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OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16

Tips From an Expert
Getting into the top schools
By PETER LEYKAM

ALSO
Overseas Assignment: One Beijing school prepares most of the thousands of students who want to enrol in the U.S.
Elite Schools: For all their nationalist talk, China's top leaders don't seem to mind if their kids study in the West

At first, writing personal essays for Chinese kids who wanted to study abroad sounded like a piece of cake. How hard could it be to craft someone else's personal statement? I figured I could bang out three a day and make more in one week than I had in a month as an editor at an Internet company.

When I received essays from my first two clients, however, I quickly realized I had my work cut out for me. The first, from a 30-year-old applying to medical school in the U.S., was a laundry list of incomplete sentences and non sequiturs: "First I talk about my research ability... Second I show my English skill... Third I write about my clinical internship..." The list ended with a plea: "Could you make this all make sense?" I could barely make sense of it myself. Was he already a doctor or applying to become one? In China, does completing a medical university's undergraduate program make you a physician? If so, then why did all his reference letters call him Mr. Zhang, not Dr. Zhang? If not, what business did he have carrying out the heart surgery he mentioned in his essay?

The second essay was more than five pages long. A candidate for a graduate program in public policy, the applicant recounted his life from the age of seven, when he was elected class monitor. But he barely mentioned the two months he spent as part of a delegation of college students traveling around the Chinese countryside, trying to foster private enterprises. And only from his rEsumE did I learn of the province-wide campaign he ran to solicit donations for poor students.

Obviously my clients—who pay $500 for the service—need help with more than their English. Some of them write quite well. Almost all of them, no matter how atrocious their English, can pen detailed descriptions of such obscure subjects as the steps involved in a genetics experiment. But they are at a loss when it comes to explaining motives, like why they chose their field of study in the first place. An M.B.A. candidate will often say that he or she would like to study telecommunications in order to "get a good career and make a high salary," rather than to make significant contributions to the development of China's IT industry. This obliviousness is partly the fault of an educational system that emphasizes memorization over actual proficiency in English. But more importantly, these students are never encouraged to write about themselves as individuals, to explore their feelings and motivations in print. Even if their English is good enough to read technical journals and score high on the TOEFL, they're often incapable of writing a non-technical essay.

That's what I help them with. The formula for an essay is simple: what led me to become interested in subject X; how I worked hard to get into Y university; how I have excelled as a student and gained research skills; a list of the research projects I carried out; how fluent I am in English; why I've chosen your fine institution.

But I like to think I bring out the personalities of these students, putting faces to anonymous applications. I prefer to focus on the cases that deserve help: a heart surgeon who gave up a high-paying position in Beijing's top hospital for the chance to become better qualified to save lives; a social work graduate who wants to study public policy to become a more effective leader; a biologist whose wonder at the natural world brought her from an impoverished village in rural Henan to China's leading genetics institute. For these people a well-written essay really can open an entire world of experiences and opportunities. Too good to be true? Not at all.

Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

society ALSO IN YOUNG CHINA: SOCIETY
What's Hot: The fads du jour among urban youth

Getting High: Ecstasy becomes the urban drug of choice

Not Out: A gay musician says society is still homophobic

Overseas Assignment: One Beijing school prepares most of the thousands of students who want to enrol in the U.S.

Getting Into the Top Schools: Tips from an expert

Country Girl: A villager moves to the big, bad city

Getting Green: Activists seeking to avert an environmental disaster are tapping the ranks of the very young

Love Is in the Web: Our reporter logs on to find Mr. Right

Role Models: Kids don't look up only to Bill Gates

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