Ghostwriting for Chinese College Applicants
Written by Hannah Lincoln and Sean Ages
For as many colleges and universities as there are in the Western world, there exists an equivalent number of education consulting agencies in China. For most of these agencies, the measuring stick of success lies exclusively in targets. They can guarantee that each client will be accepted into an overseas school – this is a given. However, the only true authentication of reputation and corroboration of sales pitches lies in the quantity of acceptance letters from Ivy League and brand-name schools. The modus operandi is, generally speaking, “by any means necessary.”
For as many colleges and universities as there are in the Western world, there exists an equivalent number of education consulting agencies in China. Many of those agencies offer ghostwriting services for Chinese applicants. (Photo credit: striatic)
We were American grad students at a Chinese university when the opportunities for “editing work” began to pop up. Such opportunities for native English speakers in China are indeed profuse. One advertisement in particular caught our attention – “Earn $200 a week!” it coaxed. Such was the going rate for our ethics.
The promise of cold, hard cash in the leering face of student debt overrode the warnings from a classmate and previous ghostwriter that the potential employer was a “psycho” who sometimes “failed to see that what she was doing was immoral.” Clearly our moral compass wasn’t so important either. We both got in touch with the ad’s contact, and she instantly sent us some trial essays to edit. We got to work.
One of the essay prompts read, “Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence. (250 words or more).” The response read like a Chinese essay that had been shredded through Google translate:
In everyone’s life there is always a place making you feel homelike and gives the sense of belonging, sometimes it is your home but sometimes it’s not, and there is always a person who shines like a star in your heart and inspires you to struggle hard along with his example of success. Here I want to share with you my “place” and my “person”.
The story pivoted off of clichés, paragraphs opening with phrases such as, “Yet misfortune is always unpredictable” and “To my mother I am her whole world.” Scrolling to the bottom of the essay, there indeed remained the original Chinese version.
Another trial-package essay was a recommendation letter from someone’s principal that ripped down a checklist of must-have’s for college applicants: she was in the top 3% of her class and had been a “Three Merit Student” for four consecutive terms (whatever that meant); she had won a televised English-speaking competition just the year before; her piano performance at the School’s New Year Party was widely acclaimed and praised by students and teachers alike; her insights as “Class Cabinet President” inspired her classmates to think about their futures as leaders. Even those who were on a diet could not resist her delicious treats at various school celebrations. Et cetera.
We were not the only one vying to be college application squires; about ten students applied for the position simultaneously. The hirer called in one student only to turn him away because she had never heard of his small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Upon hearing this, another candidate changed his resume to say he went to Princeton [rather than his small, progressive college of equivalent academic quality], and showed up to the interview in a business suit. He was hired on the spot and bought us all rounds of drinks the rest of the year.
Sean, one of the writers of this piece, was also one of the few to make the cut. He slogged through hokey writing and repetitious themes as the money steadily flowed into his bank account. Somewhere around his 90th essay, he ran ashore. In response to an Emory application that he had worked on, he received an e-mail from a higher-up, saying, “it will be obvious to [the admissions officer] that the student has done no research at all and she does [sic] even really know what makes her want to attend Emory.” He asked to contact the student to be able to talk with her and find some concrete reasons why she wanted to go to Emory.
His suggestion was apparently viewed with suspicion or distaste, for despite having provided punctual and quality work for several months, he never received another message from the company.
It should not come as news to anyone in higher education that Chinese applications are often marred by perfect English and galactic achievements. This topic has been thoughtfully explored by multiple media outlets (Chronicles of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Huffington Post, and The New York Times). The education consulting company Zinch published a white paper on the subject in 2010 which suggested that, among college applications coming out of China, “…90% of recommendation letters are fake, 70% of essays are not written by the applicant, and 50% of high school transcripts are falsified.”
The extant research points to two culprits: tuition costs and differences in education systems. Many Chinese applicants come from wealthy families that are willing to pay whatever it costs to get their children into the best school possible – indeed, a prominent college name is the capstone return on a parent’s lifelong investment. While many US admissions boards will not discriminate against Americans who need financial aid, they are likely to look favorably on international students who can fully cover their own costs (and by extension, the tuition costs of others).
Chris Boehner founded the company Vericant (“verify” + “applicant”) in January 2011 with verification of Chinese students’ academic achievements as its goal. While Chris identified that fraudulent applications pose a problem, colleges do not have the time to meet with every applicant individually. Vericant itself meets with candidates and collects the information for colleges to access – including a proctored writing sample and a face-to-face video interview. All applicant data is uploaded to a secure online portal where partner schools can login to access this information.
Chris believes that admissions boards should nix the personal statements and teacher recommendations for Chinese students, as these requirements are utterly foreign to the Chinese education system. A Chinese student would be hard-pressed to find a teacher who even knew how to write a recommendation, let alone in English. Bribery culture is also significant – it would be strange indeed to request a recommendation without including a small gift, such as a red envelope of cash. The process would be quicker and easier if the student just wrote the letter herself and had the teacher (or whoever) sign it.
Chris shares, “When US schools require nonexistent application materials, they invite falsification. It’s a Catch 22 for Chinese students: if these documents are not submitted, their application is incomplete; if they are caught with falsified credentials their application will be denied.”
There is no force great enough to alter Chinese parents’ commitment to their children’s educations. Nor is the phenomenon of cheating soon to escape Chinese culture. As long as there is opportunity for Chinese parents to heave their children across borders and into Bluetooth schools, they will heave. And as long as agent companies are willing to pay exorbitant sums to native English speakers to help in the process, they will pay. And as long as there exists a plethora of educated twenty-something’s who seek employment overseas, they will ghostwrite.