From Memberanda, Spring 2012
The exponential increase in the number of Chinese families that seek to send their children away to boarding school has given way to an equally marked set of issues which complicate the process. As an educational consultant to Chinese families and a resident of Beijing for the last 10 years, I have experienced these issues firsthand and offer some suggestions to schools dealing with this phenomenon.
The complex process of applying to send Chinese students abroad to continue their educations is fraught with difficulties, not the least of which is the proliferation of agents willing to step in on a commission basis. As evidenced in a number of articles recently published in educational journals, commissions paid to local agents are a major controversy (Keep in mind that IECA members do not accept commissions). I most frequently advise schools that the monies not spent on commissions can be used to enhance the recruitment process – offering it to students who need financial aid or using it to send a school representative to China to meet with interested families.
Standardized testing is another hot spot in the recruitment process in China. As with most Asian countries, China is a test-based culture, and there are many companies offering test preparation services. Most emphasize rote memorization of vocabulary that can mask a student’s true ability. It is, therefore, very important to make connections with individual students to determine more about them. In addition, the English language tests required by schools can make applying a challenge for students. The TOEFL exam, for example, is primarily used for university admission and can be particularly troublesome when used with younger children. A visit and an interview, or requiring a family visit to campus, are the most viable ways of determining the suitability of a candidate for a particular school.
Families are increasingly confused by the multitude of applications – SAO, TABS, Gateway, and a school’s own application make the choices overwhelming for families unfamiliar with the process. When you add the variations in deadlines and school-specific supplements, many families become dumbfounded, particularly if English is not spoken by an adult in the family. While applying to school should be challenging, it seems that applying to boarding school has become overly so – and we are talking about junior high and high school students who are doing the bulk of the work.
Anyone familiar with education in China will know that there are some documents which are impossible to verify. Letters of recommendation are a primary example: Chinese teachers often do not speak English, and if they do, they have no idea what to write. Since most students are studying to take the JunKao exam (the test which gets them into high school), teachers typically have 40+ students with whom they are working intensely, giving them little time to write letters of recommendation. Additionally, the student qualities asked for on the recommendation forms can be unfamiliar to them. Obtaining student transcripts can be another issue: while schools do provide grades, transcripts are not used in the system of promotion to the next school.
In conclusion, spending the time and the money to come to China is well worth the investment. It enables your admission team to get a more rounded view of a student than can be provided by standardized test scores and spotty documentation only. In addition, you can use the resources at your fingertips – current satisfied families will more than likely offer to help you find other families.
Consolidating and standardizing the application process and setting concrete and similar deadlines would also improve the process, not just for non-native- English-speaking students, but for everyone. Consider the target market: if it is harder to apply to your school than to university, it makes it harder for young students and their families to jump through the hoops.
Hamilton Gregg has spent the last 10 years living and working in Beijing. He has 25 years of educational experience around the world, starting at The Thacher School (CA) and, most recently, at Harrow International School of Beijing. Gregg started his own company, HGIEC, three years ago and works with both expat and Chinese families to find the North American boarding school or university that is the right fit for them.