The Writing Barrier for Chinese International Students at a U.S. University

For Ziying Zhong, a student from Shenzhen, China, the most challenging aspect of her college education has been writing and reading. When an idea pops into her head, Zhong has difficulty expressing it on paper. When she prepares for her class presentations, she struggles with speaking English more fluently. The need to express herself on paper or out loud is new for Zhong.

Before coming to Boston University, Zhong was at a university in China where she did not have to take Chinese writing classes. Every student is required to learn English when he or she enters primary school at the age of six, she says. However, the teacher, who wasn’t fluent in English, would focus on grammar; students would recite words and simple phrases. There are only a few famous primary schools, located in the big cities, that would hire foreign teachers who were native in English, she says.

Because Chinese international students study with a template and write essays based on a template, they have a hard time finding their voice says Aaron Schips, the academic coordinator at Target International Student Center, an English language learning school located in Allston, Mass.

While writing and reading in a non-native language and simply being in a new environment pose challenges, Zhong chose to come to BU for the education that would, in turn, lead to better career opportunities. Zhong, who is majoring in Business and Administration, is interested in working in the consulting industry; her dream job is to work at McKinsey & Company or the Boston Consulting Group. She says that, unless students will be working for their family’s company back home, Chinese students would often prefer working in the United States. Engineering and computer science students, in particular, would want to work for big tech companies like Google. In her field, the banking and consulting industries in the United States are much better than the ones in China. “The experience here is very important for you to start your career,” says Zhong.

The increase of Chinese students at BU

BU has a huge international student population with 24.4 percent of its class of 2019 being international. From 2012-2015, the percentage of Chinese students out of all the international students attending BU increased from 21.5 percent to 43 percent, according to BU’s International Students and Scholars Office.

TKTK | Photo by Michelle Cheng
Ziying Zhong, a Business and Administration student who hails from Shenzhen, China searches for a book in Mugar Memorial Library. | Photo by Michelle Cheng

“A lot of Chinese students are going to America, and if you don’t, you seem a little behind,” says Yuti Ma, who is deciding between majoring in Accounting or Finance. “It’s just becoming a trend.”

Getting into an Ivy League school is tough, especially for an international Chinese student on average. Nearly 40,000 Chinese students apply to American universities, and only 200 were accepted into Ivy League schools last year, according to the Economist. However, one of the biggest obstacles for Chinese students when it comes to applying to American universities is – as the Economist puts it – being “products of a different education system that, for all its high achievers, is built to suppress intellectual curiosity, creativity and individuality.”

Ma became interested in receiving an American education after her friend encouraged her to apply to a Berkeley summer program last summer. She took a Finance class that was similar to one she had taken in China. While the material was similar, the approach to learning the material was distinct. Ma liked that what she was learning had real world applications.

“It’s not really just the formula, and how to calculate things,” she says. “[It’s] like how it shows in the market, and how do we use the numbers from the real market to calculate things.” She would gain a new understanding of what education could be after taking the course at Berkeley.

At that time, Ma was attending Nankai University, a top public university in China, but she did not feel intellectually challenged. “I felt like I was losing my passions and everything in that university,” says Ma. “ It was not challenging; I would just read the whole book before the exam.” The lack of academic challenge and the taste of an American education motivated Ma to take one of the biggest leaps in her life and transfer to BU.

Writing the college application essay

For Chinese students, the challenge in writing comes even before attending a U.S. university with the college application process. Many Chinese students have a consultant to guide them through the college process, similar to a high school guidance counselor. “It’s really confusing because I have no experience in American education or application because we just take exams,” says Ma.

The agency helps out in all aspects of the application process because Chinese students do not know what to expect.

“When you go to a totally different place, with a totally different language and culture, and system and everything, it’s really confusing to do everything by yourself,” says Ma.

For many Chinese students, this is their first exposure to the American culture and to an American education, and parents worry about the new experience studying abroad. “They know nothing about these universities or what it’s like to study abroad so they would really like someone to talk to who has these kinds of experiences,” says Ma.

The agency will not only select schools and fill out the online procedures for students, but also point to them when they need to provide more volunteer experience or write their essays – a rather mechanical process to create the “ideal student” that American colleges want.

“The agency [went] through my stories with me to find something worthful to talk about,” says Ma. The consultant had Ma fill out a long questionnaire form, revealing everything about her life. When she got her essay back though, Ma felt that the essay was not in her “voice” and realized that she didn’t like how the essay turned out. The agency offered to redo her essay, but she decided to revise it herself. 

Chinese students often have their application essays revised; however, what is considered “revised” ranges from fixing a few grammar errors to rewording the entire essay, says Zhong. According to a consulting firm, as reported by the Economist, that assists American schools handling Chinese students, “up to three-quarters of all Chinese students have other people, usually agents, write their application essays.”

Zhong says Chinese students have their essays reviewed by these agencies “to make their words and their expressions more fluent.” However, there are also students who don’t care and just want to escape their parents and attend an American university – those students would simply hand over everything to the agency. The “more outstanding” students would write their own essays, says Zhong.

Nevertheless, college admissions officers are wary of “questionable” essays. A well-written essay but a low TOEFL (a test that measures English proficiency) score raises a red flag. “When we look at that sample, we’re often thinking does that writing correlate with what we expect?” says Anne Corriveau, the Senior Associate Director at Boston University’s International Admissions Office. “We look for that authenticity – that voice in that process.”

Corriveau and her team of nine people review over 13,000 international applicants under a “different lens”; they review these students’ application essays with an understanding of where they might be coming from – are they from a school in mainland China that’s a national school, or an international school in Hong Kong or Germany? “That’s just a very different experience,” says Corriveau. “It’s more about where is that student’s experience, and what is their level of English.”

TKTK | Photo courtesy of the CAS Center for Writing
Many international students find the CAS Center for Writing, located at 100 Bay State Road, helpful in improving their writing skills. | Photo courtesy of the CAS Center for Writing

Adjusting to the academic atmosphere

There are a number of resources on campus that help international students improve their writing abilities. Zhong finds the writing center helpful in revising not only her grammar but also the logic in her writing. “I learn the most from the practice and the revising,” she says. At the same time, she feels comfortable asking her professor questions; in China, the professor does not welcome questions and simply lectures. “[At BU] you can just talk freely in class and communicate with the professor that can know each student well,” she says. Zhong finds herself really immersed in her classes here, which helps her better learn English.

“Certainly many of the students who are coming to BU are learning English in their home country, but there is nothing like immersion,” says David Shawn, the coordinator of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Center. “Language acquisition is not just one progressive line where we are always making progress.” It takes five to seven years of immersion for non-native speakers to have a command of academic English, says Shawn.

While it’s only been her first semester studying at BU, things are working out for Ma. The new environment has steered her towards what she wants to do in the future. Ma is interested in going into research and attending graduate school, which was recommended by her economics professor. She talks about economics as though it is an art. “I just really like the moments when a model really fits into reality, or this kind of assumption really,” she says, smiling. “I just really like these moments, the calculation, going deep into it.”

Ma finds that a command of the English language will help her beyond her academics; the ability to write coherently will help strengthen her writing voice. “Before BU, I mostly did listening and reading,” says Ma. “I think writing is really important because it just gives tools to know how to express myself.”

About Michelle Cheng

Michelle Cheng (COM '17) is the Managing Editor of The Quad. She writes about higher education, digital culture and lifestyle. She has previously interned at Forbes, New York Family and Upworthy. Reach her at

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