Reading the cheats

Updated: 2012-11-30 06:48

By Xiao Xiangyi (China Daily)

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Reading the cheats

Chris Boehner, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who launched Vericant, a video interview company, in 2010. Cui Meng / China Daily

Entrepreneur Chris Boehner is taking on the murky world of Chinese student applications to US schools, which are often heavily edited by professional agencies

Cheating on applications for US schools is big business in China. Teacher recommendation letters can be bought and personal statements are sometimes edited by a professional agency. It's a difficult situation, which can be bad for both the school and the student. But the cheats are now being tackled by a start-up company called Vericant.

Vericant, a compound of the words verify and applicant, is the brainchild of 28-year-old entrepreneur Chris Boehner. The company helps schools to verify the ability of Chinese students during the application process, using face-to-face interviews and written tests.

Boehner came up with the idea three years ago while working as an educational consultant in China. To his surprise, the students expected him to write their teacher recommendations and personal statements.

"I was very confused by this, because that's not what a consultant does," he says.

On further investigation he realized this was a deep-rooted problem that had resulted in US schools taking on underqualified Chinese students and ultimately in students underperforming.

"For the students who are under-qualified, they don't have a good experience," he says.

Boehner began the process of launching Vericant with the aim of creating a more open and honest application field.

Since its launch in early 2010, Vericant has signed up 35 high schools in the US and Claremont McKenna College as partners. He continues to talk to admissions officers and hopes to have signed up 45 schools in total by the end of this year.

"Chinese students applying to our partner schools will first need an interview with Vericant, which is usually a required part of the application, like the TOEFL or SSAT," says Boehner.

Unlike those tests, Vericant does not score interviewees. "We help schools screen the students, but we don't make the decision. I wouldn't say whether an interviewee is a good student or not, but I will send the video to the schools and let them make their own assessment," he says.

Peng Hongbin, father of a Chinese student who is applying to study in the US, says his daughter was excited to have an interview with Vericant last month.

"She believes it is a chance to show her interpersonal skills and spoken English, and an opportunity to make herself stand out from everybody else," he says.

"When I am helping to select schools for my daughter, I do not take schools that don't require an interview into consideration."

Peng and his daughter also traveled to the US for interviews at 10 schools. "It was great to visit the schools ourselves and to feel the environment and spirit of them, but for those who have no time to visit America, Vericant saves time and energy because the content of the interviews is similar," Boehner says.

The Vericant process consists of two parts: a 10-minute recorded interview and a 30-minute writing test for which questions are randomized to prevent the test being passed on and prepared for.

"We ask questions that are not normally asked. It might be something very random or something you wouldn't think would be an interview question," Boehner says.

During the interview, one question is asked in Chinese. These answers are then subtitled so admission officers can understand what is being said.

"We really want to see the students' personalities between the two languages. Sometimes they struggle in English, but it's interesting to see how they respond in Chinese," he says.

He believes the writing section is essential because both writing and speaking English are important parts of study in the US.

"We have seen strong students with a very good spoken English ability who on the writing test could barely write anything. It is really important for the schools to know about this as writing is an essential part of the learning process," he says.

Boehner's job satisfaction comes from solving a problem. "It's fun to meet the smart, bright, ambitious Chinese students looking to make a difference," he says.

To date, Vericant has interviewed hundreds of applicants from across China, and it is now approaching the peak application season from December to March.

Once the winter rush is over, he will spend more time talking with schools in the US and spreading awareness of the misunderstandings between the Chinese and US education systems.

The issue lies not just in agents helping students too much, but in differences between the US and Chinese systems, according to Boehner.

"You don't use teacher recommendations, transcripts or personal statements to go to high schools or colleges in China. Instead you only have to take the gaokao, a university entrance examination held annually in China. But schools in the US don't understand that, they want to apply what they do in the US to Chinese students. Creating a video interview service is the best solution to make sure students are fairly presented and schools see who they really are," he says.

In the US, the education system uses debate, persuasion, creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, while in China it relies on memorizing, with little in the way of critical thought, according to Boehner.

"Another difference is the test methods. We trust three-dimensional assessment - recommendation letters, transcripts and personal statements. What the Chinese count on is the test score," he says.

"If Chinese students want to go to US schools, they have to make the adjustment."

Boehner first came to China in 2006 after graduating from the College of Charleston. His Jewish grandfather had lived in Shanghai in the 1930s. Before launching Vericant, he spent four years as a corporate trainer, bicycle tour guide, transportation manager and mandolin player with an American folk music band.

His biggest problem since launching the business has been keeping up with demand and maintaining high-quality interviews.

"There are around 350 to 400 boarding schools in the US. As we continue to grow larger, providing high quality-videos, interviews and writing samples will be our top priority," he says.

But he is still optimistic about the potential of his start-up and confident in his team.

"My nine co-workers are really smart and talented. My life goal is to always be the stupidest person in the room, and all of my co-workers readily support me in this goal," he jokes.

(China Daily 11/30/2012 page20)