US institutions could do more to calm the admissions frenzy

At a recent admissions information session in Shanghai, a parent came up to me and asked: “My child is going to be a junior and it is time for us to hire an agent. So, should we hire one?”

I was baffled, not because of her asking the question, but that she felt hiring a study abroad agent (including both commission-based agents and paid consultants) was a must. She was not alone in thinking this way among Chinese parents, and the pandemic has made that notion more pronounced.

There is no prouder thing for Chinese parents than sending their children to a highly regarded college, either in China or elsewhere. Mothers and fathers are willing to sacrifice everything to support their children’s education – an ethos stemming from the nation’s thousands of years-old Confucian traditions. Hiring an agent (sometimes two, or even three at the same time) is not surprising within China’s cultural context, but it is excessive, nonetheless.

The idea of trying to move heaven and earth to enable one’s son or daughter to get an education at one of the best institutions in the world may be a noble pursuit, but it can have significant, negative consequences for naive parents and children. And while the college admissions frenzy may be rooted in Chinese society, United States institutions could be doing more to help calm things down on the agent front.

A COVID-induced information gap

Pandemic-era travel restrictions have prevented admissions experts from visiting China for a solid three-and-a-half years. This has created a huge void of direct and reliable information regarding college admissions from admissions officers. Agents’ business in China largely profits from the gap between Chinese families and American colleges, and, unfortunately, those who adhere to ethical practices are few and far between.

At the annual conference of the China Institute of College Admission Counseling this past April, counsellors shared countless anecdotes of students believing agents’ empty promises but receiving no viable admissions results in the end. Some agents promise guaranteed admission into highly selective US colleges and charge an exorbitant fee for a promise they know they cannot keep.

While school-based college counselling offices have been a staple at many elite public and private international curriculum schools in China, most Chinese high schools are unable to benefit from such luxury. Even at schools with a counselling team, one-on-one advising around the clock is simply not feasible.

This is where agents come in with their on-demand service that promises a quick fix to the high anxiety levels among Chinese families. They convert the American admissions process into a formula involving various academic competitions, research projects, summer schools in the US, AP/SAT exams and volunteer experiences (sometimes as far afield as Kenya).

The direct result of this is the homogenisation of applications from China where everyone seems to be doing the exact same things.

Some mothers and-or fathers hire agents for the sole purpose of taking care of their children’s applications without having to get involved themselves. This is irresponsible, as it signals to agents that the result is all those parents care about, no matter what the means of achieving it are.

Some agents urge parents to pressure their children’s schools to change their grades in order to make their ‘magical formula’ work. Parents also put pressure on school-based college counsellors and the school’s administrators. Some schools eventually bend; some don’t, but not without tremendous trepidation.

Once, a school representative from one of the most prestigious high schools in China called me almost in tears to ask for advice because they were under unbearable pressure from parents to change their school’s grading scale as well as loosening their grading rubrics to boost their children’s GPAs (grade point averages). The parents’ reason was simple: the school next door did it and they had better admission results (according to ranking) than their children’s school.


Everything seems to be about ranking to many Chinese families. This is not only a reflection of China’s own exam-based, ultra-competitive college entrance process; prospective students need to cling onto something tangible when navigating one of the least quantifiable admissions processes in the world.

Ellen Hazelkorn, a world-renowned scholar on global university rankings, noted that “ranking is a simplified way of learning about a higher education system abroad”. I agree with that 100%. However, the reality is that ranking is so powerful in China now that it determines where students apply, where they enrol and what they value.

Even high schools use ranking to advertise their students’ admissions results to help with recruitment, leaving those with offers from lower ranked schools forgotten and their hard work diminished.

Every admissions offer needs to be celebrated as long as it is truly a good fit for the student. Ranking, as arbitrary as it is, should be the least important measure of success for today’s dynamic young people who have so much more potential than a school’s ranking can define.

Additionally, in recent years, major Chinese cities, such as Shanghai, have adopted a talent recruitment process that incorporates ranking in its metrics. Students with a degree from a top-500 university in the world enjoy a much easier pathway to the coveted official residential registration certificate, aka Hukou, which leads to better healthcare, social welfare, education and housing.

However, the list does not include any liberal arts colleges, given their small size, making them less attractive among Chinese families who plan to have their children home after graduation.

What should US colleges do?

The first and most important action American colleges can take is to meet Chinese students and families where they are: in China. There’s a lot to do to fill the information gap that was widened during the pandemic.

As I travel around the country meeting with students and parents this autumn, I am delighted to see many other admissions officers returning to the country as well, but the volume is still much lower than in 2019, the year before the pandemic. Chinese college counsellors often comment that when my fellow admissions officers and I say things, students and parents take it more seriously, rightly or wrongly.

Second, US colleges should downplay or disavow the use of college rankings in marketing materials. If administrators truly believe rankings contribute to an admissions frenzy and provide a false sense of educational success, then it makes sense for them to distance themselves from rankings.

In 2007, Anthony Marx, then president of Amherst College, along with 19 other presidents of liberal arts colleges, signed a statement committing “not to mention US News or similar rankings in any of our new publications, since such lists mislead the public into thinking that the complexities of American higher education can be reduced to one number”.

The message didn’t just acknowledge the negative impact of rankings and that “prospective students benefit from having as complete information as possible in making their college choices”; it also called for more efforts from colleges and universities to rethink their use of rankings in their marketing materials.

Third, share with Chinese families what truly makes your institution stand out: the close-knit community, the rich academic offerings, the caring faculty and staff, the many career opportunities for international students, the supportive alumni, the quirky traditions, the lifelong learners that they will become and the principled and purposeful life they will lead after graduation.

Additionally, be as transparent as possible about what admissions officers expect from each part of the application requirements. The essay, as important as it is, is not the most important part of the application, contrary to what agents often tell Chinese students. The unintended consequence of spreading that erroneous information often results in overly polished – if not completely fabricated – writing, rather than a helpful window into who a student is as a whole person and scholar.

For Chinese families, the United States remains their top destination despite the many current tensions between the two governments. They see American colleges as a beacon of light that opens doors to many opportunities in life.

While many Chinese families will continue to have their children apply to colleges in multiple countries as a back-up, they believe deep down that attending a highly regarded American college is a pathway to success, one that is irreplaceable by any other country in the world.

It is incumbent upon American higher education to live up to this reputation, not just to keep attracting Chinese and other international students, but to sustain its leadership in the world.

Xiaofeng Wan is an associate dean of admissions and the coordinator of international recruitment at Amherst College, United States. He is also a doctoral candidate in the Executive EdD in Higher Education programme at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, United States.