For Chinese, getting into Harvard is a class act

It was just a week after Chang Shui received her acceptance notice from Harvard that the first book offer came.

A publisher approached her father with a detailed outline for an inside guide to how a Shanghai couple prepared their daughter to compete successfully with the best students from America. Local newspapers weighed in with articles about how Chang’s membership in a dance troupe surely helped. “Magical girl ‘danced’ her way into Harvard,” the Shanghai Evening Post headlined its story.

Qibao High School, where Chang is a senior, trumpeted the news on a large electronic billboard at the front gate. The day that she received her acceptance notice — by e-mail at 5 a.m. April 2 — teachers at the high school crowded around to have their picture taken with her.

“She was a celebrity,” boasted her homeroom teacher, Xiong Gongping.

“I’m not exactly a celebrity,” Chang said, interjecting a note of modesty. “But it is true that more students are approaching me wanting to know how to go to college in the United States.

“And for the parents, it’s their dream to send a kid to Harvard or Yale.”

Chinese students: An article and accompanying photo caption in Saturday’s Section A about Chinese students seeking entry into Harvard University misspelled student Chang Shuai’s name as Chang Shui.

Charlotte Chang, as she’ll call herself in the United States, is a skinny 17-year-old with hair pulled back into a perky pony tail and a broad, confident smile despite the braces that she hopes to get off her teeth before moving to Cambridge in August. Striding through her high school campus last month, she switched easily between Chinese and English, the word “cool” punctuating her speech, a product of spending her junior year of high school as an exchange student in Seattle.

She wears the Wedgewood-blue track suit jacket that is part of her school uniform, along with jeans and canvas sneakers that put a cheerful bounce in her step. The only book she carries is a paperback version of the novel, “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” She was reading it for fun.

Although she was at school that day to have her photograph taken with the rest of the senior class, she has stopped attending classes even as her classmates are preparing for the dreaded gaokao, or high test, that determines placement in Chinese universities.

“My friends are so depressed. They study from 7 a.m. to midnight,” said Chang.

At the very top of the wish list for many of them is Harvard, or Hafo, which the Chinese pronounce with reverence. Its namesakes are found all over China, the Harvard Kindergarten, the Harvard Graphic Arts School, the Harvard Beauty School. For those coveting the real thing, there are nearly a dozen books in Chinese, among them “You Too Can Go to Harvard: Secrets of Getting into Famous U.S. Universities,” and the bestseller published in 2000, “Harvard Girl.”

“More and more rich Chinese families want to send their children to the United States to be educated, and when they do, they want them to go to the best universities,” said Zhou Jun, the founder and head of the Leadership Academy, one of a dozen consulting firms that dispenses advice on how to get into foreign universities.

Based in Shanghai, his company targets a niche market of China’s wealthiest families, people who will pay up to $300,000 for up to five years of supplemental classes aimed at getting their child into an Ivy League school. “The parents all want Harvard, but we can’t guarantee that. We’re not God. We work with what we have got.”

Zhou’s firm helps students with their English, prepares them to take the SATs, which are given in Hong Kong or through an international school, and helps them single out universities, fill out their applications and edit their essays. The consulting firm also organizes extracurricular programs, most recently a four-day hiking excursion to Nepal, and volunteer work tutoring the poor — the sort of activities notably absent on the resumes of most children schooled in a system obsessed with grades.

The desire to go to top American universities is not just about the prestige conveyed by the name. Chinese students envy many aspects of U.S. higher education, such as the chance to explore different pursuits before chosing a major, interactions with professors and the more open intellectual debates.

“You really don’t learn anything in Chinese universities, It is very difficult to get into college, but more relaxed once you get there,” said Zhang Haosheng, an 18-year-old classmate of Chang’s at Qibao High School. “I think many of us, if we had the money, would prefer to go to school in the U.S.”

There are currently 36 Chinese undergraduates at Harvard (the number of graduate students is much larger), but of 2,110 students accepted for the upcoming freshman class, at least nine are from China.

“The Chinese high schools used to worry that if the top-flight students applied internationally they wouldn’t study hard for the gaokao and that [students’] status in China would suffer, but now they are encouraging it,” said Deborah Seligsohn, a Beijing-based Harvard alumni who often interviews Chinese applicants.

Seligsohn said the Chinese applicants to Harvard she meets are usually students who have rejected engineering or science and want the luxury of time afforded by U.S. universities to figure out their place in the world.

“What I’ve seen over and over again is that they are very socially committed. They’re interested in broad questions of poverty and the environment.”

Isabelle Krishana, an American expatriate who works for Kemeixin Consulting, a Beijing-based academic advisor, is more cyncial.

“I think the parents want their kids to make a lot of money,” said Krishana, a Princeton graduate.

For Chinese students, the obstacles to entry to an Ivy League school are daunting. Although many top universities, including Harvard, select applicants regardless of their ability to pay, succcessful matriculants need to speak perfect English, which they cannot generally do unless they spend a high school year abroad. And that requires a good deal of money.

“It takes a lot of work for them to put together an application that is going to stand up next to 20,000 kids applying to Yale. They don’t know what a college admissions person wants to see and hear,” said Krishana.

She recalled one high school student she was advising, who, when asked to write an essay about a person she admired, picked Adolf Hitler. “It was one of those ‘Lost in Translation’ moments. I had to explain to her, ‘Listen, this is really not going to work.’ ”

For Chang, the path to Harvard began when she was in kindergarten and started dancing.

“We wanted her to have a special talent to develop her personality,” Chang Zhitao, her businessman father said from the family’s home in one of Shanghai’s shiny new high-rise apartments.

He said the family took a contrarian approach to the education of their only child, rejecting the harsh methods of some other ambitious parents — for example, the author of “Harvard Girl” wrote that her parents began teaching her words when she was 15 days old and that as a 10-year-old she held a piece of ice in her hand to develop discipline.

“We wanted to develop her own sense of responsibility, and with responsibility, she got freedom,” Chang’s father said.

“I grew up differently from my classmates. I spent a significant amount of time in dancing and extracurricular activities. I put in more time studying English,” Chang said.

At Qibao High School, a public school for gifted students (like certain U.S. magnet schools), Chang was among the top 10 students but not the valedictorian. She spent many weekends performing traditional Chinese dance with a student troupe, sometimes traveling abroad to countries such as France, Australia and North Korea.

Chang did not use a consultant but had an advisor who helped her with the complicated applications while she was attending high school in Seattle. She said she was surprised that she got into Harvard, as she’d been rejected last year by Yale’s early admissions program.

Last month, Chang met with some of her future classmates at an an event organized by the Harvard Club of Shanghai. Like herself, she says, each has a special talent — one is an athlete, another a student government leader and a third a whiz at taking tests. “I met one boy with perfect 2400 SAT scores,” said Chang.

“But we all had the same question: Why did Harvard pick me?”

At least for now, Chang does not intend to commit the secrets of her success to paper.

“She says it is too soon,” her father said. “She hasn’t accomplished anything yet.”