Letter 15 — What is it like to be a student in America? (Choosing a college)

Dear Friends,

What’s it like to be a college student in the US, and how is it different from being a student in China?  (You’ll notice that I use the term “college students”.  In America, that’s what we call them, whether they’re in a university or a college.”  College students” usually means undergraduates, but a lot of what I have to say will apply to graduate students, too.  We also use the words “college” and “school” to refer to either a university or college.  Confusing, isn’t it?)  The short answer is that students’ lives in China and America are very similar in some ways.  They live with other students, they eat cheap food that isn’t nearly as tasty as what they would get at home, they go to class, they worry about exams.  But there are significant differences, as we shall see.

In fact, this is such a big question that I will write two letters about it.  In this letter I’ll talk about how American students make decisions about their educations, and what the application process is like for them.  I know that many Chinese students are interested in how all of this would apply to you if you decide you would like to attend school in America, so I’ll try to make the similarities and differences clear along the way.  In the second letter, I’ll tell you what life is like for a student in an American college or university.

All parents in all countries want their children to “get a good education,” as we call it.  However, in America that does not necessarily mean a university education at a prestigious university, or even at a university, nor does it necessarily mean it must happen immediately after you finish high school.  The expectations vary from family to family.  Some parents think it’s very important for their children to go to a “good” school, just as in China.  But in general we Americans understand and accept that when our children graduate from high school there are several options they may want to consider.

Some, of course, want to go directly to college.  If they are properly prepared, this may be the best choice.  We’ll come back to this option in a moment.

Some students may want to join the military, to serve their country and also to earn special education benefits available to military veterans.  Only a small part of our military services is made up of career soldiers.  Most soldiers serve for a short time then return to civilian life.  A young person who has served for two to four years in the military earns significant educational benefits, which can then be used to pay for education or training after they leave the military.

Some may want to get jobs, so they can begin earning money and get started with a career.  This may be because they know what they want to do, or it may be just the opposite – they don’t know what they want to do, but they’d like to just try something.  They may also simply not be ready to start college.  Or they may want to take a year off as a break from school before starting college.

Even in one family, each of the children may make a different decision.  There is no best decision in general, just whatever is best for each person.

If the student decides to go to college immediately, there are many decisions to make.  Public or private school?  College or university or community college?  (I’ll explain these terms soon.)  Close to home or farther away?  Large or small?  Very competitive and exclusive or open to all?  General or specialized?  Our son decided that he wanted to attend a medium-sized university, not too small or too large, of very good quality, in a warm city far from home.  Some of his friends decided to attend the very large public university in our city, while others decided to start at a local community college.  Unlike in China, where you are normally pressured by your families and teachers to apply to the highest-ranking university that will accept you, in America we tend to encourage our young people to select a school that is best suited to their needs and goals.

What are the differences?  A public college or university is one that is owned and operated by the state in which it is located, or sometimes by the city or county (our national government doesn’t own or operate any universities, except for the military training schools).  A private college or university, usually called a private school, may be operated by a religious organization or a private foundation of some sort, or may be completely independent of other organizations.  The private schools own their own land and buildings, and control their own programs, course schedules, and admissions.  Because public schools are operated by the government of a state, and supported financially by the state, they almost always charge lower tuition and fees for students who live in their state.  Private schools have no direct government subsidies, so they normally have to charge higher fees – often much higher – than public institutions.

A “college” in America is normally a school with a four-year undergraduate program that specializes in one area, such as Arts & Sciences, or Engineering.  It may offer graduate degrees (master’s and doctorate), but this is less common.  What we call a “university” is a collection of several colleges organized into one institution, including graduate schools and professional schools such as medicine and law.  Universities tend to be larger than colleges, but not always.  Both universities and colleges come in all grades of quality, and the finest colleges are the equal of the finest universities.

“Community colleges” are two-year colleges that offer the same courses as the first two years of a university or college.  Quite often they plan their courses and programs so they closely match those of nearby four-year schools.  Nearly half of our freshman students begin their college studies in a community college – sometimes because their preparation is not solid enough, but more often because the fees of a community college are much less expensive.  Then, usually after two years of study, they transfer to a college or university to complete their bachelor’s degrees.  Most community colleges also offer vocational training programs of various sorts.  In China these vocational schools are also called universities, but we don’t call them that, because we only use the word university to describe advanced academic institutions.

In China, almost all universities are in large cities, and the best are in the largest cities.  In America, excellent colleges and universities may also be found in big cities, but many of them, including some of the most prestigious, are located in smaller places, and some are even in the countryside or small towns.  Quite a few of our universities have more students than there are residents in the towns where they are located!  We don’t judge the quality of a school by where it’s located.

In China the leading universities are ranked, and about fifteen or twenty national universities are most favored by the government, meaning that their funding is much more generous.  For example, in recent years the three schools that have been considered to be right at the top are Tsinghua, Beida and Zheda, with Shanghai Jiaotong, Nanda and Fudan close behind.  In the US we don’t have any kind of official ranking.  Various magazines, organizations and websites publish their own rankings, based on all sorts of things – size, quality of research, quality of teaching, wealth – but these rankings aren’t official in any way.  We use them only as a general guide when selecting a school for a particular student.

You are probably most familiar with schools such as Stanford, Harvard, and UCLA, because they are among our most famous schools – though they are also all fine universities and deserve their fame.  But I would estimate that when it comes to undergraduate education there are at least twenty or thirty universities and colleges in the US that are in the same category of world-class excellence as these famous schools.  There are probably another two or three hundred that could be called outstanding, though perhaps not world-class.  Many others range from good to very good.  It is instructive to look over the listings of faculty (professors and lecturers) at the most famous universities, and see where they received their own educations.  They come from a wide range of backgrounds.

When we speak of tuition, we mean the fees a student must pay to attend classes and earn credits and a degree.  There may also be other fees to pay for specific items such as student computer labs, athletic facilities or health care.  If a student lives on the campus there will be a charge for what we call “room and board” – space in a dormitory room, and food.  In addition, a student will need money for books, and some spending money for entertainment and clothes.

It’s expensive to attend college in America.  Costs vary over a wide range, but I will give some rough averages.  A student who lives at home and attends a local public college or university can expect to spend about $15,000 a year just for tuition, fees and books.  A foreign student at the same university, living on campus in a dorm, would pay $35,000-40,000 for all expenses.  Either one of these students (private schools charge all students, foreign and domestic, the same fees) would pay $50,000 at a prestigious private university, and only a little less at a good small private college.  At a typical community college the tuition and fees might be as low as $3000 for a domestic student and $10,000 for a foreign student, but this doesn’t include food, housing and entertainment.  These are typical costs in 2010 — the costs tend to increase every year.

This is a lot of money.  How do we afford it?  Well, some families are prosperous enough that they can afford it by themselves, but most families cannot.  About two-thirds of all American college students receive some kind of financial aid.  Some of this aid is awarded because of academic performance, but most of it is based on the family’s need.  There are several forms of aid, and most students who receive aid receive more than one type:

Scholarships, which are awards of money (from the college or from other outside sources), often based on academic merit, which do not have to be repaid

Loans made by banks to students or their parents, often with special low interest rates because of government support, which must be repaid (usually within ten years after graduation)

Grants of small amounts of money given by the national government or state governments to students from low-income families

Work-study – part-time jobs on campus, partly funded by the government, that make it convenient for a student to earn part of the cost of school

In addition, most students work during the summers, and many students have part-time jobs (or sometimes even full-time jobs) during the school year to support themselves.  Married students (who are not uncommon among older students) may rely on their spouse’s income.

Unfortunately for foreign students, most of these sources of aid are only available to students who are American citizens or permanent residents, especially at public institutions.  Private schools have more flexibility in this, and sometimes make scholarships and work-study positions available to foreign students.  For most foreign students, though, it won’t be possible to study in the US unless your family can find a way to afford the cost.

Some prospective college students may have only one particular school in mind, and not be interested in any others.  However, most students apply to more than one school, because they know they may not be admitted to their first-choice school — at the most prestigious schools, there may be ten or more applicants for every available admission opening.  On the other hand, at some less-prestigious schools all qualified applicants may be admitted.  Students may also want to see how much financial aid is offered to them by each school before making a decision.

To apply to a particular school you first find out what their admission requirements are.  Try this yourself: pick out some American university you’ve heard of, go to their web site, and find the “admissions” link.  It will tell you all you need to know, and you can compare it to what I say here.  In most cases, a complete application will consist of the following:

An application form, with information such as your name and address, when and where you went to high school, and so on

An official transcript of all the courses you have taken in high school, and your grades in them (and in community college, if you have studied there)

Some sort of personal statement – but not at all like a Chinese personal statement (I’ll come back to that)

Letters of recommendation from your teachers or others who can comment on your character and academic potential – written by the teachers themselves, not by the student

In many cases, you must also report your scores on one of the standardized admissions tests, such as the ACT or SAT.  These are quite different from the Chinese university entrance exam.  Although they are administered nationally, they are administered by private organizations – the government has nothing to do with them.  Colleges can use them or not, as they please.  Recently, some of the more prestigious schools have stopped requiring them.  Schools that do use them very seldom have a specific cut-off score.  The test scores are just one factor in considering whether or not to admit you.  These tests are given several times each year, and you can take them more than once, to try to improve your score.

You apply for financial aid separately, by submitting forms about family income so the family’s level of financial need can be determined.  Most schools make the admission decision without regard to financial need, then if you are admitted they consider financial aid.  In other words, your chances of being admitted do not depend on your family’s ability to pay the full cost.

The admission process in American schools is normally extremely fair and honest.  A few students may be admitted to a school for reasons other than their academic qualifications – for example, a star athlete, or a sister of a current student or daughter of a graduate, or a son of someone who donated a large amount of money to the school.  Even in these cases the student must have at least acceptable academic qualifications.  Normally every student is treated the same way, and this includes both domestic and foreign students.  You cannot be admitted to a school just because your parents have a friend, or because some money was quietly handed to just the right person.  If an admissions officer of an American school were found to have taken money from the family of an applicant, or from an agent, he or she would be immediately fired, and an admissions officer who worked for a public school might face a criminal charge as well.  As you can see, this kind of thing is not tolerated in American schools.

This “transparent” admissions policy is important to know about if you want to continue your studies in the US.  Some Chinese families pay for the services of companies that claim they can guarantee your admission to certain American (or other foreign) universities.  The fees charged by these companies are quite high – I have heard that 30,000-40,000 RMB is not uncommon.  These companies give the impression that they know the right people, or that they have some special connection or knowledge that gives them the power to get you admitted.

Frankly, these companies are a waste of money.  Worse than that, they are misleading you.  What do they do for you?  They do three things.

First, they “guarantee” your admission to certain schools.  But all they really guarantee is that if you aren’t admitted, they will give you part of your money back?  That’s not a real guarantee.  It just says “we’ll try — if it works we get to keep the money, if it doesn’t, sorry”.  Furthermore, if you look at the lists of schools they “guarantee,” and go to the web sites of those schools, you’ll find that in almost every case the schools are very clear about the fact that they will accept all qualified students.  That is, these are the schools that have enough room for more students and do not turn away qualified candidates.  There is no reason for you to need help in applying to them.

Second, they go to the schools’ web sites, download the application papers and deadline information, give them to you, tell you when to return them, and then mail them to the school for you.  You can do all of this yourself!  The information is all right there in the websites!  Most of these companies also charge money to help you apply for a student visa, but once again all the information you need is right there on the US government web site at no cost, and these companies have no special contacts or influence with the US government.

Finally, some of these companies (or other independent groups) will offer to write your personal statement, and even your faculty letters of reference, for a fee.  I’ll get back to personal statements in a moment, but for now let me just point out two serious problems with using this kind of “service”.  First, the personal statements they supply are generally of very poor quality, and in fact are usually worse than what you could do yourself.  Second, the American universities are quite aware that this kind of thing goes on, and they can recognize statements that are not original, and if they see that yours has been written by someone else they will almost certainly not admit you.  In other words, you have little to gain, but everything to lose, by paying someone else to write your personal statement.

There is something else about admissions that I would like to mention.  Many of you want to go to America to study for a year or less – we would call you an “exchange student.”  You may have been told by your university that you must either be selected by your university to apply to a particular American school, or at least receive permission.  Such permission is not a requirement of the American schools – they just want to make sure you’re qualified and are the right kind of student for them.  It might be that the Chinese government will not approve your going without permission from your university, but that’s something different.  As for the American government, it’s concern is whether you have been officially accepted by an accredited US school.

What about the personal statement?  Some universities ask applicants to write a short essay about a broad topic, such as “How do you think the worldwide economic situation will affect higher education?”  Most, however, ask something like “Tell us about yourself – your goals, your most important experiences, the kind of person you are, and why you think you would benefit from an education at our university.”  They do not say tell us how great you are, or how many prizes you have won, or that you were chosen as the most outstanding student in your class six times.  Those things may be desirable in a personal statement for a Chinese university, but for an American university they would be considered inappropriate, because they would be seen as bragging, or what we call “tooting your own horn.”  Another part of the application form gives you the opportunity to list all your awards and accomplishments, and the personal statement is not the place to list them.

Instead, the university wants to know about things such as:  Are you shy or outgoing?  Do you really love a certain sport, and why?  Has travel given you any special experiences?  Have you ever volunteered in a program to help poor families?  Are your parents immigrants?  Do you hope to become president of your own company someday?  Is there a special program at this university that you think would be exactly suited to what you want to study?  Was there a course in high school that you especially enjoyed, and that helped you set career goals?  Have you had any unusual life experiences, perhaps even hardships, that have helped make you the person you are?  Have you done anything to contribute to your community?  Do you like to play music?  Has any of your writing been published?

Do you see the point?  They want to know what makes you special, as a whole person.  They’re not looking for a studying machine.  They want to know what makes you interesting and unique, which is not the same thing as asking you to brag about yourself.

Another common problem for applicants from China is that many personal statements written by Chinese students are copied from examples found on the internet or found in books, or provided by an agency.  American colleges are not fooled by this.  It is easy for them to recognize such statements, because they lack originality.  An unoriginal personal statement will lower your chances of acceptance, because it shows that you are unable to express your own thoughts in an original way.

If you do decide to apply to an American university, whether for a semester abroad or for graduate studies or whatever, it would be a good idea for you to ask a foreign teacher to look over a draft of your personal statement and make comments.  I’ve done this for many of my young Chinese friends, and most of the other foreign teachers I know are happy to do it, too.  I wouldn’t recommend asking Chinese teachers, even ones who have spent some time in foreign universities, as they tend to be too traditionally Chinese in their views to be of help.

Best wishes with your applications!  Time studying overseas can be a wonderful experience.

Your Friend,