MASSACHUSETTS • Sitting in a plush chair and wearing a white blouse buttoned up to the neck, the young woman looks into the camera, smiles and offers advice about getting into a top US university.
"Some people think, 'Didn't you get into Stanford because your family is rich?'" the woman, Ms Zhao Yusi, says in a video posted on social media. It was not like that, she says. The admissions officers "have no idea who you are". She adds: "I tested into Stanford through my own hard work."
The video was recorded in the summer before Ms Zhao began her freshman year, in 2017. It now stands in sharp contrast with recent news - that her parents paid US$6.5 million (S$8.8 million) to a college consultant at the centre of a global college admissions scandal.
Prosecutors say the consultant, William Singer, tried to get Ms Zhao into Stanford's sailing team with a fake list of achievements in the sport and a US$500,000 donation to the university's sailing programme after she was admitted.
The payment to Singer was by far the largest known in the case, and the disclosure added Ms Zhao and her family, pharmaceutical billionaires from China, to a cast of powerful figures swept up in the scandal, including two Hollywood actresses and prominent names from the US legal and business worlds.
Reports have surfaced that another Chinese family paid US$1.2 million to get their daughter into Yale, illuminating the global reach of Singer's operation and the rich Chinese families eager to get their offspring into top US universities.
In China, a dizzying array of companies offer advisory services that range from the legitimate to the openly dishonest - promising, as Singer did with some of his clients, guaranteed admission to certain schools in exchange for payments.
Businesses like these have boomed in China as the number of Chinese international students has steadily grown in the US. In 2017, there were more than 363,000 Chinese students enrolled in US universities, more than a third of all international students, said the Institute of International Education.
Mr Jack Chen, a marketing executive for the Institute of Chinese Language and Culture, which offers college consulting and tutoring, said firms like his help students get reference letters, write essays, prepare for interviews and build up their resumes to include charity work and competitions to separate them from their peers.
Mr Chen said he knew of consulting firms that could find back doors into top US universities, but he declined to disclose their names. He added that there used to be more of these services, but the universities had cracked down after several cases of cheating by Chinese students on standardised exams and college applications.
But it was perhaps the college consultants in the US who had greater sway with Ms Zhao's parents, and the parents of Ms Sherry Guo, the student in the Yale case. Both families pursued Singer's services after meeting him through financial services firms in California, where he had formed relationships.
Federal prosecutors have so far charged 50 people in the admissions case. Singer has pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges, and has cooperated with the government in gathering evidence against his clients and others he is said to have worked with.
Prosecutors have not brought any charges against Ms Zhao or her parents, or Ms Guo or her parents. Both Ms Zhao, who was a sophomore at Stanford, and Ms Guo, a Yale freshman, were expelled from their schools.