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Third-party video interview services playing a greater role in US admissions

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • China is the leading sending market for the US, and now accounts for nearly a third of all international enrolment in American institutions
  • Particularly given the high volume of Chinese applicants, US educators are keen to strengthen their admissions and selections processes and to protect against credential fraud
  • Third-party video interview services, based both in the US or China, have come to play a more prominent role in US admissions in recent years and are seen as a way to better ensure the integrity of the admissions file and also to provide for a more complete assessment of the applicant

The number of Chinese students studying in the US has increased by nearly 400% over the past decade. As of 2014/15, it has been the leading sending market for the US for six years in a row and has registered double-digit increases for the last eight years.

There are now more than 300,000 Chinese students enrolled in the US, representing nearly a third (31.2%) of America’s international enrolment. And now the challenge of processing such large volumes of admissions files from China has spurred the creation of a new class of third-party verification services based in China and/or the US. These companies, which include InitialView, Vericant, and CollegeNet, conduct video interviews with prospective students which can then be viewed by admissions staff in the US. The interviews allow admissions officials to compare prospective students’ application documents (e.g., test scores and transcripts) with their presentation and language skills in the videos – and to make admissions decisions based on how well these different elements match up.

These new verification services are designed to help US institutions make better admissions decisions but are also squarely aimed at the issue of credential fraud, and at combating such issues as ghostwritten admissions essays and falsified transcripts.

Two different systems

The traditional Chinese education system is based on rote learning and written test results, and historically, top students aimed to pass the ultra-competitive gaokao exam to get into a prestigious – and again, ultra-competitive – Chinese university. In recent years, however, many of these high-performing students have opted to apply for a place in foreign institutions, with the preferred destination being the US. But this requires a cultural shift as well and Chinese students applying to the US are often unaccustomed to the way American educators assess prospective students. The US system values a holistic appreciation of students in which test scores are only one of several components that matter – alongside extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and the ability to collaborate and engage with fellow students.

Third-party verification companies aim to support this broader review by enabling US admissions staff to assess Chinese students based on more than their application documents. Jiang Xiaobo, the director of the college counselling center at the Beijing National Day School, said recently to The New York Times:

“Third-party interviews require a high level of communication skills in English and logical thinking, which poses a challenge to students who grew up in the traditional education system in China.”

Great demand for third-party assistance

Terry Crawford founded student video interviewing company InitialView in 2009, and he describes dramatic growth in demand for the company’s services in the last few years. In 2014, he says, more than 17,000 applications from China included an InitialView interview, compared to 6,000 in 2013. The Boston Globe reports that, “More than 200 schools now accept InitialView’s interviews and about 70 actively recommend them.” For its part, Vericant completed 2,000 interviews with students in 2015 and expects this number to double in 2016. A number of institutions have also begun to conduct their own video interviews directly with applicants in China and elsewhere.

The New York Times adds, “According to Chinese admissions agents, more than a third of the 100 top-rated American colleges and universities recommend third-party interviews, though few require them.”

While Chinese students’ English-language abilities are on full display in video interviews, Jim Miller, the former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), and now a college enrolment consultant, told the Times that admissions officials are not looking for perfection: “Students who are able to articulate their thoughts in understandable English and who appear ready to succeed in the college classroom are advantaged.”

Chinese students typically pay between US$150 and US$450 for a video interview, and there is a growing awareness that this may be a necessary addition to any other application costs. Eddie West, director of international initiatives at NACAC, adds:

“I don’t want to discount the role testing can play, but these interviews, they are gaining more traction because they address the fraud problems, they address the obsession with test prep. [Students] have to be pretty spontaneous.”

A curb on cheating

Credential fraud or cheating is a persistent challenge for testing services and institutions alike. For example, the Boston Globe recently reported that the College Board, the agency responsible for the SAT, “delayed numerous scores from four of the seven times the test was administered in Asia in the past year while they investigated cheating suspicions.”

As much as third-party video interviewing companies are filling a market gap in American college and universities’ admissions processes, experts say the schools themselves can do more to combat cheating. Jonathan Dunn, a college counselor at Fairmont Preparatory Academy in California, participated in an Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling (OACAC) conference last year in which he said, “Be aware that there are schools out there [in China] that are really struggling to do it the right way, but they’re getting a lot of community and parental pressure [to secure admissions to US institutions].”

He advised US recruiters to “use your soft power to support [schools and partners] that are doing a good and ethical job” and to travel to China as part of this process. That takes time on your part – it also takes money. You need to travel to China.”

Educational Testing Service, or ETS, administers the SAT for the College Board, and ETS spokesman Tom Ewing added in a 2015 statement to Inside Higher Ed, “As organisations and individuals attempt new ways of illegally obtaining and sharing test materials for their own profit or benefit – to the detriment of all students – we consistently introduce new test security measures.”

In this sense, anti-cheating measures are like any other form of security: they are evolving all the time in response to changing conditions and behaviour in the marketplace. For the moment, the growing prominence of third-party video interviews speaks to the interest on the part of institutions in strengthening their admissions and selection processes for overseas applicants. It reflects as well the need to not only ensure the integrity of the application file but also the readiness of the applicant to truly engage in advanced studies in the US.

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