I write to offer some tips to people in China who might be interested in pursuing a graduate education in the US. As a professor at the University of Iowa(for most of the past20 years I have also directed a graduate program in American studies), I have reviewed hundreds of applications and taught many graduate students. They include a steady stream from China.
The sheer number of mainland Chinese now studying in the US(about40,000) demonstrates that interest and ability are high. The attraction is quite simple: a graduate degree in the US is worth a lot. American universities generally offer superior resources: large and easily accessible libraries, excellent research laboratories, diverse and flexible graduate programs. In many fields, especially if you are not too fussy about where you enroll, admission is easier to gain. And no matter what school you study at, a US degree is apt to lead to a job with higher compensation back in China.
Since August, when I began working as a Fulbright professor of American studies at Peking University, I have noted how many students would welcome an opportunity to do graduate work in the US, despite all the difficulty. They are perfectly aware that even with hard work and the support of teachers, classmates and family, success in this venture is hardly guaranteed.
Yet certain things many Chinese students do actually increase the difficulty of being accepted. Here are two of the more serious ones:
1)Aiming only for the"best" schools, like Harvard or Berkeley. For graduate education in the US, no one university is wholly better than another or uniformly best for Chinese students. The quality of universities and departments within them varies greatly. Those with the highest reputation maintain it by having relatively few weak departments.So it is a decent bet that they will provide a quality education, regardless of field. But that bet is secured only by a crude generalization. You may in fact be better served elsewhere than at a given"name" school. With this variability in mind, you should learn as much as you can about specific departments in a broad range of schools. Does the school offer courses and have faculty and resources to support study in the topics that most interest you? How have their graduates fared in the past? A good way to begin is by reading the school's web pages(see the directory at).
2)Getting help from a professional agency in preparing your application. Of course it is wise to prepare your application carefully. American universities are apt to be particularly wary of the state of your English.
Hence, in addition to good GRE and TOEFL scores, a letter of recommendation from a native speaker of English may be helpful. But if the letter provides only generalities(e.g.,"Her English is excellent" versus"Her term paper on X was the best in the class"), it is likely to have little effect.
The author should be someone who knows your work well enough to write a circumstantial letter.
Most important, I believe, is the quality of the English in the application itself. At the very least, proofread the application carefully. The spell-check function of your word processor, and perhaps also the grammar-check function, should be helpful.
For several reasons, though, I strongly urge you to avoid having anyone else- especially a language institute- write or rewrite the"personal statement" in your application. First, the service these outfits sell is a fraud, an abuse of the admissions process. A personal statement is supposed to be the applicant's own words.
Second, if the statement does happen to be decisive in getting a student admitted, he is apt to suffer later on. Whatever your talents in your chosen field, your English has to be strong enough to enable you to do well in your coursework. If you gain admission to a school that is not truly appropriate, time, money and effort will have been wasted by everyone except the outfit that made you look more competent in English than you really are.
Third, I want to assure you that members of US admissions committees can generally spot fraudulent work in an instant. Hired help usually doesn't work. In fact I am concerned that the use of outsiders(or of material downloaded from the web) in personal statements is becoming so prevalent that it biases US admissions committees against Chinese applicants. Given the notoriety of Chinese cram schools and some outright fraud, many American professors already believe that Chinese TOEFL scores are not reliable indicators of language ability. As the abuse of personal statements gets worse, they too may be discounted, and in the end all Chinese applicants will suffer.
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