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For Admission to a Top University in the USA, Which Is Better–a Chinese Mom or an American Mom?

Amy Chua made quite a splash recently with her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she described the habits of Chinese mothers who can often seem more like drill sergeants at an Army boot camp than the nurturing “soccer mom” who buys the snacks for kids when the team loses.  While I could never be the sort of parent who constantly badgers his kids to be the best in everything (it would just take too much energy to engage in the constant battle), I do think that Americans could do well to get over the “Tiger Mother” aspects of Chua’s methods to see that it’s not altogether wrong to push our kids harder.  If anything, I think American parents can sometimes be too soft on their kids, worrying more about “self-esteem” than inculcating values of hard work and self-sacrifice in order to achieve longer-term goals.

Chinese mothers, however, are not too impressed with Amy Chua’s book.  In fact, many Chinese mothers–in China–are experimenting with new parenting styles.   According to a recent New York Times article,

Several factors lie behind the shifting attitudes: China’s increased exposure to the West; concerns about how children will manage in a creative, knowledge-based economy; and studies indicating increasing mental health problems among children.

More than 30 million people younger than 18, or about 1 in 10, are suffering from depression and behavioral problems, according to the China Population Communication Center. Anxiety disorders among college students increased 8 percent between 1992 and 2005, and depression rose by 7 percent, Zhang Hanxiang, chairman of the center, said at a nationwide youth mental health meeting in December. Drug-taking, violence, Internet addiction and suicide are all on the rise.

Eighty-four percent of high school students reported feeling depressed and under stress. Nearly 50 percent of elementary school students said they felt anger and shame after being criticized by parents or teachers, the study found.

Compounding this, over one in three children are an only child, raising expectations sharply in a country where parents regard children as a key source of old-age security. In a survey at an elementary school in the city of Xian, conducted by Xian Evening News, 85 percent of 300 students said academic pressure was excessive. Still, 87 percent said they were happier at school than at home, where they said they felt lonely, unable to communicate with parents who cared about their studies but not their feelings or physical welfare.

I am finding that ambitious Chinese families who have the money are taking their kids out of Chinese schools and putting them in international schools or specialized programs that will prepare them for overseas study.  Many of my Chinese clients come from these schools.  Some of them have “Chinese mothers” of the type exemplified by Amy Chua.  Others have mothers who are Chinese who resemble American soccer moms.  Either way, these families are learning that doing things in the Chinese way is not always the best method of getting their kids into top American universities.

The admissions rules are different in the United States.  While it is true that the valedictorian may have some statistical advantage over the kids who is number 5 in his class, it is also true that plenty of kids who do not have impeccable grades and test scores are admitted to Ivy League and other top universities.  Within the American admissions system, there are many ways for a student to stand out besides having the best grades in the class.

The Chinese educational system, however, is a strict meritocracy that dates back to the imperial examinations system:  no matter who you are or where you live, if you pass the exam with a high enough score, you will earn entrance to the top university in the country.  Everything depends on that examination.

Cut and dried.  Clear.

One of my perennial duties as a counselor to Chinese families is to explain that preparing for American university entrance in the Chinese way is not going to work.  If you want to play the American admissions game, you have to play by American rules. So extracurricular activities become important to Chinese Tiger Mothers.  Community service is becoming more common as top-flight Chinese students seek ways to pad their resumes and demonstrate that they are more than a test score.  Bright and shiny educational centers are popping up all over China with the aim of grooming the academically robotic Chinese student to become a warm and fuzzy and chipper and perky American college applicant.

In other words, as Amy Chua argues that America needs more Chinese mothers, Chinese mothers in China are trying to adopt more American attitudes about education.  As the New York Times article points out, these moves away from the “Tiger Mother” model are slow:  it’s hard to break centuries of cultural habit.  But as anyone who has studied the Chinese economic miracle of the past 30 years knows, the Chinese are masters at adopting and adapting the knowledge and habits of others in order to achieve longer term goals.

So what is the trend?  Certainly, American colleges and universities (as well as boarding schools) can expect more and more applicants from China:  the pace of growth is truly staggering. More important, however, admissions offices everywhere can expect more and more applicants from kids who have grown up in some sort of a hybrid environment:  taking a more Western-style curriculum participating in more American-style extracurricular activities, and thus becoming more attractive applicants for American top colleges.

In fact, because so many Chinese students are frankly better prepared, academically speaking, than their American counterparts, and because so many Chinese families are able and willing to pay full price for an American education, some admissions offices may find it difficult to control the numbers of Chinese students they admit.  At the University of Colorado, for example, Chinese students make up well over half of all foreign students on the Boulder campus.  The university has decided to double its number of international students in the next few years:  with the flood of Chinese applicants, this goal will not be difficult to achieve.  However, international educators on campus worry that they may have to limit Chinese enrollments in order to encourage enrollments from Latin America, Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia.

As a student of Chinese culture and as a consultant to both American and Chinese families, I enjoy watching this sort of cultural rapprochement as more American parents pressure their kids to take every AP course available, and as  more Chinese parents encourage their kids to play and explore their extracurricular talents.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

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Comments

  1. Thanks for this post, Mark. It is clear that for both western and eastern students college admissions is more competitive than ever.

  2. Americans will have a *much* harder time fitting in science AP study to their kids TV and soccer schedule than Chinese will have fitting soccer into their students study schedule.

    So while each can learn from the other, Americans are at a profound disadvantage, and it is way past time it is admitted.

  3. Hi, Eric. Nice to hear from you. You’re right, of course. I advise a number of Chinese students. It’s not hard to encourage a student (for example) to spend more time dancing than studying for her SAT math exam. She’s already got that one cold. Now she can have some fun on the dance floor–and know that she’s actually increasing her chances of admission by doing so…!

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