Every native Chinese student in an American university knows her. Every one of their parents dreams to have her.
In the fall of 2000, while I was roaming around shopping districts in Beijing with my mother, I saw the smiling face of Liu Yiting. She was gazing out from the front shelf of every street bookstore, her Harvard admissions letter in-hand, underneath red, bold characters — 哈佛女孩 — Harvard Girl. A fresh graduate from a local high school in her native Sichuan Province, Yiting was one of two Mainland Chinese students to be admitted to Harvard in 1999.
Xinhua, the government’s official press agency, issued the news of her admission through its global wire service. Sichuan newspapers ran full-page stories on her experiences as an exchange student in an American high school and as an actress in a television drama. Within half a day of the news’ release, nearly a thousand phone calls bombarded four hotlines set up by a business newspaper to serve readers curious about Liu’s story. Most of the calls came from pre-college students and their parents, to whom Yiting’s path to the Ivy League revealed a dream grander than any they ever dared to conceive, a dream that had just turned into a possibility. Yiting’s parents Liu Weihua and Zhang Xinwu, both editors at provincial level magazines, decided to write the book. Harvard Girl Liu Yiting detailed the “scientifically proven” methods they used to raise their daughter to be Harvard material.
When Liu was an infant, her parents put toys above her cradle just out of her grasp, to make her work harder for them. In order to accelerate the development of her verbal skills, they invited relatives to their house to ensure that someone was always talking to her. When Liu reached elementary school, her parents assigned her daily homework of hand-copying as many telephone numbers from the Yellow Pages as possible within one minute, aiming to increase her attentiveness. They challenged her to hold ice in her hand and stand on one foot for as long as possible to boost her endurance.
“My parents had been waiting for me to go to university and to become a socially recognizable success so they could use that as a start to get people to look at their theory,” Yiting said in an interview with Harvard Magazine. She noted that although Harvard’s name brought the book its initial publicity, it kept selling because Chinese families had embraced its direct, manual-like style.
Indeed, it sold. Today it has gone through 20 reprints and sold more than 2.6 million copies nationwide.
Back in 2000, the idea of American Ivy League schools was rosy but blurry to most Chinese people. Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth had previously only appeared in history textbooks next to names of American presidents and Nobel Prize winners. The concept of a liberal arts education had no proper translation into Chinese. But suddenly, it was what everyone wanted. For students who aspired to become the second and third Harvard Girl, Ivy League admissions was a new game to play, though the rules remained murky.
During the past decade, the winners have accumulated. New books — on “Columbia Girl,” “Princeton boy,” “How We Got Our Child Into Yale” — have appeared. The faces behind these success stories have been venerated by the public not only as pearls of China’s examination-oriented education machine, but also as those who learned to decipher the rules of America’s mystifying college admissions game.
Today, these earliest winners have navigated four years of a so-called “liberal arts education,” and most have graduated with honors. Now, they are embarking on careers in which they leverage their shining diplomas to the extreme. And this new game they are starting — that of finding a high-profile career — abides by a new set of rules.
A native Chinese student from Beijing and a senior at Yale, I find myself standing at the turning point that every Chinese undergraduate in the United States must encounter. I am between games, having conquered the admissions process, on the verge of entering the job market. Behind me, underclassmen survey this American land they have travelled far to see. Ahead of me, my predecessors have launched themselves high into glamorous careers, while their peers in China stand on their toes to catch a view.
For now, I am content where I am, watching the hustle and bustle of the games. The players are busy studying the rules carved out by the winners, while the winners are en route to their next round. For those wanting to make it from China to the Ivy League and find success thereafter, have no fear. I’ve been there, wide-eyed and pacing, clueless where to start. Now a tired player but a fascinated observer, I have extracted the rules for you. Follow them, and you too can wear the halo of Harvard Girl.
Rule #1: Remember the unfulfilled dreams conceived by the past generations who came to america for education.
It is no new challenge for Chinese students to strive to meet set standards and figure out the rules of the game. But it is new that they are finally in the game.
In the late 1970s, after China reopened its gates to the West, the first wave of Chinese intellectuals landed in American educational institutions. Dispatched by the Chinese government, they arrived set on introducing advanced Western science and technology to China to fill the intellectual vacuum left by ten years of the Cultural Revolution. Mostly in their thirties, these pioneers lived on scanty government subsidies and conducted research in their assigned fields. Just as they learned to hide their amazement at the size of lobsters and lay aside their dictionaries when inching through academic papers, they were summoned back by their motherland, mandated to apply their knowledge to various fields of China’s modernization. Some found means to stay in America, steering their life courses in narrow sectors of academia and saving their meager salaries to purchase humble houses in residential districts with the best public schools.
In 1989 and 1990, another cohort of Chinese flocked to American universities — this time it was not respected scholars on government missions, but political outcasts exiled in the wake of the bloodstained June 1989 in Beijing. Having just hurtled from Tiananmen Square, where flags carrying pro-democratic slogans fluttered and thousands of college students chanted patriotic songs, they now found themselves on a strange new continent, starting from scratch. Some of them toiled at low-paid jobs in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Others were accepted at American universities, their battle cries among tanks and bullets in Tiananmen Square reduced to ideological reasoning in political science papers.
The 1990s witnessed a continuous and steadily increasing influx of Chinese students to the United States. Having just finished their undergraduate study in elite Chinese universities, they came abroad to “gild themselves.” Most of them chose to study science and engineering, as those were the fields for which their Chinese education had prepared them. The humanities and social sciences were still in an embryonic state in the Chinese education system, gradually coming into existence years after the trauma of the Cultural Revolution.
Distressing reality all too often crushes lofty dreams. But what has passed belongs to history. Wipe away your pessimism and march on, for what came next was the milestone marking a new era — the birth of Harvard Girl.
Rule #2: Remember that you are in the age of Harvard Girl.
When Liu Yiting started to prepare for TOEFL, a standard test that American universities require international applicants to take, she had no study materials. As time was running out, her anxious mother called a childhood friend in Beijing, whose husband drove to a bookstore in the city, bought a set of prep books, and sent them to Liu by express mail.
Within a year or two after Yiting’s Harvard admission, American college consulting agencies sprung up in major Chinese cities, their ads occupying billboards on skyscrapers and in subway stations. “For every hour the earth rotates, 2,210 students are sitting in our classroom, enjoying our professional guidance on TOEFL and SAT; for every round the earth rotates, 256 students receive admission letters from distinguished universities all over the world,” an ad cries, next to the words a giant golden globe in rotating motion. Chinese students rushed to Internet forums about the American college application process. They posted sample SAT questions, exchanged second-hand test prep books, compared interview strategies, and discussed potential major choices. On one forum named CUUS (Chinese Undergraduates in the United States), the title of one post reads “Is it true that your score will drop to below 750 if you get two math problems wrong in SAT I?” Another seeks advice on her personal statement, in a post reading, “Newbie, begging for help with my PS, tearful thanks.”
Due to the lack of SAT test centers in Mainland China, high school students from all over the country looked for travel companions online, booked discounted group tickets of 10 or 20, and flocked to Hong Kong to take the exam. Later, as the test centers ran out of spots, students traveled as far as Korea, Singapore, and Thailand. Seniors in Chinese high schools began to skip classes, take medical leaves, or quit school — thus giving up the possibility of entering a Chinese university — to make time for SAT lessons, essay tutoring, and interview preparations.
Application packages from China started to inundate the admissions offices of American universities. In 1999, the year Liu Yiting entered Harvard, just 44 students from Chinese high schools applied; in 2008, the number soared to 484. In 2003, there were 8,000 native Chinese undergraduates on campuses all across America. In 2008, there were 26,000.
Rule #3: Don’t forget: American universities are trying on Asian outfits, too.
The daunting number of students courting American elite universities may be disheartening, but study the stats, and you will see the relationship is not completely unilateral.
Take Yale. From 2005 to 2009, a fleeting moment in the university’s more than 300 years of history, the number of Chinese undergraduates doubled from 28 to 56, making China the most represented East Asian country on campus. The number did not waver even during the rigid economic winter of 2007 and 2008, as the university’s budget cut did not reduce the fat financial aid packages set aside for international students. Geographically, the admitted students no longer came exclusively from Shanghai and Beijing, but also Shenyang, Chengdu, Taiyuan and Zhengzhou, second-tier cities that sprinkle the country’s vast land.
In a September 2010 letter to Yale faculty, University President Richard Levin laid out his proposal to open a new liberal arts college in Singapore, in partnership with the National University of Singapore.
“Today, in virtually all of Asia and much of the rest of the world, undergraduates pursue specialized courses of study. Entering students are enrolled immediately to prepare in medicine, law or a single academic discipline, and the pedagogy, in much of the world, focuses on memorization and mastering a particular body of knowledge,” he writes. “By giving students exposure to multiple disciplinary perspectives, and by steeping them in a pedagogy that encourages independent critical thinking, liberal education can help college graduates contribute most effectively to the economics and social advancement of their nation and facilitate the greater understanding among people that is so desperately needed in this country.”
As a Chinese national raised in preparation for the pedagogy that Levin details and now having spent five years in American educational institutions, I am finally able to begin to describe the idea of a liberal arts education to my peers at home. However, I still remember my confusion when the term was first explained to me by a bespectacled, soft-spoken American college admissions officer.
Liberal arts education with an Asian twist, I thought after reading Levin’s letter. Would it be as popular among my Asian peers as Chinese language study is trendy among my American friends?
But if you have the same doubts about the promise of a liberal arts education, put them aside, at least while you are being interviewed, for you are about to explain why you want one.
Rule #4: Once you’ve decided to take a stab at becoming Harvard Girl, fashion yourself into what the admissions officers call “a well-rounded applicant.”
On the website of Yale’s admissions office, under the conspicuous orange title “What is Yale Looking For?” the first paragraph reads:
“Many years ago, former Yale President Kingman Brewster wrote that selecting future Yale students was a combination of looking for those who would make the most of the extraordinary resources assembled here, those with a zest to stretch the limits of their talents, and those with an outstanding public motivation — in other words, applicants with a concern for something larger than themselves.”
If President Brewster had met Eric, a current Yale senior from Sichuan Province in China, he would certainly recognize in him the sparks of a future leader. (Eric asked that his name be changed to protect his privacy.)
Eric’s high school resume conveys no less glory than those of his American peers at Yale: chair of the student council, head of the school radio station, editor in chief of the school newspaper, and the youngest winner of the Future Leader Award at a Model United Nations Conference hosted primarily for Chinese college students. Eric attended the same school as Harvard Girl but seven years apart. On the school billboard and official brochures, he was mentioned next to Harvard Girl as Yale Boy.
While his success drew envy from students across China, he revealed in an interview with a local newspaper: “There’s no trick. Last year, Yale admitted seven students from Mainland China. They were not necessarily the most outstanding of all applicants. They didn’t have perfect TOEFL or SAT scores, nor did they attend the most extracurricular activities. But I think they did one thing well, which is to promote themselves.”
Perhaps it sounds easy.
In China, colleges select students solely by their scores on the annual National College Entrance Exam, a cutthroat competition often referred to as “squeezing through a single-plank bridge.” American colleges’ multi-dimensional admissions standards, taking into consideration personal statements, academic transcripts, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, and SAT scores, baffle Chinese parents and students alike.
Jie Min ’13 from Nanjing, China admitted to me that for her, getting into an American university was harder than getting into a Chinese one: “American universities measure their applicants from all sides and don’t set a specific standard for each. You can only try your best. Every student is a different individual in their system, whereas in China, every student is only a score in admissions officers’ eyes.”
Knowing the importance individuality plays in American college admissions, she sent Yale a “love letter” after she was deferred Early Action.
“In the letter, I talked about how I felt about Yale during my campus visit, and how I thought it was a good fit for me,” she explained at the time to local Chinese media. “I called it a love letter because American universities really emphasize personality match.”
Rule #5: After you have proven you can become Harvard Girl…welcome to Harvard.
“Getting in is the hardest part,” people often say about Ivy League schools. After you do, it is time to look around.
Sijia Song ’14, hailing from Beijing, is ready to embrace the academic freedom Yale has to offer. Always a fan of science fiction and Western literature, she has enrolled in Directed Studies. Although the program’s weekly five-page paper has won it the joking name “Directed Suicide,” Sijia beamed when she recounted the excitement of, for the first time in her life, discussing the humanities in a classroom setting.
“I’ve never taken such classes in China. You know the way English classes are taught back at home,” she said. I smiled back knowingly. My high school in Beijing, similar to Sijia’s, set the ability to help students answer multiple choice questions on college entrance exams as the primary goal of its English curriculum.
Sijia said the most exciting classroom discussion that she’s had so far on campus was talking about Aristotle’s The Politics and the Constitution of Athens. “In the book, he put forward the theory that men who are ‘natural slaves’ lack reasoning, and women have reasoning but no authority, so neither of them can take part in politics. Instead, they need to rely on the head of the households — the citizens. Many people in modern society are not comfortable with the idea, but are we now truly in a world free of class differentiation? We still have migrant workers and people toiling at low-paid jobs who have no voice in the way things are. In class, we had a debate about whether Aristotle’s theory is still relevant to today’s society.”
In her high school in China, Sijia had to choose between a sciences track and a humanities track in 11th grade. She did not choose the humanities track, she explained, because she was afraid that her mind, after being formed by China’s didactic humanities curriculum, would not be able to adapt to American colleges’ training in critical thinking. She always knew she wanted to come to America for college.
Unlike Sijia, when Eric arrived on campus three years ago, he did not know what he wanted to study, but he was determined to find out. He signed up for Introduction to Programming, Introduction to Ethics, Moral Foundation of Politics, and Level One French.
“I didn’t do well in many classes I took,” he said with a shrug, “which was also a shock — I thought I could do well in college as well.”
The shock drove him into a spiral of worries and self-doubts, he said, an anxiety that needed to be quenched by a stronger sense of purpose.
“It was a painful process. I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what I wanted or who I was,” he explained rapidly in a hushed tone. “Then I started to think about what I should do in the future, and what I lacked and what I needed in order to do that. Finance is what I decided to settle on.”
During our sophomore year, Eric and I led a community service trip that took 13 Yale students to an elementary school in his home province. Our junior year, as I retreated to the library and battled with essays and papers, he disappeared into his bedroom off-campus. Several times we ran into each other in the library; he carried a brick-shaped book titled Corporate Finance and described to me the courses he was taking at Yale’s School of Management. Over the summer after his junior year, he interned at Morgan Stanley’s Hong Kong office, and the little green figure of his instant messenger account, before always visible under my online contact list, disappeared altogether.
“I think everybody comes to Yale with some romantic idealism, wanting to save the world and contribute to the greater good,” he said, chuckling to himself. “But when you are in your senior year, you see that a lot of people are pretty practical.”
One’s level of practicality often results from where he or she comes from, he added. “American students could be idealists when they arrive as a freshmen and still be idealists when they leave as a seniors. It’s more difficult for the Chinese students, especially under the current social values — the richer ones are the bosses,” he snorted. “I feel that people in China, not to say everybody, but most people, don’t value the tranquility of life. A middle class person who owns an apartment, a car, and has a stable job could feel content about himself in the United States, or in any Scandinavian country. But he wouldn’t in China.”
Still, he explained, he saw China as his ultimate destination.
“I think that’s a rational choice. Ultimately everybody will go back to China, unless you want to go into academia, or do journalism.”
Hoping to go into journalism and to stay in the United States myself, I join a few of my Chinese peers at Yale in the “unless” category. But for every one of us, I’ve noticed a handful of students like Eric. And if you find yourself following in his footsteps, you’ll need to continue playing by the rules. You no longer need a liberal education; you need a plan.
Rule #6: Channel your well-roundedness into a career in finance.
In recent years, investment banking has emerged as the single most desired post-graduation career among Chinese undergraduate students at top American universities. A rundown of the employers of the recent Chinese graduates from Yale reveals names like Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, JP Morgan, and Deutsche Bank. Of the 15 students from Mainland China in my senior class, 11 are applying to banking jobs.
Chinese students describe walking into interviews to see fellow Chinese alums from Yale across the table, people whom they once bonded with over late night scallion pancake runs and weekend rice wine parties. Rawen Huang ’07, in an e-mail to Chinese freshmen at Yale during his first year at Morgan Stanley, said he was confident that soon in every division at every bank on Wall Street, there would be members of CUSY, the Chinese Undergraduate Students at Yale. He conjured up the idea of a mentoring program, in which CUSY members interested in a banking career would be paired up with CUSY alumni on Wall Street. The veterans would enlighten the newbies, stumbling around the giant maze of Investment Banking, with their numerous tips and would point out to them the hidden pitfalls: which prep book did the job, how to frame your personality in cover letters, and a list of answers for the common brainteasers at interviews. When it became clear, however, that the newbies outnumbered the veterans by a wide margin, the idea was dropped.
Most Chinese Yalies, like Eric, say they only intend to stay in banking for a few years.
“I am planning on working there [at Morgan Stanley] for three to five years, if things go well. If not, maybe two years,” he said. “I will use the time to understand the industry and to gain some personal leverage. Look at me now, going to be a fresh graduate out of college, knowing nothing, with a liberal arts education, which means…nothing. What can I do? So I think I should learn something first, look around before I settle into a plan.”
And what is that plan?
“I don’t know” jumped out of his mouth, as though he should.
Consider your predecessors who came for education in America but shared no part of the game;
Consider the double currents you’ve ridden on — China’s awakening obsession with American universities and American universities’ growing interest in Chinese talents;
Consider the hours you spent cracking SAT prep books and fine-tuning your application essays to groom yourself into the most well-rounded college candidate;
Consider the sleepless nights you spent tossing in your bed in freshmen year, eager to retrieve your lost sense of purpose;
Consider that Harvard Girl, having graduated from college with an applied math and economics degree, is now a senior investment manager in a private equity firm.
Ten years ago, the girl with ear-long hair in a striped shirt gazed out of the cover of her book. She now gazes out of her LinkedIn profile photo, donning a dark suit and wearing a pearl necklace.
Rule #7: There is no reason not to continue the game.