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For Chinese, getting into Harvard is a class act

The wealthy pay up to $300,000 for classes aimed at getting their child into an Ivy League school. English skills and extracurricular activities that are nothing short of impressive are a must.

June 04, 2010|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Chang Shui, 17, of Shanghai, who has been accepted into Harvard, says, "I grew up differently from my classmates. I spent a significant amount of time in dancing and extracurricular activities. I put in more time studying English."
Chang Shui, 17, of Shanghai, who has been accepted into Harvard, says, "I… (Jonathan Browning / For…)

Reporting from Shanghai — It was just a week after Chang Shui received her acceptance notice from Harvard that the first book offer came.

A publisher approached her father with a detailed outline for an inside guide to how a Shanghai couple prepared their daughter to compete successfully with the best students from America. Local newspapers weighed in with articles about how Chang's membership in a dance troupe surely helped. "Magical girl 'danced' her way into Harvard," the Shanghai Evening Post headlined its story.

Qibao High School, where Chang is a senior, trumpeted the news on a large electronic billboard at the front gate. The day that she received her acceptance notice — by e-mail at 5 a.m. April 2 — teachers at the high school crowded around to have their picture taken with her.

"She was a celebrity," boasted her homeroom teacher, Xiong Gongping.

"I'm not exactly a celebrity," Chang said, interjecting a note of modesty. "But it is true that more students are approaching me wanting to know how to go to college in the United States.

"And for the parents, it's their dream to send a kid to Harvard or Yale."

Chinese students: An article and accompanying photo caption in Saturday's Section A about Chinese students seeking entry into Harvard University misspelled student Chang Shuai's name as Chang Shui.

Charlotte Chang, as she'll call herself in the United States, is a skinny 17-year-old with hair pulled back into a perky pony tail and a broad, confident smile despite the braces that she hopes to get off her teeth before moving to Cambridge in August. Striding through her high school campus last month, she switched easily between Chinese and English, the word "cool" punctuating her speech, a product of spending her junior year of high school as an exchange student in Seattle.

She wears the Wedgewood-blue track suit jacket that is part of her school uniform, along with jeans and canvas sneakers that put a cheerful bounce in her step. The only book she carries is a paperback version of the novel, "The Time Traveler's Wife." She was reading it for fun.

Although she was at school that day to have her photograph taken with the rest of the senior class, she has stopped attending classes even as her classmates are preparing for the dreaded gaokao, or high test, that determines placement in Chinese universities.

"My friends are so depressed. They study from 7 a.m. to midnight," said Chang.

At the very top of the wish list for many of them is Harvard, or Hafo, which the Chinese pronounce with reverence. Its namesakes are found all over China, the Harvard Kindergarten, the Harvard Graphic Arts School, the Harvard Beauty School. For those coveting the real thing, there are nearly a dozen books in Chinese, among them "You Too Can Go to Harvard: Secrets of Getting into Famous U.S. Universities," and the bestseller published in 2000, "Harvard Girl."

"More and more rich Chinese families want to send their children to the United States to be educated, and when they do, they want them to go to the best universities," said Zhou Jun, the founder and head of the Leadership Academy, one of a dozen consulting firms that dispenses advice on how to get into foreign universities.

Based in Shanghai, his company targets a niche market of China's wealthiest families, people who will pay up to $300,000 for up to five years of supplemental classes aimed at getting their child into an Ivy League school. "The parents all want Harvard, but we can't guarantee that. We're not God. We work with what we have got."

Zhou's firm helps students with their English, prepares them to take the SATs, which are given in Hong Kong or through an international school, and helps them single out universities, fill out their applications and edit their essays. The consulting firm also organizes extracurricular programs, most recently a four-day hiking excursion to Nepal, and volunteer work tutoring the poor — the sort of activities notably absent on the resumes of most children schooled in a system obsessed with grades.

The desire to go to top American universities is not just about the prestige conveyed by the name. Chinese students envy many aspects of U.S. higher education, such as the chance to explore different pursuits before chosing a major, interactions with professors and the more open intellectual debates.

"You really don't learn anything in Chinese universities, It is very difficult to get into college, but more relaxed once you get there," said Zhang Haosheng, an 18-year-old classmate of Chang's at Qibao High School. "I think many of us, if we had the money, would prefer to go to school in the U.S."

There are currently 36 Chinese undergraduates at Harvard (the number of graduate students is much larger), but of 2,110 students accepted for the upcoming freshman class, at least nine are from China.

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