Buyer beware – Advice for international students

Congratulations to Hoang Minh Tue, a Hanoi-Amsterdam High School for the Gifted student who was awarded a full scholarship worth US$72,000 a year to attend Duke University in the United States, which ranks eighth according to the 2016 US News & World Report Best Colleges report.

Duke has an acceptance rate of 11.4%, which means that nearly nine out of 10 applicants – in many cases outstanding students – are rejected.

Tue is the recipient of a Karsh International Scholarship, made possible by the generosity of Duke University trustee Bruce Karsh and his wife Martha, who donated US$50 million to Duke in 2011 for a permanent endowment to support needs-based financial aid for undergraduate students from the United States and other countries.

The first group of Karsh International Scholars included nine students from nine countries, including Vietnam. In addition to tuition, room and board, fees and demonstrated need that exceeds those costs, the scholarships cover up to US$7,000 for research or service opportunities during the three summers before graduation.

How did Tue do it?

A perfect SAT score of 2,400, outstanding academic achievement, previous US experience, meaningful volunteer work, razor-sharp focus, ambition and a measure of luck.

Mostly significantly, he did it on his own without the assistance of one of a number of one-stop educational consulting companies whose services can cost up to a total of US$15,000.

I am referring here to high-end companies that specialise in making academic dreams come true, in this case admission to highly selective colleges and merit-based, and in some cases need-based, funding that kills two birds with one stone: 1) defraying the cost of US higher education; and 2) providing bragging rights and honour with regard to merit-based financial assistance.

The formula is simple and the business model tried-and-true. Parents pay a princely sum of money with the expectation of a return on that substantial investment in the form of a generous scholarship and financial aid packages with two main intrinsic and tangible benefits: prestige and cost-savings.

Winning statements

So while parents fork out large sums of money, their children buckle down for standardised test preparation, tireless efforts to polish their résumé and write a winning statement of purpose, or have one written for them, and heed suggestions about extracurricular activities to get involved in, especially those that ‘look good’ on a higher education admission application.

To his credit Tue chose to reject this path because of limited family finances and the fact that his approach is not compatible with theirs – for example, searching for ways to pad his résumé such as undertaking extracurricular activities not for their own sake but as a means to an end, gaining admission to a selective university and waiting for the scholarship offers to trickle into his inbox.

Or having someone craft an essay that will help achieve the same goal. Instead, he preferred to write his own essay in an honest and straightforward fashion that focuses on his personal qualities and how he will take advantage of new opportunities offered by the admitting institution, for example.

Tue admitted that at the tender age of 17 he has no money and no way to make a significant contribution to the university or society. What he does have are his personality, ideas, energy and a clear direction.

He also has a desire to one day be in a position that will enable him to use money, knowledge and experience to create opportunities for people like him. Tue admitted that perhaps this was what the admission committee found so compelling.

Here is his advice to fellow students, in particular 10th and 11th graders, who are considering studying overseas: “You should prepare yourself first, the documents later; your personality first, then your achievements; your dream first, then your personal statements.

“Also, even at your young age, you should always try to find out an efficient way to sacrifice your time and talents, joining hands to help as many people as possible.”

One of the morals of Tue’s story is that students can save their parents hard-earned money and their precious time by not engaging the services of one of these educational consulting companies.

Why? Because they are extremely bright, highly motivated and are already tapped into the appropriate networks, online and offline, which have the potential of taking them where they want to go. They are also able to access a wealth of information online and from peers currently studying in the US and other countries.

Authenticity and agents

Doing it ‘their way’ also ensures that their applications will be honest and authentic, qualities on which admission committees, which operate in a sea of disingenuity and tweaked applications, place great value.

Who should use an education agent?

Those who need guidance and advice that will help them navigate a higher education system as vast and complex as that of the United States, for example.

As with any good or service, follow the principle of caveat emptor (buyer beware) by checking on:
  • • a company's reputation,
  • • the kinds of institutions it works with, for example, the type of accreditation,
  • • whether it embraces ethical practices by not engaging in the use of fraudulent documents such as ghost-written statements of purpose or letters of recommendation,
  • • its advising approach – for instance, whether it limits students’ options and possibilities by pressuring them to apply only to partner universities because the company receives a commission later – and
  • • how it prepares students for the all-important visa interview, for example, scripting (bad) or counselling (good).
Choose carefully because quality and ethical educational consulting companies in Vietnam are few and far between.

Most importantly, the company you work with should have your best interest at heart – in the spirit of customer is king – not how much money it can make from you or commissions paid by its partner universities.

Mark Ashwill is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States. He served as country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam from 2005-09. This essay was inspired by an April 2016 article in VNExpress.