Tips for Chinese students applying to American universities

Updated: 2011-11-23 09:31

By Patrick Mattimore (

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There are more Chinese college students studying in the US than from any other country for the 2010-2011 academic year according to information released last week from the Institute for International Education. Chinese student enrollment in the US rose to 157,558, nearly 22 percent of the total international student population, making China the leading sending country for the second consecutive year. The numbers of Chinese undergraduates going to the United States rose 43 percent, to 57,000 students.

US universities need China's money and China is sending good students to America, but there is starting to be a backlash. The Washington Post called the record numbers of Chinese students enrolling in American colleges a "campus overload."

"We are so tied into the Chinese economy in so many ways that if something were to happen in China, we'd all be feeling the impact," says Scott E. King, assistant dean of international programs at the University of Iowa, where more than 1,245 of the 1,734 international undergraduates are from China. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, that university, like many others, is beginning to ask itself, how many Chinese students is too many?

The most selective US universities already turn away many qualified Chinese students. This year Vanderbilt University in Tennessee received 735 undergraduate applications from Chinese students and enrolled only 22. Here's a quote from the Dean of Admissions there. "If we have too many students on our campuses from one country - and right now it's India and China and South Korea - I worry that, to our domestic students, internationalization means students from Asia."

What that suggests is that Chinese families and students must become more savvy about applying to schools in the US. Applicants from China should look at state universities in the US and lesser known small colleges which need their dollars. One good bet is California. According to a report from Reuters earlier this month, California, which is the eighth largest economy in the world, could face a budget gap of up to $8 billion in its next fiscal year.

California cut funding for the University of California this year by $650 million, the same amount that was cut from the California State University system. One source of revenue for those cash-strapped systems is overseas dollars.

A University of California commission recently recommended that the university system increase enrollment of nonresident students to as much as 10 percent of all undergraduates. Nonresidents pay about $34,000 in annual tuition, compared with about $12,000 for California residents.

The UC system enjoys an enviable international reputation. Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), which compiles one of the two most prominent world rankings of universities, rated six of UC's nine undergraduate campuses among the top 50 universities worldwide.

Other state university systems may be even more attractive to Chinese students. Out-of-state undergraduates make up only 6% of UC's overall enrollment. By comparison, flagship public universities in Michigan and Virginia enroll more than 30% of their undergraduates from out of state. Flagship state universities in Maryland, Minnesota, Washington, Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado, and North Carolina, are all ranked in SJTU’s top fifty.

Another alternative for students who wish to study abroad is Canada. There are some very good schools in Canada (both the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia are in the top fifty), and they are generally less expensive than American schools.

Finally, Chinese students should load up on standardized tests. Since it is hard for American schools to judge grades from a foreign system or to rely on evaluations, awards, and personal statements, tests are an objective measure by which schools can compare students. Students should take AP classes and exams when available and although university systems in the US don’t require SAT Subject exams, (the University of California just dropped that requirement) those tests are another objective measure that admissions’ officers would like to see on a transcript.

The author teaches American law courses in China through a masters program jointly sponsored by Tsinghua University and Temple University, and is a fellow at the US-based Institute for Analytic Journalism. He formerly served on the faculty/student admissions committee at the University of California/Hastings College of the Law.