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U.S. universities see a rise in
By Bay Fang
BEIJING-Wang Jin was 31 and desperate to go to
graduate school in the United States. She had work
experience-six years at a state-owned
company-but her international trade degree was
from a vocational school that no longer exists.
What's more, her English was lousy. So how could
she ever hope to get into a top American university?
Easy: Get someone to take the GMAT exam, and
find others to write the essays and forge a diploma
As more and more Chinese students seek to come to
the United States for advanced degrees, some find
that it pays to take shortcuts. Enough, in fact, that
services to help students cheat have become a
cottage industry in Beijing's university district.
Surprisingly, many of the cheaters have decent
credentials but simply do not want to risk a
less-than-perfect application. Conditioned by
cutthroat academic competition, they believe that
even the slightest risk of failure is simply
unacceptable. And as a degree from the United
States becomes more and more desirable, the fight is
fierce to be one of the roughly 50,000 Chinese
students in the States.
hang Haoming knows the drill. A long-haired
Beijing University graduate (his name and those of
other Chinese involved in these applications have
been changed to protect their identities), he is
exceptionally skilled at applying to American
schools, so good that he has received several
acceptances from prestigious programs-but none in
his own name. Two years ago, he was approached
by Wang, an acquaintance, for help. At first, he just
tutored her at $12 an hour for the
English-proficiency TOEFL exam. "But after two
weeks, she came clean and said she'd already 'had
those tests taken,' and what she really needed was
help with the application. So we struck a deal: I'd
take care of what I could, writing her essays and so
forth, for $600."
False pretenses. That "so forth" included helping
her get a false transcript. "I told her to put the name
of a friend as the registrar's contact," says Zhang.
She also used friends' names and addresses on the
"professors' " recommendations that Zhang wrote.
One friend received a verification letter, Zhang said,
so "I replied in the professor's name." Indeed,
graduate admissions offices are aware of such
problems and try to ferret them out when possible.
"We do see fraudulent credentials, so we are always
working to increase our vigilance," says Laurie
Stewart, director of graduate business school
admissions at Carnegie Mellon University. "We even
ask candidates to write an essay about an ethical
issue that they've faced in their professional lives."
g says, was the hardest part
of completing Wang's application. "One school
asked what her biggest career achievement had
been," he says. "I knew someone who had helped to
coordinate a donation of books-the Physicians'
Desk Reference-by the Red Cross to Chinese
hospitals. So I made up some details, used Wang's
name, and said it taught her about management
skills." The entire process took two months. "All she
did was fill out a couple of forms-no, she didn't even
do that. She signed a couple of forms," he says. "Her
English was so poor she could hardly complete a
sentence." Nevertheless, on the strength of her
application, Wang was accepted into two U.S.
graduate programs in the spring of 1998. (Wang
denied cheating when told about this report but then
immediately called Zhang in fear that she was going
to be exposed.)
Those not fortunate enough to have a friend like
Zhang may turn to schools in China that provide
test-preparation and consulting services. University
of Iowa Prof. Richard Horwitz, who was a Fulbright
scholar in Beijing for the past year, recounts how he
and his wife were approached by one school to help
students with their personal statements. Horwitz said
he was shocked when he realized the school
expected its "consultants" to extensively rewrite the
application essays. "They feel American institutions
are biased against Chinese students because their
English is bad. But the result is that once the students
get to the States, they don't do well, some have
psychological problems, and money is wasted."
Some seek help elsewhere, like the Web site of the
New Oriental School in Beijing, which prepares
students for study abroad. Anyone can post notices
on the site's bulletin board, whet for study partners, exchanging vocabulary tips
("What is the antonym for 'turncoat'? "), or selling
used materials. But a few recurring messages seem
particularly cryptic-"seeking TOEFL gunman" or
"GMAT gunman for hire"-posted by people seeking
or offering themselves as test takers. (School
officials said they delete such messages when they
see them but can't constantly monitor the Web site.)
One of the recent messages was posted by Li Hong.
This 28-year-old has almost perfect credentials for
getting into a first-tier computer science Ph.D.
program in the United States: legitimate bachelor's
and master's degrees from a good university in
Beijing, six years of work experience in
telecommunications, and recommendations from
influential professors at a leading American
university. In fact, Li says these professors have
offered to help him get into the university if he fulfill
one requirement: a TOEFL score higher than 600. Li
knows that if he studies hard he can get this score,
her they're looking
since he has done so in the past. But he doesn't want
to bother. It would take him at least two months, and
he's too busy at work, he says. "I'll just find someone
who looks like me, so he can use my picture to get
into the test," he says. "Besides, the TOEFL only
tests your test-taking skills, not your command of
Luckily for him, there are many willing to take the
test in his place. Xia Dan, a professional translator,
plans to take the GMAT and apply to American
business schools this year but needs some money
first. "I saw so many requests for gunmen posted on
school bulletin boards that I thought it made sense
for me to use my TOEFL skills for some extra
bucks," says the 27-year-old, who charges 5,000
yuan ($600) per test. He posted a notice online as the
"GMAT King" and was flooded with requests,
including one from someone in Guangxi who wants
to emigrate to Canada. "We agreed that if I score
580, he'll pay for me to tour Guangxi, and for every
point above 600 he'll pay me 10 yuan ($1.20)." He
even has a plan for the photo ID: "I can use
computer technology to make a picture that has a
blend of my features and the client's," he says
smugly. "If I do well on the GMAT, I'll offer myself
as a 'GMAT gunman' as well. And then I will
charge more than 10,000 yuan!"
For sale. Just down the street, outside the gate of
People's University, 24-year-old Ji Yan walks up
and down the dusty street, trolling for customers.
"Want a diploma? Transcript?" he whispers. Just
choose the school, department, and graduation year,
and the whole transaction can take less than an hour.
"I've done that for tons of people, and the schools
never find out," says Ji, an ex-soldier who sells
about 30 fake diplomas a month at $50 apiece. But
competition is picking up. "There are over a hundred
other people out there every day, doing the same
thing," he gripes. "Everyone knows how good the
money is. It's better than dealing drugs."
The government has come to recognize the problem.
Early this year, the Ministry of Education opened a
diploma authentication center. Since January, it has
received 400 inquiries from embassies, companies,
and overseas graduate schools to verify student
documents. About 10 percent were bogus. "In the
U.S., people make fake documents so they can drink
alcohol," says Qiao Wenjun, a director of the center.
"In China, people want them to get into a good
One last hurdle: a U.S. student visa. American
consular officials say they have toughened visa
interviews in an effort to detect when an applicant
sends a stand-in to conceal his or her language
shortcomings. U.S. graduate schools have also wised
up to some of the tricks. Many make foreign students
pass an English test once they arrive at the school
because widespread cheating has rendered the
TOEFL score unreliable.
So what happens to people like Wang? She did not
end up at either of the schools that admitted her in
1998, because her inadequate English kept her from
getting a visa. "She called me in June to ask if I
would find someone to sit in on her visa interview for
her, but I thought that was going too far," says
Zhang. However, Wang reapplied to other schools
last year using almost all the same materials. She
was accepted by a prestigious university in
California, deferred her admission, and plans to
enroll next fall.
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