By Ms. Pont, Haddee College Counselor
Over the years, as the world economy has shifted, I have worked with international students from various parts of the world to help them with their college applications and write their personal statements to earn admission to American universities. Most recently, Chinese students are positioned and eager for such guidance. Despite the positioning and the eagerness, the path to American universities is tricky for them to maneuver for two reasons: 1) American admissions expectations differ from Chinese cultural expectations, and 2) Chinese students are competing against each other. The upshot of the former is simple: Chinese students focus on standardized test scores thinking they are the primary—even the sole—standard for admission. As a counselor, I cannot fight that notion, so I simply encourage the Chinese students with whom I work to knock their standardized test scores out of the park and also to do something atypical, thus addressing problem number two. My goal is for Chinese students to be both the same as their competition and quite different: excel in the conventional AND the unconventional. It is a tall order, but I have never met a Chinese student who isn’t up for a challenge. That is my preconceived notion.
With China in the global news more regularly, public awareness of Chinese students longing for admission to American universities has never been higher. My advice to Chinese students is this: make the most of it. It is, as Oscar Wilde said, better to be talked about than not talked about. So Chinese students should meet the stereotypes and preconceived notions head-on and turn them inside out. Own them and then expose the humanity within.
The first writer we will examine is a Chinese student who does just that. Through grueling effort, he achieved high test scores, but his essay demonstrates he is no mere grind; in fact, to him, education is sacred. As a result, he taught younger students both here in the US and in his homeland. Each experience shaped and sharpened his way of thinking, one informing the other, but word limits constrain him to limit his personal statement to one of those two endeavors. Which experience to choose?
He chose to write about his experiences in China, which were seminal to his beliefs and educational goals. It was a risky choice. What transpired on the other side of the world went largely undocumented, except in his stories. Thus, the force of his narrative needed to provide all the proof. Typically, I dissuade Chinese students from writing about their experiences at home because they are too distant, too long ago, or both. Moreover, I encourage international students to write about their time in the US so that their letters of recommendation can echo their endeavors. But in this case it made sense, above all, because the story was so honest, as you will see from the personal statement from the onset:
When I was in elementary school, one of my friends, a shrewd card player, couldn’t hang out because he worked in his parents’ grocery store after school. Another, my mentor in humor, couldn’t focus on studying because his parents quarreled every night. Both were dubbed “bad students” for their grades, but I believe they could have done better if they had the same opportunities I have had.
The insight is frank, not melodramatic. The writer simply loves his friends and possesses the intellectual acumen and the emotional strength to recognize his advantages over them.
The writer then takes an objective turn, discussing poverty on a macro level. Although, typically, I do not recommend factual analysis for the personal statement, it works here:
I am amazed by the number of China’s poor: 40 million. What causes their poverty? The question compelled me to research. In a fast-developing country, low-pay, low-skill jobs are replaced by high-pay, high-skill jobs, but only 37 percent of rural children are in high school at the age they are supposed to be. Thus, their chances of entering the high-skilled labor force are slim.
95 % of parents admit that they have never read their children a story. Due to the lack of fundamental skill-building, childrens’ knowledge is limited, as well as their desire to learn.
The writer transitions back to his topic deftly: he understands that all success, for himself, his friends, and all children, stems from education. He establishes himself as a young man of conviction who acts because he so deeply understands this fundamental truth. He conveys that conviction with his level of specificity:
We have to cultivate students’ learning. For this reason, I utilized three weeks of independent study to work at an elementary school in a poor county outside Zunyi City. The county consisted only of two unpaved streets. Water pooled in the concave surface, mixing with dirt to display an unnatural color.
When the narrator launches into his personal experience, he emerges as a person of great courage. Neither the bleak setting nor the breadth of his responsibility—uncharted territory for him—daunts him:
I taught fourth graders a lesson every day. At first, I tried teaching easy English phrases with detailed description, but I found that the students quickly grew bored. Therefore, I created a short scene for each phrase and invited the students to act it out with me. I made three different scenes for the phrase “come on” for its different usages, and I intended to make students laugh when I used the phrase for: to beg my cat not to steal my socks.
They did laugh, and I went on to do more acting with more phrases.
Then, as the narrator goes further into his narrative, his objective comprehension of the relationship between poverty and success blooms into empathy:
One day, the teacher asked me to tutor a student in English. When I asked him questions, he stared at his homework. I lowered my own voice and slowed down the speed. Still, words simply wouldn’t emerge from his mouth.
I suggested that I walk him home. With birds, passers-by, and views of farms, he relaxed, and we told stories. I found out he was not shy at all when discussing games. Each time it was correct to use “let,” I used the word in English. When we arrived at his house, I asked him how to say, “Let’s play Minecraft tomorrow.” He slowly and perfectly enunciated the sentence.
Success! The writer not only succeeds in connecting to the student—no doubt changing his life—but he also succeeds in developing a compelling essay. He moves from the specific to the general and then back to the specific to give the pathos an anchoring gravitas. Thus, as a stand-alone testimony to the writer’s humanity, the essay works. Even better, though, is that its content and tone are reinforced by the writer’s universal commitment to education: he volunteers in an elementary school near his high school in Toledo, Ohio, an enclave of economic struggle, American-style. Thus, the essay acts as a metaphor for all of this young man’s actions, chronicled in his Common Application activities list and described in his letters of recommendation. His personal statement acts as the showpiece of a bigger picture about this mature, complex, and motivated young man.
Who wouldn’t accept him?
The next essay does a masterful job of taking a preconceived notion about Chinese students and exposing the humanity within. It is a bold confrontation with the fact this generation of Chinese students are the grown manifestations of China’s “one-child” policy. This topic could easily lend itself to over-analysis, over-simplification, melodrama, or some combination of the three. This writer, a budding filmmaker and thus a trained self-editor, is the perfect writer to provide fearless clarity to this nuanced topic. The writer is very conscious of the audience, of their curiosity and skepticism about all facets of Chinese parenting, right from the outset:
I have been asked quite a few times about my life here, in America. And when people find out that I have been here by myself since fifteen, half the Earth apart from my parents, they are usually impressed, but can’t understand. Some of them say they cannot imagine doing that to their children, and some even asked, “Why?
In the second paragraph, he delivers the following poignant answer to that seemingly rhetorical question:
There is never a brother or sister for me, and there is never another child for my parents. Thus, I am the only one they focus on, and I am the only one who carries the future of the family. In other words, I am all my parents’ expectations, as in other single-child families in China. And there is one thing—a simple but powerful thing— behind these expectations that drives everything. It is love.
Well . . . that statement should silence skeptics! It is blunt but also deeply considered, and it demonstrates a wisdom that belies the solipsism of adolescence and that which might be expected from only children. He goes on to describe how his parents express that love, and cites this expression as the culmination:
My family is certainly not a family that can buy whatever we want. However, my parents are never economical with my education. The money they earn is limited, but they spent it on me, especially when I was in middle school, the time I struggled most. They found one of the best, but also one of the most expensive tutoring organizations for me; they rented a house near my middle school because they did not want me to be tired at school; they found tutors to come to our house when I was going to have a very important test; they decided to send me to the US because they believed that the education there would be more suitable for me; they even signed me up for extra English classes.
Thus, the writer’s exile in America makes emotional sense as an expression of love. He goes on to conclude that it is a harsh love but full of expectations.
It was a great love that gave them the courage to send me here and overcome the pain of being half the Earth away from their only son.
I have had the privilege of meeting those parents, and, I assure you, the love is real, and the story is true. But admissions offices, after reading that compelling essay, will need no further proof of the intensity of this young man’s journey, his maturity in understanding it, and his artistry in telling the tale.
Who wouldn’t accept him?
Here’s the thing about the expectations of those parents and all others: it is impossible for a Chinese student to exceed expectations on the SAT or ACT; they cannot get higher than a 1600 or a 36, though they might—and will—try. It is entirely possible to go well beyond expectations in the personal statement.
So try. If you try hard enough, you will.