Coaching China students for US Admissions

Source: NYTimes, May 2011

For answers, she turned to ThinkTank Learning, a college admission consulting company from California that had recently opened an office in Shenzhen, next door to Hong Kong.

“I wanted American professionals to look at my application and shed some new light on how I could make it better,” she said.

The price was steep: 100,000 renminbi, or $15,000. But it came with a 100 percent money-back guarantee — if Ms. Lu was rejected from the nine selective U.S. universities to which she applied, her family would get a full refund.

In the United States, students have long turned to independent college counselors, but in recent years, larger outfits have entered the market, offering full-service designer courses, extracurricular activities and focused application assistance. These services have spread to the fast-growing and lucrative market in China.

With China sending more students to American colleges than any other country, the competition for spots at the top schools has soared. During the 2009-10 academic year, 39,947 Chinese undergraduates were studying in the United States, a 52 percent increase from the year before and about five times as many as five years earlier, according to the Institute of International Education, a U.S. organization.

But students from China can find themselves ill-prepared for the admissions process at American colleges. The education system in mainland China focuses on assiduous preparation for the national university entrance exam, the gaokao, often at the expense of extracurricular activities.

The founder of the company is Steven Ma, 32, a former Wall Street analyst who started the company as a business for preparing students for college entrance tests in 2002 before expanding into application consulting in 2006, starting with seven students. In 2010, that number had risen to 300, including 75 from China. The company said it made about $7 million last year, with 50 percent from admission consulting.

ThinkTank said it was able to distill the college admissions process into an exact science, which Mr. Ma compared with genetic engineering. “We make unnatural stuff happen,” he said.

Students, whose parents often pay tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, are molded by ThinkTank into well-rounded, socially conscious overachievers through a regimen often beginning as early as the year before entering high school. The company designs extracurricular activities for the students; guides them in essay writing; tutors them for the SAT, the U.S. college admission exam; and helps them with meet-and-greet sessions with alumni.

ThinkTank sent her to a public speaking camp, helped her improve her college essay and gave her the e-mail addresses of all the members of the Stanford University history department. At the company’s prompting, she found two internships with department professors. She also enrolled in ThinkTank’s college prep courses, which helped improve her SAT score 410 points to 2160 out of 2400. Next autumn, she will start at Harvard University.

ThinkTank’s success with students in California’s Asian-American community, which accounts for 90 percent of the company’s American clients, has drawn interest from wealthy parents in China. Mr. Ma opened an office in Shenzhen in 2009 and another in Beijing last year.

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