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A Chinese Solution to ‘The China Conundrum’?

Karin Fischer, an international reporter at The Chronicle, is filing occasional updates this week from the annual conference of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling, an organization of college-admissions officers and overseas education advisers.

Poughkeepsie, N.Y. — Call it a homegrown solution.

Frustrated by fraud and abuse in the college applications of Chinese students seeking to study in the United States, a group of Chinese high-school principals has decided to take action: They’ve banded together to promote best practices and transparency in the college-application process.

Some 50 principals and heads of schools from across China, along with 30 admissions officers from the United States, met last fall in Beijing for the first East-meets-West college-admissions conference.

Shi Ping, vice principal of Tsinghua High School and principal of its international school, helped lead the effort. This week he was here, on the campus of Marist College, for the annual conference of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling. Mr. Shi hopes the three-day meeting will help him better understand American admissions practices.

That insight matters as it never has before to Mr. Shi, an English teacher turned administrator. A growing number of Chinese students are studying abroad, nearly 200,000 of them in the United States. Indeed, they are the single largest group of foreign students in this country.

But as their numbers have increased, so, too, have concerns about the use of unethical practices to get them here. Zinch China, which advises American colleges on recruiting in that country, has estimated that 90 percent of Chinese applicants seeking to study in the United States submit false recommendations and 70 percent have other people write their personal essays. Half, says Zinch, citing a survey of Chinese students and families, have forged high-school transcripts.

That pattern doesn’t sit well with Mr. Shi. “It seems to me more and more students are polished,” he said, eyes flashing. By polished, he means that students’ applications are prettied up, often by outside recruitment agents. Documents are falsified, records doctored to make them look better.

As a result, he said, he worries “that might deliver a bad message to American admissions officers—it might deliver a message that Chinese students are not as good as described.”

On the contrary, Mr. Shi thinks many of his school’s 3,000 students are genuinely smart and talented, and he is concerned that China’s bad rap could damage their reputation. (Most of Tsinghua High School’s graduates attend universities in China, he noted.)

So his school organized the conference last September, inviting principals from select high schools around China to attend. They were joined by a group of American college officials on a recruiting trip to China.

Penny G. Johnston, director of international admission at Franklin & Marshall College, was one of them. Ms. Johnston, who has been traveling from her Pennsylvania institution to China for 15 years, said she diligently reviews all the applications she receives. But this past spring she noticed not one, but three, applications from China with the exact same personal essay, right down to a detail about the smell of dumplings in the narrow streets known as hutongs.

Ms. Johnston said she was pleased to see top Chinese high-school leaders’ taking the issue seriously. “It’s a real beginning,” she said.

Mr. Shi said he hopes his Chinese colleagues can agree on a set of ethical practices. One thing the high schools might do is explicitly discourage their students from using outside recruitment agents, who can sometimes cut corners to place their students at American colleges.

They are also seeking ways to authenticate student transcripts, recommendations, and other paperwork. Tsinghua, for instance, will send such documents only to colleges and won’t give them to students themselves. School officials keep copies of all documents and will e-mail a duplicate to any college that asks, to compare against the original.

The group will meet again in October. In addition to hashing out best practices, Mr. Shi hopes American officials can put on workshops to give their Chinese counterparts real insight into the admissions process.

“We don’t want information distorted,” Mr. Shi said. “We want trust, mutual trust.”

And with that, he left to attend a session on a day in the life of a college application.

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