Currently the director of the College Counseling Office at Vanke Meisha Academy, Ethan Yan is always on his way to meetings-sometimes with students, sometimes with other offices. When he sat down in front of me, he held the throw pillow and gazed outside of the French window in the room. This is obviously a snatched moment of peace and quiet for him. But when he started talking, his energy came back right away.
Q: It’s hard to lock you down. Let’s get to the point then. Can we talk about our expectations for students, and how does that reflect upon our college admissions?
A: I think the key is to focus on what happens AFTER high school. What do they go to college for? Many students and parents have not thought about this question, whether they take the Gaokao (the national college entrance examination) or not. Let me put it more bluntly: they focus on “the necessity of going to a good university”, but they don’t ponder why they want to go there.
At one office meeting, we roughly divided our students and parents into three groups.
The first group intends to escape the pressure of Gaokao. They believe that the chance of getting into a top university through Gaokao is too slim, and they may have heard that college admissions are much easier in international education. Such students may be weaker in academics.
The second group hopes to obtain a diploma from a “better ranked” university abroad. They might be able to reach the upper-middle level in the Gaokao, but may be able to get admitted to a “better” university abroad. These students may have some extracurricular experiences. They may not be weak in learning, but they do not have prominent edges, either.
The third group may have really realized that what matters is their interest and that they feel comfortable in the educational system, be it the Chinese one or the international one. This kind of students know that learning is not about grades, rankings of universities, or “going to better schools” than those who attend Gaokao; on the contrary, they really enjoy learning, are curious about international education, and want a different kind of experience than they would otherwise have in China’s mainland.
At present, the number of students in the third category is very small; we would like to see more of them. We expect students to seek out an answer to the question: what kind of life do they want to live? The important thing is not the rankings of universities, but one's love for the area they want to pursue.
Q: I get a sense that you tend to look at the future instead of now? why is that?
A: Yes, I do look at the future more. When I was in college, I was engaged in many student activities, such as setting up student organizations. Influenced by the works of Professor Chen Pingyuan of Peking University as well as some documentaries about universities, I gained some insights about how to make my early adulthood more meaningful. After I joined VMA, instead of focusing on “what kind of high school life is better”, I went a step further and thought about what would come after high school, what the students’ expectations and attitudes would be towards going to universities.
A few years ago, I had a discussion with Principal Wang He about her expectations for basketball and football games. Do we want to work towards professional competitions at the provincial or even higher level? Or do we want to see the students get involved and organize everything from scratch on their own?
We reached consensus on the latter. The activities can be called successful as long as they are filled with students’ input and participation throughout the process; even if the activities themselves might not be as professional.
Provide an opportunity for students to experience, learn and grow; this is how we help our students succeed. I believed in that when I was working in the Student Wellness Center and now that I’m College Counseling Office, I still believe the same.
Q: What about colleges? Are you saying that you don’t really mind what schools students go to and disregard the rankings as a referential point?
A: What I meant is I hope that students do not only focus on the ranking of universities when preparing for college application.
Ranking is a fast-food way of defining a university. It saves time, but it also leaves out a lot of other information. For the general public or someone who doesn’t know much about college counseling or application, rankings or similar references will seem to inform easily, but in the long run, rankings are misleading to some extent, because when it’s the only thing important, people won’t bother to even try to understand more about the universities beyond the numbers. That’s why I said I don’t want them to rely too much on rankings.
Q: I understand and I agree. When I was a college counselor myself, I tried to educate parents and students about paying attention to the characteristics of a university and education itself, instead of defining the universities by tags, which is the mainstream trend. I think many parents and most educational institutions are actually very utilitarian; they cannot see or intentionally ignore the fine details. There is a story in ancient Greek mythology that Icarus escaped from captivity with wings secretly made by his father Daedalus. Knowing that his wings were fragile and not resistant to high temperatures, he flew higher and higher. At last, the wax in his wings melted and he fell into the sea. Don’t you think this is a precise metaphor for human nature? Vanity and arrogance lead to breakthroughs, but they can also doom people. The prestige of p schools is like the sun in the story.
A: I personally don’t think of it as a mainstream trend. It’s just that the message has been spread quite far. Nevertheless, the fact that the message is so widespread does not mean the majority of people agree with it.
Q: Is such a conclusion based on your experience in college counseling?
A: It is more of an expectation or an optimistic view of mine. I am optimistic that not all people think ranking is a good thing. Just like what you said, many people have heard about the concept of rankings and may even feel a little annoyed by it. This is also the source of some students’ anxiety or confusion.
A student said he knew he needed to get to know these universities and find out his true interest, and he enjoyed doing online search about it, but inevitably he heard about rankings from his parents, friends, classmates, etc., all of which made him quite anxious. In the end it was these noises that made him feel disoriented and panic, not that he really cared about rankings.
All of these are not something that we can fix overnight, but I still hope that the student can remain calm and sort things out. Actually we do have some students that are like that.
When students understand the difference between their own voices and that of others, they will enjoy the process of finding the colleges that really fit. I will not worry about such students’ college years because I know they will continue to enjoy their life. Rankings are ubiquitous regardless of fields; we see rankings in graduate schools, job industries, and beyond, right? But I don’t think there is any rankings on how to research biodiversity in the Amazons, no matter how interesting this may sound. Some students really want to do things like this, but the rankings—which caters to certain people—wouldn’t care about that. This is where the rankings fail.
Q: This is true. I think you may have misunderstood what I meant by the mainstream. I was talking about the wishes and expectations of most parents. Speaking from my own experience, I have seen too many students trying to squeeze their way into high-ranking schools. But I think education should be more than just a list of numbers; it also has some unquantifiable qualities. Helping people in need is a charitable act of course; however, it can be done out of the need to earn social practice hours or add a line on a resume, anything but a genuine desire to help others. A student can participate in competitions, not in the pursuit of knowledge, but because they can “beef up” college application.
I also hope that they can be calmer and more rational as you said, but expectations are different from reality, right? I sometimes feel that the goals of parents and those of VMA may not align, which might cause some tension. Does CCO have a solution? Or, do you even think this is a problem that can be solved?
A: VMA and CCO support students in their application process, which should not be an industrialized process. We want to help students explore who they want to be, and help them get closer to their goals. We need to understand that college application is only one part of high school life, not the purpose of it. The purpose is to know who you are, who you want to be, and who you can be.
Q: So you think the big trend—the big tide—is still very healthy.
A: It is in the long run. Some students feel anxious now, but when they grow up and look back, they will think differently. I am optimistic about this.
Q: Maybe that optimism comes from your confidence in human nature?
A: It can be looked at that way; when the whole tide goes in one direction, I don’t care too much about small currents that are different from the mainstream. The energy of any person or organization is limited. If you spend too much energy fighting small battles, then you are going to lose the big war, and the big war here is students’ self-awareness and development.
Q: To make any endeavor fruitful requires time commitment, so we care about the time that teachers invest in students. Take CCO as an example, there is only one college counseling class each month, right? How do the teachers invest time in students? Do they spend enough time with our students?
A: Many educators, college counselors, classroom teachers, mentors, etc. hope to become heroes for, and exert a certain influence on, students' lives and development. But this is not realistic; this is an illusion as well as a burden.
I think the students’ development is the result of the joint efforts of everyone, rather than the reliance on a certain role. If that were the case, then what the students need is not a school, but a private, full-time tutor.
As for your question of time investment, first of all, I don’t think that college application is the ultimate goal for a student in high school. It is just a point of linkage and transition. Instead, their self-awareness, exploration, and development are what require the most varied efforts. No matter how much I talk to students about exploration and self-awareness, and no matter how much information they check online, they have to do it by themselves.
Our class takes place once per month, yes. In the class, we talk about basic information that everyone must know, such as what college applications is, and how to understand the various aspects of it, but our meetings with students are not limited to once a month. On average, a student may have two one-on-one talks with college counselors per month. Some students come to me two or three times a week, but for this kind of student I would usually tell them that what they need is to do things instead of talking to me about their ideas. It is the same when students introduce themselves to an admissions officer. No matter how much they describe to the admissions officer that they like astronomy or basketball, they need to practice that passion so when asked about it they can talk about it in their own ways—you’ve tried and practiced, and how you feel and what you get from your own deeds, actions and practices are the best testimony of the said passion.
It’s no use coming to talk to me four hours a week. As a matter of fact, I prefer to finish up the key information in half an hour and have students spend the other three and a half hours getting things done. If you like something, you ought to take action.
The college counselors are actually promoters of high school life, and we are happy to play that role. I believe that mentors and subject teachers play the same role, if not a more important one. Just think how many subject teachers inspire students’ interests in their subject!
Q: This year’s admissions results are mostly out, right? How is our application result given the international context over the past year?
A: I am very proud of our students. This year’s pandemic has brought about changes in standardized tests as well as admissions. Still, many students have completed their applications under that pressure. I am not only proud of our students, but also of our entire college counseling team, as well as our and mentors, who gave a lot of support to us and the students.
We learned that the number of applications worldwide has increased by at least 30%, and on average, each student’s number of applications has increased by 30%. This actually reflects the anxiety of students: they sent out more applications to give themselves more options. That’s why our results showed greater geographical diversity than previous years.
These results have also shown us the effectiveness of VMA’s curriculum. Our students not only applied to the United States, but also to the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, and more, and we have achieved good results. I feel happy for our students because their abilities have been recognized. Moreover, I feel happy because they have fought for more possibilities for themselves.
Before the ED results came out, students and parents were very anxious. Our college counselors gave up their Christmas vacation, and spent four hours a day communicating with students. In the end everyone got through. I use the words “got through” because everyone was so tired, but none gave up. We have braved the most difficult application season together. I simply couldn’t be prouder.
That said, I constantly asked myself: is this the most difficult application season? And my personal response is: not necessarily. Some media took advantage of our innate fear for the unknown and blew the anxiety out of proportion. Still, there was no major change to the procedure of university applications, and we have never stopped our contact with universities. One will find that the impact of external factors may not be that significant if one holds on to the “core”.
I am very grateful to the mentors, subject teachers, administrative team, and Vanke Education. They have given us and our students so much patience and support. At present, and I can say that the vast majority of students are satisfied with and excited about the university they are going to and the future they are soon to step in.
Editor: Jack Ma
Translator: Evelyn Zhou
Proofreader: Jack Ma, Nick McNamara