Selecting the Right Chinese Students

By Jiang Xueqin: deputy principal of Peking University High School [Beida Fu 北大附中], and director of its international division. This is the commentary to The China Conundrum

You may have seen him on campus. He’s a Chinese student who aced his SAT’s, but once enrolled as a freshman he sits quietly by himself either in the library cubicle or at the back of the class. He has only Chinese friends, and thinks sports and parties are beneath him. Day by day, he misses China, and is uninterested in America. And year by year he multiplies on American campuses.

He’s in America because he wants a college degree, and because his American college wants his money. But in this marriage of convenience, both parties suffer.

Much of the problem lies in how American admissions officers use hard numbers (standardized test scores) to evaluate Chinese students, and discount soft skills. The hard numbers may determine if a Chinese will excel as a student, but it’s the soft skills that will determine if he or she thrives as a member of your campus community.

I have been working in and studying Chinese education since 1999 when I graduated from Yale, and for the past three years I have been working as a curriculum director in two prestigious public high schools in China preparing Chinese students for study in America. Even though our students are some of the brightest in the country, they have struggled to adapt to the Western classroom as much as their peers from less elite schools. Initially, I thought the American college-admissions process could evaluate the Chinese students best suited for study in America, but I’ve slowly become disillusioned with how American admissions officers select students based almost exclusively on hard numbers. This practice, I believe, benefits mainly the rote learners who thrive in China’s schools, and hurts the thoughtful students who have the potential to be transformed by a rigorous American liberal-arts education and who, in turn, may transform the lives of their fellow students and professors.

To be fair, American college recruiters in China feel overwhelmed by the proliferation of cheating, lying, and fraud: Study abroad is big business in China, and young Ivy League graduates write essays for Chinese applicants while many a Chinese public school fakes transcripts and recommendation letters. Amid such chaos, it’s understandable why American colleges fall back on standardized tests. But these tests tell only half the story. To really judge a Chinese student’s potential to thrive on campus, American colleges and universities could add depth to the admissions process by including an oral interview, one designed to challenge Chinese students with focused questions that test their empathy, imagination, and resilience. Those American colleges that choose to do so will discover that their new Chinese recruits, even though their test scores may suggest limited English, will quickly adapt to a culture of critical thinking and intellectual inquiry in a way they failed to adapt to the Chinese education system of obedience and conformity.

To better understand how this oral interview would work in the admissions process, let’s look at David and Michael, two Chinese applicants who are composites of students I’ve taught and who are now studying in America. David has an average GPA, a B, scored about 2000 out of 2400 on his SAT Reasoning Test, and was editor of his school’s newspaper for two years. Michael has the highest GPA in his ultracompetitive high school, scored around 2300 on the SAT, got a 5 on the English Advanced Placement examination, and started his own business.

Michael is a student many American campuses would love to have, and he’s set on the Ivy League (Duke is his safety school). But ultimately it doesn’t matter where he goes, because he’ll take courses that will ensure him a 4.0 GPA and get into a good business school. He’ll be shocked that not everyone shares his passion for grades, and he’ll attribute that to American shallowness. He’ll drop history class because he got an A- on his first paper, and after a month on campus he’ll shelter himself in his small circle of Chinese friends. After four years, he’ll leave the campus very much the way he arrived.

Unlike Michael, David won’t be a straight-A student. He plans to be an architect because he loves drawing, but he’ll also try history and literature classes. He’ll struggle to keep pace in seminar discussions, but he’ll replay class discussions in his head, and one or two comments may linger with him for days. And one day he’ll surprise his classmates and professors with a comment that will linger with them for days. Over the dinner-table he’ll pepper his classmates with questions, and he won’t graduate from college with his life all planned out like Michael. What he will graduate with is a lot of questions about himself and life, and his four years on campus he’ll remember forever as a time of his intellectual blossoming.

If Michael happens to be the ideal, then American colleges and universities are in luck because Michaels abound in China. But David is much less common because the three traits he possesses empathy, imagination, and resilience are strangled at a young age in China.

That’s why the toughest question you can ask a Chinese student is also the easiest you can ask an American: “What do you think?” Many Chinese students don’t know what they think because their parents and teachers just order them about. Their education alienates them from one another, from the world in which they live, and ultimately from themselves. Unable to construct a self-narrative, they may live comfortably in their bubble but have problems overcoming new challenges. In short, a Chinese education does not prepare most students to study abroad.

And it’s easy to figure this out in a 30-minute interview, which must become a mandatory part of the application process if American colleges and universities are to recruit Chinese students who will thrive on campus.

Here’s how to conduct the interview. First, it ought to be focused, detailed, and deliberate. Here are some examples of good interview questions that look for empathy, imagination, and resilience:

  • Pick a novel or a movie, and discuss the characters. Which character did you identify with? Why? Which part of the book or movie made you sad? Made you angry? Why? What experiences have you had that remind you of events in the book or movie?
  • Pick a memorable experience, and explain why it was so memorable. Tell the story. Explain your feelings during the experience. Why did you have these feelings? Do you know anyone either real or fictional who has had a similar experience? Did they behave the same as you did? Do you think their feelings were the same as yours?
  • When was the last time you were angry or sad? What made you angry or sad? How did you get over your anger or sadness? What do you think will happen the next time you encounter the same situation?

Persist in asking “why?” Look for sincerity, for logic, and for clarity of thought.

In English class, my Chinese students and I read English novels together, and I use these lines of questioning in class. What’s frustrating is that while I’m trying to get them to look into themselves, they’re always trying to “read” me for the “right” answer. I persist because teaching these students to relate themselves to the text is crucial in the reconstruction of their lost selves, as well as a fundamental skill they’ll need to thrive on the American campus.

As you may suspect, David is far more comfortable in my class than Michael.

In a 30-minute interview, David would talk about his experience editing the school’s newspaper, how he was the last one out of the newsroom to make sure the papers got printed, how he had to prod his reporters to take on assignments, and how he had to think of ways to build team spirit among a group of high-achieving individuals.

Michael might talk fast and fluently about his business venture, but he wouldn’t be clear and direct. Ask him which college he’d like to attend, and he couldn’t give you a straight answer either. It’d be an uncomfortable interview because what he wants to say he can’t: that he started his business to pad his résumé but that his real passions are increasing his GPA and SAT score; that he hasn’t really thought about which college he’d like to attend because he plans to attend the most highly-ranked; that he’s the one talking but it’s really his parents who are pulling the strings.

An interview may not capture everything you want to know about these students. But it would be a start in the right direction, and that’s exactly what American recruiting efforts in China need right now.

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