Within a few days, this year’s college admissions cycle will draw to an end. For Chinese students, who are 12 hours ahead of their dream schools, “Ivy Day” — the day when all eight Ivy League schools release their admissions decisions simultaneously — is always a sleepless night. But for those who receive offers from elite American colleges, it’s worth the wait. Some of these students become instant celebrities. It’s not rare to see the profile of an accepted student take up half a page in a newspaper, stir up online discussions or even have a little fan page on the Internet. But before the dozens of students get featured on Chinese media this year, I would encourage them to exercise their rights to say no to such potentially misleading publicity. They should use their moment of fame to voice their own opinions and reflections on the broader Chinese education system. These students could spark a constructive conversation on the issues facing higher education in China today.
Chinese people’s obsession with the Ivy League probably originated with the publication of Harvard Girl Liu Yiting, a 2000 book on the life and education of a Chengdu girl who was accepted to Harvard College in 1999. Liu was a typical Chinese “good student” — studied economics at Harvard and later became an investment banker — but the book by her parents and the barrage of media coverage rendered Liu a myth. Harvard, and other elite schools, became a buzzword with a halo. Students in elite American colleges are often perceived by Chinese people as top scorers on tests, just like the students who come up on top in the all-important College Entrance Examination that determines which domestic universities Chinese students can attend.
Unsurprisingly, the most frequent question I get asked as a Chinese tour guide here is what Yale’s requirements are for the SATs and the TOEFL test. For similar reasons, most media profiles on elite Chinese students mention their SAT and TOEFL scores either in the title or the first paragraph. Even worse, some test prep companies feature such students in their ads in an attempt to bolster their reputation, when high scores clearly have more to do with personal efforts than test prep techniques.
Over the years, the Chinese media has gradually accepted the Ivy League’s emphasis on a holistic evaluation of each applicant. As such, these profiles have similarly expanded in coverage to focus on the admitted students’ lives outside academics. As it turns out, elite students engage in all sorts of fancy extracurricular activities from sports to volunteering, from filmmaking to publishing. Nonetheless, descriptions about these extracurricular activities are also potentially misleading.
First, they give readers the impression that academic and extracurricular successes are the direct causes for these students’ admission to selective universities, such as Yale and Harvard. While these are important factors, they often fail to sufficiently emphasize the important roles a student’s family background and high school play in the college admissions process. It’s not a surprise that many of these students come from the best high schools and have prominent parents. Similarly, though these hagiographies portray the successful applicant as destined to succeed, they often overlook the factor of luck in the process: For every qualified student who is accepted, several equally talented students must be turned away.
Second, some readers may believe that an Ivy League acceptance letter is attainable for everyone. Unsurprisingly, many try to emulate the paths taken by the lucky few. This gives rise to the extremely profitable but somewhat unethical industry of résumé-padding study-abroad agencies in China. Such profiteering businesses only flourish when the narrow, seemingly perfect lives of a privileged few hang over the minds of millions of students. While an elite education should be open to everyone, it may not be the best fit for everyone. As Zheng Yefu, a sociologist at Peking University, forcefully argued in his 2013 book, The Pathology of Chinese Education, society should offer other ways than elite universities to lead a successful life. The public admiration of Ivy League students only narrows the meaning of success in China, further increases the cost of the educational arms race and victimizes the majority who will not be accepted by the Ancient Eight.
In order to avoid misleading publicity, the students accepted this year by America’s leading schools should use their newfound podium to demand that the media broaden its conception of success to include paths beyond just an acceptance letter to a U.S. college. Such a narrow definition of success is the outcome of a perverse education culture. Instead, success should be measured by how much the students are eventually able to contribute to society, and no one is in a better position to point out such simple truth than the elite students themselves.
Yifu Dong is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .