Story highlights

More Chinese are applying to U.S. colleges; many use agents

But fraud is a significant concern of many admission officers

Jessica Zhang says her English wasn't strong enough to fill out application

Beijing CNN  — 

Jessica Zhang, a 21-year-old Chinese student from Jiangsu Province, says her English wasn’t strong enough to fill in her U.S. college admission form.

So her parents paid three consultants $4,500 to fill out the application, write her personal essay and compose teacher recommendation letters.

They also arranged her visa and communicated with her prospective colleges – eight ranked between 40 and 100 on the U.S. News & World Report College rankings.

“It would have been too much hassle if I had applied myself,” says Zhang, which is not her real name.

In August, she’ll start her undergraduate career with an open major at a Midwestern university, in the United States. She says she’s unaware that her application could be considered fraudulent and even get her expelled.

READ: Chinese students found cheating to get into U.S. colleges

Grey area

With the promise of English-language fluency, a U.S. college education is increasingly attractive for many students and employers. And as Chinese incomes grow, more affordable for parents.

Using agents or consultancies to apply to college has been a common practice since U.S. universities and colleges started recruiting in China extensively about eight years ago.

In many cases, they offer much-needed help and advice to Chinese students and their parents, who know little about navigating the complexities of U.S. college admissions, says Yu Huiming, a freelance educational consultant.

In China, admission is based on a single test – many are baffled by the need for extra curricular activities, and Yu says that most Chinese high-school teachers are unable to write letters of recommendation in English.

READ: China’s entrance exams: Would you pass the test?

“For average high school students, if their parents have no knowledge of college application, they do need help from a third party,” he says.

The Institute of International Education says Chinese students now make up almost one in three international students on American campuses.

But there are growing concerns that these agencies – many unregulated – are going much further than extending a helping hand.

Huge problem

Eddie West, the director of international initiatives at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), says higher education-related fraud is a “significant concern” for many admission officers.

“It’s a huge problem. Understanding the true scope of the activity is inherently difficult because it’s clandestine,” he says – though he notes the fraud isn’t limited to China.

New Oriental Vision Overseas Consulting, one of the best-known education agencies in China and the one used by Zhang, says on its website that students must write their own personal essays.

But Zhang insists this was never mentioned during her conversations with three of its consultants, who promised to return her money if she hadn’t gotten into any of the schools.

“I did feel slightly guilty but all my friends did the same thing,” she says.