To the Editor:
After reading "The China Conundrum" (The Chronicle, November 3), I want to talk about the use of "study-abroad agents." There is background that I think people already know: High-school coursework in China is, compared with that of the U.S. high schools, much more difficult to handle. The Chinese college entrance-examination system is complicated, and it only allows a student to select a single college to apply to. The student's ability is determined by a single test score. If you fail this one test, you fail the entire year. That's why Chinese face so much pressure during high school.
Then comes deciding whether to consider going overseas for college. If a student decides to work on the Chinese entrance examination and at the same time prepare application materials for U.S. colleges, that doubles the pressure. It's like dating two people at the same time. Many Chinese parents don't want their children to give up on the Chinese system, so the parents urge their children to prepare carefully for the domestic test.
This is the biggest reason that many students look for help from agents. Even though many students have the ability to complete the application materials themselves, they don't have the time to search for the right college, complete the application, translate a teacher's recommendation (as the teachers can't write in English), mail the materials, contact the colleges, etc. That is a lot of work.
Study-abroad agents help to monitor the process, edit the materials, and provide advice on how to choose colleges and majors. They earn a lot of money by doing this. The price is between 20,000 and 40,000 yuan—or between $3,000 and $6,000—per student. Many study-abroad agents help the students "trick" the U.S. colleges, and I believe they have some kind of template for essays that makes many students look exactly the same (equally outstanding, most of the time).
I recommend that my friends avoid using agents. I hate looking at my college application papers nowadays (they use poor grammar and simple words), but that was the real me at that time. But many people want application essays that describe them as the best students of their class. I think sometimes the study-abroad agents harm students by providing them fake essays or recommendation letters. It is easy to fool the admission staffs, but it's not easy to fool yourself—you go to a much better college, you face much more pressure. What a fake essay doesn't give you is not only writing and reading skills, but also the experience, ideas, and moral qualities that the better colleges look for.
There are some study-abroad agents who are honest and really helpful, in terms of helping students to choose the right college and organize application materials. But I think a college application is someone's own responsibility. It is OK to ask for help or advice, but in the end, it should be up to the student to apply, not other people.
Department of History of Art & Architecture