. anthonyleolin - June 15, 2010 at 09:28 pm

<Comment removed by moderator>

12. d_and_der - June 16, 2010 at 09:11 am

About one half of my students are from mainland China. When giving the final exam, I announced that everyone must present a university I.D. with photo and I.D.#. Three of the students hoping to take the final exam weren't even in my class.

13. jenaispas - June 16, 2010 at 09:58 am

Regarding the "fake" recommendation letters, I'm told that most professors teach too many students to write personalized rec letters, and almost always tell their students to write their own. Not sure you can blame the students for that.

14. mjohnso9 - June 16, 2010 at 10:17 am

Sadly, 22286593 is correct. As a Conduct board member at my institution, I was party to a hearing in which these very issues arose. Apparently a common defense to academic dishonesty is to plead cultural ignorance with US scholarly practices. Namely the idea is that copying others work without attribution is an honorable cultural norm. I was astonished to learn that this incident was part of a larger trend that 22286593 poignantly illustrates, which originates from these geographies. One must then logically question how institutions are to assess the merit of applicants and continued status of current students? I recall the ETS suspending, in its entirety the offering of the GRE to students from this region due to widespread dishonesty, resulting in dramatic, artificially inflated scores across entire the entire Asian region. This speaks to the very distinct social pressures and forces extant on both students and their parents who succumb to the perverse need to accel at any cost.

15. crunchycon - June 16, 2010 at 03:58 pm

It isn't just China. Approx. 10 years ago, the FBI arrested a number of Turkish students/individuals in the U.S.,as they were sitting for the TOEFL and GRE exams for multiple students (each), crossing state lines at times to do so. Sittings of the TOEFL exam have been nullified in countries outside the U.S. due to widespread fraud. My university was notified once, that I know of, that no TOEFL scores from one s/e asian country were to be accepted from a specific date on. I had a group of students from the middle east fail a course -- rarely attended class (this was before 9/ll) and the final papers turned in were obviously not written by the students, based on other writings done for class and turned in.

16. geraldus - June 17, 2010 at 01:43 am

Plagiarism and ghosted essays are part of the China landscape. China-based personal interviews for applicants to overseas universities are an answer to cheating in applications. Don't you think that in USA it should be made illegal for individuals and companies to advertise term paper writing services in local newspapers and periodicals, and online? It is a big business that needs to be put out of business.

17. lisawoo - June 17, 2010 at 02:08 am

Besides the high schools (perhaps international schools or foreign language schools) that avidly try to gain their students admittance to prestigous schools, a lot of Chinese high schools fundamentally reject the idea of their top students going abroad instead of earning them reputation in the Chinese College Entrance Exam. Some schools refuse to provide an official transcript and won't even allow their teachers to give out signatures unless permitted by proper authorities. Perhaps it is College Board or the universities that need to understand where the students are coming from, before accusing them of falsifying.

18. d_and_der - June 17, 2010 at 02:56 am

#14: You are being conned. The word "culture" is used as an excuse for everything.

19. 22286593 - June 17, 2010 at 05:16 pm

An interesting response to wide-spread cheating in China would be for top Chinese high schools and universities to adopt a student-based honor code. In most instances of this type of cheating, top-down policies and punishments have little effect. Instead, relying on a more bottom up approach and peer monitoring of cheating would be far more effective. Along with this, open and public conversation about why cheating is wrong (from the point of view of ethics to the elevation of costs for everyone) would help to help change the culture. Just as importantly, there needs to be constant review and assessment in the job market for positions that require college education. People cheat most when there is a high-stakes test and then there is no more accountability afterwards. Finally, this is sometimes a national problem, or a regional problem, or a problem of a certain class. The notion that this is a cultural problem (ie. problem of certain ethnic groups) is too broad--within the Chinese culture places such as Hong Kong or Signapore have very high reputation for integrity. In the case of nearby South Korea and Japan--lessening of corruption track almost exactly with economic development. I suppose we in America--in the aftermath of what has happened on Wall Street--are in no position to lecture others about corruption...

20. paulandmoon - June 21, 2010 at 01:52 pm

This is interesting. I am married to a Chinese woman and we have started a company to assist Chinese students with the process of searching, applications, and admissions to American colleges and universities. Injecting honesty and integrity into the process is at the core of our guiding principals. I am well aware of the misrepresentation that goes on. Also, Chinese students end up in misrepresented "colleges" which is equally unfair. We hope to provide value on both ends; 1) to guide the student through the complex and frustrating process, and 2) screen the students so there are no surprises with the colleges and universities.

The Chinese people are as loving and caring and giving as any large population you will find. We are more the same than we are different. And, yes. There are cultural differences that come about from being born and raised on opposite sides of the planet or from being raised in a prosperous country and a democratic government versus in an emerging economy and communist government. Culture is not an excuse for being conned.

Everyone wins if we put the controls in place to prevent fraud and misrepresentation. It can be done and that will change the behavior. Parents will learn and agents willing to compromise honesty for money will find fewer opportunities. Over time, the big winner is the human race. The more we get to know one another, the more we can appreciate and accept each other.

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