OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16
Graduating to The Big Time
Ted Thai for TIME.
Classes at Beijing's New Oriental School helped Mark Yang, seen here at Yale University, ace his entrance tests, but he arrived in the U.S. barely able to speak English
A popular Beijing school teaches students what they need to know in order to survive studying abroad
By SUSAN JAKES
Elite Schools: For all their nationalist talk, China's top leaders don't seem to mind if their kids study in the West
Tips From an Expert: Getting into the top schools
Standing at the front of a packed lecture hall, a tiny microphone clipped to his blue T shirt, Victor Wang asks his class to define the term "to make it." More than 150 rapt students momentarily exchange blank stares and then burst out, almost in unison: "To succeed!"
Making it is the name of the game at Beijing's New Oriental School, where Wang teaches a class called "Thinking American." It's billed as a course in conversational English. But the class is all about getting to the U.S. Today's topics range from an explanation of the phrase "to get cold feet" to a lesson on the proper way to shake hands. Wang's students, most in their mid-20s, plan to apply to graduate school in the U.S., and the language insights and intangibles taught in classes like this can make the difference between acceptance and rejection. "If you want to succeed in today's China," says a student in a Star Wars T shirt, "studying abroad is a huge help. And if you want to study abroad, you have to learn English."
A foreign degree has become a status symbol among young Chinese with the requisite funds and ambition. During the 1998-99 academic year, more than 50,000 mainland students were enrolled at U.S. universities (with smaller numbers traveling to Canada, Australia and Europe). The numbers show no sign of decreasing. To cater to this flood of aspirants, Wang's friend Michael Yu, a former English instructor at Peking University, founded the New Oriental School in 1993. Wang, who studied at the State University of New York at New Paltz, joined the faculty in 1996.
Now the school, which offers a whole range of English-language courses in addition to classes like "Thinking American," has a lock on the overseas-study market: more than 70% of all mainland students studying in the U.S. have taken courses at New Oriental. "We've cracked the code," says Robert Xu, vice president for business development and a graduate of the Canadian University of Saskatchewan. "We understand what it takes to pass the standardized tests, what American graduate schools want. We've learned how to communicate that information very effectively."
It's no easy task. Hopeful students must pass an alphabet soup of standardized testsgres, toefls, lsats, gmatsbefore they can even consider going abroad to study. Then come the often daunting tasks of choosing a school, writing personal essays for applications and obtaining a visa. Those who win acceptance still face the overwhelming ordeal of adjusting to life overseas.
New Oriental supplies students hungry to go abroad with a mouth-watering array of servicescourses on all of the major standardized tests, a "writing center" stocked with native English speakers to "polish" applications, and a bookstore that carries everything from English literature to pamphlets explaining how to apply for a visa. Yu and his 100 teachers (nearly half are under the age of 25) combine training in test-taking skills and English grammar with a missionary zeal about the value of studying abroad. "The teachers make you feel that if you study English you'll have a good future," says James Xia, a student of Wang's. "It makes you want to work really hard." This year that reputation led nearly 150,000 students to enroll in New Oriental's 100 or so classes, making the school a multimillion-dollar enterprise. (Classes last from 12 days to three months and range in price from $25 to $250.)
Of course, the institution cannot guarantee admittance at top overseas universities. "Even students with very high scores on their gres and toefls are often painfully awkward when it comes to actually speaking English," Xu says, "and totally naive about how graduate schools expect them to present themselves." To help remedy the problem, New Oriental has started to offer classes like "Thinking American" and services for students who need help writing the personal statements and letters of recommendation U.S. universities require. But test preparation still receives the most emphasis, which leaves many students ill-equipped to communicate once they land in the U.S. or elsewhere. Mark Yang, an engineering student from Anhui province, arrived in America in 1997 and has attended graduate programs at Johns Hopkins, Duke and Yale universities. Though he feels the summer he spent at New Oriental helped him earn him high scores on his gre and toefl exams, he spent his first three months in the U.S. in virtual silence. "It was really hard," he recalls. "Here I was, studying at one of the best universities in the world, and I had no idea how to respond if someone said 'Hi!' or 'How are you doing?'"
Yang's English has improved vastly since then, but he still wonders whether he might have been better off staying in China. "One of my classmates from New Oriental did badly on his gres, stayed behind and is now ceo of a company he founded," he says. "Sometimes I wonder what I might have accomplished if I hadn't done so well on my tests." But that's a question New Orientaland most of its studentsrarely ask.
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