The Right Information is Key to the Right Fit

In the past five years, I’ve been able to work in many segments of the Chinese study abroad industry; as a SAT tutor, debate tournament administrator, and presently, an international outreach coordinator. I’ve lived in the cultural capitals, such as Beijing and Shanghai, and traveled through industrious rural cities like Harbin and Ningbo. In every city, I met exceptional students, many with the dream of studying in the US. But the more time I spent in China, the more I realized that Chinese students face a number of challenges in the college admissions process, standing between them and their dream school.

        Many of the challenges that arise during the US college admissions process can be attributed to the difference in culture. In China, where calculation and memorization is an admired skill, the GaoKao score - China’s national high school exam - is key to college acceptance. In the US, an essay, usually asking for a reflection of one’s personal experience can make up for a poor test score. However, frequently, the greatest challenge is the lack of information available to the students and parents -  the “information gap,” that truly stands in the way of the Chinese student finding their best-fit school.

        The most apparent reason for this vacuum of information is the “Great Firewall of China;” China’s other famous wall, and certainly its most successful. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and similar foreign websites and apps are completely blocked - inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t have a VPN (which has become difficult to obtain in China).

        Unfortunately for US colleges and universities, information like student highlights, campus developments, research findings, and relevant stories usually posted to social media are practically invisible to the typical Chinese applicant.

        When it comes to information that is available (perhaps the university website, though even this may have accessibility issues due to web-hosting outside of China), further issues arise. The reality is, at the end of the day, the student rarely has the final say in their school choice - that decision is made by their parents. It is very uncommon for Chinese students to take out college loans - tuition is paid by their parents or extended family.. As a result, Chinese parents spend an extraordinary amount of time researching universities, but without any real proficiency in English or access to more information, they’re forced to judge a school by one of the most simple, and unfortunate, metrics: rank.

        With parents forced to regard rank as the end all metric to judge universities, the final result is a bottleneck of applications to the top 50 school in the US, with a radical drop-off thereafter. While working as an SAT tutor, I got a glimpse of the pains that Chinese families will go to to achieve admission to a top ranked school. Parents spend small fortunes to prepare their student for exams, essays and applications. Students, after a full day at school, spend two to three hours studying for the SAT, only to then go home to complete their assigned schoolwork. As a student in the US, I thought a 7-3 schedule was bad; my Chinese students would often be studying, in one form or another, from 7 in the morning until midnight or later.

In this environment of extreme competition, limited information and high willingness to pay, businesses (i.e. recruitment agencies) market themselves as the one-stop shop for college preparation and admission. They can provide much needed assistance in the complex world of visa applications and test prep; but I strongly object to their payment structure. The typical recruitment agency is paid in one of two ways, the parent pays extra if the student is admitted into a highly ranked school, or the university pays a commission to have the student sent to their school. Recruitment agencies, in the absences of quality information about varying universities, frequently play both sides, taking on the responsibility of identifying the “right fit”, but at the same time are incentivized to either reach too far, or not reach far enough. This unfortunate reality causes students to become commodities, and for “lower-ranked” universities to compete with each other over percentages. It’s for this reason many schools have banned the practice of commission based recruitment.

       With a clear outline of the problem raised by the “information gap”, we can begin to develop a solution. While the fall of the Great Firewall of China can’t be expected anytime soon, providing Chinese students and parents local access to all the information they need is completely feasible. By utilizing WeChat, China’s largest social media platform, Chinese students, with just the scan of a QR code can be directed to a university’s profile, directly communicate with admissions reps, and even submit applications!

        Building a Chinese-landing page with content translation, is another option, that will provide the information that parents need to see in order to lessen their reliance on school ranking.  Campus feel, student life, class size, and career services cannot be represented by a single number; by localizing your university’s profile you’ll be providing the students, and parents, the information they need to find their best-fit.

        The “information gap” doesn’t help the student or the university, the only benefactors are those that profit on the desperation of parents seeking the best future for their child. Take the guess work out of college admissions, give parents something to show off, let the families make the educated choice for their child’s higher education. It just might surprise you how many will apply next year.


I am currently working with Sunrise to help universities better engage Chinese students. If you are interested in learning how we can work with your institution in China, please feel free to reach out to me at or come visit us at NAFSA booth 2450.