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Recruiting Intelligence

American universities and their college admissions process are unique

We have developed a unique university and college system as well as a unique admissions process in the United States.  This unique enrollment and application process appears arbitrary, opaque and difficult to master. As a result independent admissions counselors have become a critical intermediary in many countries, not to mention the United States. *For full disclosure, Lisa works as an independent admissions counselor. 

One of us is American born and raised (Lisa) and the other came to the United States as an international graduate student (Michael). Our perspectives make for a rich and diverse history of experiencing American higher education.

Michael: I grew up in Germany. I graduated from high school and received my Grade Point Average (GPA). In Germany a scale of 1-6 is used with 1 being the highest grade level. That GPA alone was my entry card into the university system. I submitted my application consisting of my GPA to a program at a public university in public administration. That was it. 

There were no other requirements at any university. GPA was the sole determinant of admission. In order to enter medical school, you needed a GPA of 1.2 (remember 1.0 is the 4.0 equivalent). 

No university would ask for a standardized test, essays or recommendations.   

Germany had only public universities with either open admission or admission based on your GPA level.  In the United States, on the other hand, we have an incredibly diverse college and university system with public, non-profit and for-profit institutions ranging from the smallest college to large state university systems.  This diversity and competition has lead to tremendous differentiation and unique educational offerings at highly prestigious academic institutions. 

Lisa: My college admission process consisted of visiting multiple campuses, sometimes on multiple occasions. I wrestled with applying early decision and ultimately opted to apply to six very different schools as a regular decision applicant. Admission counselors determined my fate based upon my GPA (100 point scale, unweighted), my SAT score, extracurricular activities (captain varsity swim team), teacher recommendations, essays and, in some cases, an interview. My experience couldn't have been more different from Michael's.

After working for three years as a senior director of undergraduate admissions at Washington University in St. Louis, I repeated this admission process to gain entry into a graduate history program. For the last nine years I have worked as an independent college counselor, advising students (and their parents) from the US and abroad who identify a need for more in-depth advising than that is provided by their high schools. As I work with these incredibly bright and capable families I realize again and again the complexity of the US college admission process. Most of the families are American and both parents have attended US colleges. For international students the situation is even more complicated. Parents have limited English. The entire system is unfamiliar. And even providing the basics, as we see it in America, like teacher recommendations and extracurricular resumes, are completely foreign.

From a parent and student perspective, it's important to understand that our system is unique and the rest of the world is not used to our process. Admittedly, even for parents and students in the U.S., the process is challenging particularly if a student is seeking admission to selective colleges. 

I searched Google for "help with college applications" and received 139,000,000 results including 10 paid advertisements on page one, which is a good indication that parents are willing to spend money on help. Otherwise, advertisers have no incentive to pay Google for this placement. 

Seeking help with the college admissions process is not just happening in China, India or elsewhere. It is happening throughout the US as well, often from paid advisors in addition to school provided counselors.  


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High school counselors do not exist in the majority of high schools in India, China or Korea.  As we have seen, American parents seek advice despite their familiarity with the English language, a general understanding of our school system and the availability of high school counselors in American high schools. We appreciate that many high school counselors are overwhelmed by their responsibilities, but this is still a step above what is provided by many other education systems. 

Are we surprised that a majority of applicants from China, India and many other countries utilize independent counselors or agents?   Once we have established that this advice is valuable, and indeed highly needed, we enter the world of professional services and the ethical standards applied.

When a family pays a professional advisor, parents expect a result:  admission to the desired university.  It's no different than the expectation that hiring an attorney will lead to a desired outcome or paying a real estate agent will ease the home buying/selling process. 

This process creates incentives for professionals, regardless of whether the parents pay a fee or commission, or whether the university pays a commission to the advisor. 

Ethical standards and transparency of who pays whom are the key question. We support professional training and standards, such as the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC). * For full disclosure, we are a corporate sponsor of AIRC. 

In the end, it is each university's prerogative and responsibility to select the appropriate student matching the required standards.  Engagement of additional or different admissions techniques and processes, such as verification services for diplomas, in-country interviews or recorded video interviews simulating interview situations may be required to admit the most qualified applicants. 

Universities commited to international markets are adaptable and adjust to the international recruiting environment. It's no different than providing local language marketing information, building websites addressing local concerns and language and traveling.   

We can have moral outrage about plagiarized essays, fake references and poorly prepared students. But in the end, we have to find practical solutions to admit the appropriate students with the right fit for our academic institution and we sincerely hope the right fit for the students as well.