BEIJING • From hiring ghostwriters and forging sports credentials to generous "gift-giving", admissions middlemen in China are advising rich parents on an array of "shortcuts" to secure places for their children at foreign universities.
The service comes with a hefty price tag, often running into tens of thousands of dollars, but nonetheless, the industry is booming.
The lengths to which some Chinese parents are willing to go to were highlighted in the admissions scandal that shook US universities this year. Prosecutors found one Chinese family had given US$6.5 million (S$9 million) to an admissions agent to get their daughter into Stanford, while another had coughed up US$1.2 million for their child's entry to Yale.
Education experts in China said it is not unusual to highlight such methods to families keen on foreign universities.
"In the admissions world, it's called gift-giving instead of bribing. About US$10,000 is on the lower end of the spectrum. An average gift will be about US$250,000," one former college counsellor revealed, on condition of anonymity.
Six current and former employees of admissions agencies said they suggested that parents "find shortcuts" to circumvent the traditional process.
"I have done things I am not proud of, including coaching parents on how to embellish transcripts or fake sports credentials. I have received mangled essays, which are then heavily edited by professionals," one adviser confessed.
Fu Rao's family spent 250,000 yuan (S$50,000) on her admissions consultant. The entire package included advice on how to correspond with professors, which courses to take to make sure her high school transcript was filled with A grades, and how to chat about American football.
It has been an 18-month process so far, during which she has also taken the SAT exam, a standardised test to enter US colleges, four times - so she would succeed in getting the score she needed.
$6.5m Amount in US dollars that one Chinese family gave to an admissions agent to get their daughter into Stanford.
$250k What an average gift, in US dollars, would be, according to one former college counsellor.
A professional editor has fine-tuned her admissions essays and resume, and, on the advice of her consultant, she has done volunteer work at an orphanage in Cambodia.
"Many students volunteer at schools for rural children in China, so I had to do something different to make my application stand out from the crowd," explained 16-year-old Fu.
Nearly a dozen parents interviewed by Agence France-Presse said they were willing to shell out top dollar to admissions services. The United States, Britain, and Australia are the most popular destinations for higher education.
Chinese students wanting to study abroad take a risk by skipping the gaokao - the country's notoriously difficult college entrance test, which is the only route to Chinese universities. This gives them time to prepare for a completely different set of standardised tests.
"But if the student fails to secure a place abroad, it's very difficult to resume their studies within the Chinese system. So it can be a point of no return," conceded Ms Huang Yinfei, Fu's mother.
Mr Abdiel Leroy, author of Duelling The Dragon, said he "witnessed shocking levels of corruption" while working for a company that helped Chinese students enter prestigious British boarding schools.
"The culture of the Chinese education system looks for shortcuts, and a money-solves-everything approach," he added.
The country's foreign college admission services industry is expected to grow to US$35 billion by 2021 from US$28 billion in 2017, according to a February report by the state-backed Chinese Students and Scholars Association.
And as incomes rise, even parents in smaller towns were aspiring to a world-class education for their children, instead of the rigid, rote learning at local universities, the report said.
"But a foreign degree doesn't automatically translate to better job prospects in China anymore," said Ms Gu Huini, founder of admissions consultancy Zoom In.
"So parents are desperate to get their children to big-name universities and believe starting young is the way to beat the competition."