GRINNELL, Iowa » The glossy color brochures — each crammed with photos depicting a Chinese student’s high-achieving life from birth to young adulthood — pile up in the admissions office here at Grinnell College.
"Hi Professors!" one young woman announced in her bound booklet, known in China as a "brag sheet," which included a photo of herself as a baby. She characterized her childhood as "naive and curious," and described herself now as "sincere, kind and tough."
The brag sheets, although they are almost never read by admissions officers, are a sign of Grinnell’s success in marketing itself in China — a plan that has paid off in important ways, including adding diversity to the student body and attracting students who can sometimes pay full tuition.
At rural Grinnell, nearly one of every 10 applicants being considered this year for the class of 2015 is from China.
Dozens of U.S. colleges and universities are also seeing a surge in applications (and similar brochures) from students in China, where a booming economy means that more families can pursue the dream of an American higher education.
But that success — following a 30 percent increase last year in the number of Chinese studying in the United States — has created a new problem for admissions officers. At Grinnell, for example, how do they choose perhaps 15 students from the more than 200 applicants from China? After all, the 11-member admissions committee cannot necessarily rely on the rubrics it applies to U.S. applications (which alone are challenging enough to sort through).
Consider, for example, that half of Grinnell’s applicants from China this year have perfect scores of 800 on the math portion of the SAT, making the performance of one largely indistinguishable from another. But the most accomplished applicants will have grades in only the 70s or 80s, because Chinese schools tend to grade on far less generous a curve than U.S. high schools. Few will have had the opportunity to take honors or Advanced Placement courses to demonstrate their ability to do college work, since such courses are rare in China.
Then there is the challenge of assessing an applicant’s command of English, since some Chinese families have been known to hire consultants, referred to as agents, to write the application essay. These are the same advisers who counsel families to spend money on the fancy brochures.
"They should save their money," Seth Allen, the dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell, said as he glanced at the full-color brag sheets stacked on a nearby desk.
Allen said that few would actually be read by the overworked admissions officers as they plowed through nearly 3,000 applications overall. In fact, the next stop for the brochures, said Jonathan C. Edwards, Grinnell’s coordinator of international admission, would be the recycling bin.
Allen, Edwards and their colleagues said they spend most of their time on Chinese applications trying to parse the essays — paying particular attention, as they might with an American candidate, to whether they detect the authentic voice and sensibility.
A young woman from Shanghai, for example, who had scored 800 on the math portion of the SAT, and nearly 600 on the main verbal section, impressed Edwards with an essay that described her volunteering at a rehabilitation center, where a young autistic boy captured her heart.
"Such a hopeless boy evoked my strong feeling to help him and love him," she wrote. "As time passed by, I found he was interested in hearing the special sound of the piano and was gifted in playing piano."
The applicant was admitted to Grinnell in its early decision round last fall.
Another Chinese applicant who wrote about her community service made a less favorable impression, at least with her essay, by writing about her own hardship while helping others after the earthquake in 2008 in Sichuan province.
"Every day, I showered and brushed my teeth using cold water," she wrote. "It was unbearable."
The admissions officers sometimes reach out to teachers and counselors at the applicants’ high schools — especially those that have emerged as "feeders" to Grinnell and other U.S. colleges. Such relationships have been further cemented during each of the past two summers, when Allen barnstormed China — stopping in Beijing, Zhengzhou, Changsha and Shanghai — on a recruiting tour with representatives from a handful of other liberal arts colleges, including Franklin & Marshall and Williams. (Grinnell’s applications from China, as well as applications overall, were down slightly this year but still more than five years ago.)
For the colleges, such tours are motivated at least partly by money.
Grinnell, for example, is "need-blind" when considering U.S. students — who are evaluated regardless of their ability to pay — but its process for admitting international students is "need-aware."
So an applicant from China or another country could have an edge if he or she can pay full tuition.
And yet, in the name of socioeconomic diversity, Grinnell also has a dozen full scholarships set aside for international applicants, including those from China, who need help paying tuition.
"I realize what regional differences there are in China," Allen said. "Lumping students into this amorphous Chinese applicant pool really isn’t doing them justice."
Chinese applicants have also been learning about Grinnell and other U.S. colleges and universities through a popular Chinese website, cuus.cn — which stands for Chinese Undergraduates in the United States, but the letters are also meant to be shorthand for "See You in the U.S."
"Grinnell in My Eyes," an article written in Chinese and posted on the site by a recent graduate, is a big bouquet to the school; the writer pays tribute to Grinnell’s flexibility ("if you don’t like the current major, you may also choose independent major") and the dining hall ("glorious French windows.")
If there is an attribute that American and Chinese applicants share, it may be the ardor they often demonstrate toward Grinnell and the other highly selective colleges they hope will find a place for them.
"A girl from China called the other day after lunch, which was 2 or 3 in the morning for her," Edwards said. "She said she was calling to make sure everything in her application was complete.
"I had to tell her to go to bed," he said.