Karin Fischer, an international reporter at The Chronicle, is filing occasional updates this week from the annual conference of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling, an organization of college-admissions officers and overseas education advisers.
Denver — Some parents see Jason Zhang as a babysitter. Their children think of him as their secretary.
But Mr. Zhang is neither of those things. He’s director of college counseling at Nanjing Foreign Language School, in China.
Guidance counselors have long been fixtures of American high schools. But high-school-based advising is a nascent field in China, spurred by the recent explosion of interest in earning a college degree overseas.
University admissions there, and even students’ majors, are determined by their scores on a single national entrance examination, the gao kao. So there’s never been any need for counselors to advise students on college choices, high-school courses of study, or extracurricular activities.
But as the number of undergraduate students going abroad has increased exponentially in the last few years, international divisions of Chinese high schools have added advisers like Mr. Zhang. That doesn’t mean, however, that students and their parents completely understand their role, Mr. Zhang and two other counselors told an audience here at the annual meeting of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling.
Some students and their families think that “students take the test, and the counselor does the rest,” Mr. Zhang said of the admissions process.
It’s the “gao kao mentality,” he said, referring to the national exam. Students obsess about their scores on the SAT, thinking that it will ensure their admission to a top American college. Instead, he has to counsel them about the importance of personal essays, high-school grades, and outside interests.
At Wuxi No. 1 High School, about a 40-minute high-speed train ride outside of Shanghai, Fiona You meets monthly with students planning to go abroad and once a semester with their parents. For their first two years of the three-year high school, students also take a weekly course that covers the college-application process and the study skills needed to thrive in a Western-style curriculum.
When Ms. You, who studied in Britain, began, she was the sole college counselor. Now her school has eight advisers, along with four trainers who prepare students for the SAT and English-proficiency tests.
Still, most Chinese high schools do not have counselors. (Mr. Zhang and Ms. You both work in international departments of high schools, which charge substantial tuition to prepare students to study overseas, and were hired through a private company, Dipont Education.)
Instead, Chinese students who want to go abroad typically turn to outside education agents. Some of those recruiters have been accused of unethical behavior, including fabricating applications, faking grades, and writing personal essays on students’ behalf.
Mr. Zhang said families sometimes want to cut corners to ensure admission, such as one set of parents who wanted a family friend who taught at a top-ranked American university to take admissions staff members to dinner in order to press their child’s case. Parents’ social standing and prestige are often wrapped up in students’ acceptance at top colleges, he said.
Jennifer Peng, the head counselor at Shenzhen Foreign Language High School, said she and other “first-generation counselors” had to educate students and their parents about applying to college abroad. Ms. Peng, who studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said she struggles to convince students they should choose colleges for fit, rather than rankings.
And it’s not just students and parents who hold unrealistic expectations, she said, recalling that she was approached by a school administrator who wanted a “superstar class” of students attending only the very best universities.
Ms. Peng said, however, that she was starting to see some progress. About 150 students from her school go to the United States annually, and this year they applied to and received acceptances from a wider variety of institutions than in the past, including liberal-arts colleges.
“We’re starting to get more trust from parents and students,” Ms. Peng said. She noted, with some pride, that a meeting with parents a few weeks ago was the first time she didn’t “get attacks, get criticism.”
Updated, 7/12/2012, 1 p.m. EDT -- It’s worth noting, as I did not do explicitly in my initial post, that there’s skepticism in China about even this new breed of college couselors. That’s because, except at a very small handful of schools, these counselors are not direct employees of public high schools, as they would be in the United States. Rather, they are often hired by private companies, like Dipont, that also have businesses as agents.