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For many Chinese students, the cost of attending Penn is higher than the price of tuition.

Before receiving a letter of admission, many students from China have already shelled out tens of thousands of dollars for college admissions consulting, which promises to help students get into the US school of their dreams.

The competition for a spot in one of China’s top schools is fierce - even more so than in the United States. Students look to the United States for a prestigious degree and a less competitive admissions process.

After deciding that he wanted to study in the US, one College sophomore, who preferred to remain anonymous, decided to hire admissions consultants to help, partially because “everyone around you is using consulting companies [as well], so it’s like you’re buying the reassurance.”

The company he hired walked him through the admissions process and requirements of different schools and hired graduates from US schools to review his application essays and other materials.

He paid $18,000 for help during the entire application process, although he was in a special program that refunded half that amount because he was accepted into a “top 10” school. His consultant was one of the more affordable ones, he said.

He said the help he received was “necessary,” especially because Chinese students are “not really familiar with the culture and the whole [college] process in the US.” Of particular importance was the essay help from US students, because “they have a better idea of how you can write a paper that is popular with admissions officers.”

Students in China also must choose to either attend college in China or the US, because the application process for American colleges leaves no time to prepare for the gaokao, the mandatory entrance exams for Chinese universities, which adds to the appeal of consultants who offer a leg up in the admissions process, he added. Students cannot hedge their bets and apply to both Chinese and American schools

A Wharton and College sophomore who also preferred to remain anonymous spent five hours a week from July to December writing her application with a consultant. Her consulting package, which she estimated cost between $13,000-$16,000, did not include SAT prep.

She and the College sophomore from China believed that most Chinese students they know at Penn also hired consultants.

In a country where the average income is $2,100, according to a Peking University study, this calls into question the accessibility of an American education for less-wealthy Chinese students.

The Wharton and College sophomore also noted that she and her friends did not apply for financial aid because they feared it would hurt their chances of admission.

It also indicates that college consulting is a hugely profitable industry, in China as well as around the world. New Oriental Education and Technology Group , the consulting group used by the Wharton and College sophomore, is valued at $4.36 billion, according to the New York Stock Exchange. The company has 21,248 employees according to Business Week.

The widespread use of consulting can also cast doubt on the authenticity of students’ essays.

Eric Furda , Dean of the Office of Admissions, said admissions consulting “can raise concerns of whose story are we actually reading.” Nevertheless, he does not blame students who pay for college consulting. “If they have the money, [families] are going to do what they can for their child,” he said.

He also brings up concerns that some consulting companies may be overcharging and overinflating their abilities to help students be admitted to elite US schools.

To Furda, however, the increasingly “crafted” essays admissions often receives can have an unexpected outcome, that “the more authentic voice that may be a bit rawer has its own impact in an application, and you can’t fabricate that.”

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