Chinese college applicants face cultural challenges in personal essays

By Alan Gelb Source:Global Times Published: 2015-6-25 22:23:01

Every year, students from all over the world use the Common Application to apply to over 500 member colleges and universities in the US. Many find that the hardest part of the Common Application is the required 650-word personal statement. This assignment can be especially challenging for Chinese students for a variety of cultural and linguistic reasons.

To succeed with the personal statement, one must understand that the operative word is personal. This is not an occasion to promote oneself or tout one's achievements; it is not a narrative version of a résumé.  Rather, the personal statement should be seen as a valuable opportunity to make an emotional connection with one's reader. That reader, a member of the college's admissions committee, is looking to assemble a strong community and is seeking potential members of that community who are sensitive, have the ability to solve problems, and possess some real depth.

There are significant cultural differences between Chinese and American students that present difficulties for the former as they approach this writing task.

To begin with, Chinese society is far more formal in nature than the US and far less given to public displays of intimacy.

In China, close relationships are typically consigned to a small group of friends who are deeply committed to each other. In the US, a great many people claim a great many "friends" and this kind of social climate makes it much easier to discuss one's feelings - as the personal statement asks you to do. In essence, your personal statement is a very public display of intimacy.

Another significant difference has to do with the way that difficult and potentially controversial topics are handled.

The Chinese tend to avoid conflict as best as they can, which can be problematic with regard to the personal statement, which essentially asks student writers to look at something that has been a challenge or a conflict in their lives and discuss how they have resolved it. In China, reputation is very important and any actions that might soil it are assiduously avoided. Opening up about weaknesses and exposing personal foibles, which US students do willingly and even enthusiastically in their personal statements, is not something that comes naturally to the Chinese.

A third cultural difference relates to the ways that students in the US and in China are taught.

When it comes to the college admissions essay, Chinese students and their families may be frustrated that there is no "right" answer for, even in their humanities classes, the idea of the "right answer" is often propounded. With regard to the personal statement, Chinese students must understand that there are many right answers - and just as many wrong ones. Fundamentally, the key to success with the personal statement is to tell a story and in order to do that one has to understand the essential elements of the narrative. Fortunately, those elements are universal in nature.

Then there's the matter of writing style.

In China, students are often encouraged to use "poetic" words and phrases to get their meaning across and to end their essays with messages of weighty significance, almost like proverbs. It is also not unusual to see essays by Chinese students that are overrun with metaphors.

Such practices are not in favor in the US, where writers are encouraged to use clear and clean language, rather than fancy vocabulary and overdone imagery.

Before starting the college admissions essay, a Chinese student would be well advised to read a classic modern American novel, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, to get a sense of that kind of clear, unadorned language that they will want to emulate.

Chinese students do approach the personal statement with one significant advantage, however. They are trained to be excellent students and the narrative, which is the best route to a strong personal statement, is definitely a form that can be mastered.

The writer is the author of the best-selling Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps and works with students all over the world on their essays.

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