Dan Chen is a co-founder of the education advisory firm Aegis Advisors, which specializes in admissions to boarding schools and universities in the U.S. and U.K. He manages its Hong Kong and Singapore advisory teams, and formerly interviewed candidates for admissions on behalf of the Columbia Alumni Representative Committee. He has over a decade of experience across education, startups, human rights law and the U.S. Foreign Service.
Your company helps students from China, Hong Kong and Singapore enter foreign universities, particularly those in the United States and United Kingdom. Can you explain the appeal of a foreign university education?
I think the appeal really depends on what you see the purpose of an education being and your end goal. There will always be those who see university as an ends to a means, be it in getting a job or having brand recognition. But there are also those who view university as a place to gain a quality education, to explore what they want to do in life, or specialize in a particular field of study. Between the U.S. and U.K., there are also some key differences. The U.S. tends to be more broad in its curriculum and allows students to apply undecided. The education is generally more well-rounded, though certain schools have specialized programs in business, engineering, architecture, etc.
The U.K. is more specialized and students generally apply to specific subjects, so for those who don’t know what they want to study or do in life, the U.S. might be a better option. That said, for those who do know what they want to do, the U.K. can be a great option, especially since certain subjects like law and medicine are possible at the undergraduate level versus in the U.S. where law and medicine are generally only graduate options.
Many of the parents seeking your assistance want their child to attend a name-brand university. How do you help them achieve that aim?
Well, first off, we like to work off a policy of what is in a child’s best interest, and that won’t always be going to a name-brand university. Second, for parents who have expectations that are completely out of sync with reality, managing expectations is very important in this business. That all said, how we engage with students will vary depending on specific goals and needs, but generally the scope of our services include private tutoring, test prep, mentorship, application help, interview prep and even parent coaching.
Are parents in Asia looking beyond the Ivy League?
We see more and more families who are interested in schools beyond the Ivy League. There are so many amazing schools out there, including liberal art schools such as Williams, Amherst, Pomona, etc. that some would argue are even better than certain Ivy Leagues. Even within the top 10 universities, a fair number aren’t Ivy League, including Duke Chicago, Stanford, MIT and Hopkins, all of which are actually higher ranked than some Ivies.
Some companies in your business have fee structures that include bonuses for getting a child into a ‘stretch’ school. How exactly does this work?
There are a wide range of companies and fee structures out there. Some companies have a flat rate irrespective of where a student ends up. Other companies have fee structures where bonuses or success fees are paid based off ultimate admission results. I think given the wide range of companies and options out there, you really want to do some due diligence and make sure whatever you sign on for is suitable for your particular circumstances.
Are parents now looking for kindergarten to university education advice?
Yes. Kindergarten placement can be a complicated and competitive process, and many parents see value in seeking such advice. We have also seen an increasing number of parents seeking advice for international school and boarding school admissions, all of which have implications for university admissions later on.
From your perspective, where do you see future business growth opportunities in the education sector?
As industries and the job sector evolves, the education sector will likewise need to evolve to prepare students for the real world. There is a disconnect between what students are taught in school and the skill sets they actually need to succeed in the real world, so there are business growth opportunities for those who can help bridge that disconnect. I also think there is a lot of opportunity for those who can evolve beyond the traditional brick and mortar business model.
The University of Hong Kong, Fudan, Peking University and Tsinghua are notoriously difficult to enter. To what extent are your clients applying to U.S. universities because admittance to an elite Chinese or Hong Kong institution is so difficult?
The clients we work with generally aren’t interested in attending such universities.
If or when the elite Chinese universities rank alongside their western peers in university league tables, will demand for a foreign university education taper off?
I don’t see demand for U.S. and U.K. higher education tapering off anytime soon. In fact, we see the exact opposite, with an increasing number of international applicants coming predominantly from China.
Do fresh Asian graduates of U.S. institutions have better employment prospects than their domestically educated peers?
Not necessarily. I think it depends on the role and industry. Technology is making it possible to conduct assessments on knowledge, skill sets and other meaningful variables, so school name carries less weight, if any at all, in employee hires. Plus, for certain roles, hiring overseas-educated candidates doesn’t always necessarily make sense. That said, there is still a large majority of employers and recruiters who are very pedigree focused, especially in more traditional industries like banking, finance and law. There is a reality that by studying overseas, you do end up gaining a certain type of knowledge, skill set and experience that domestically educated peers just don’t get.
American universities seem to put weight on extra-curricular activities. The response has been a CV arms race, with children increasingly performing Mother Teresa-like acts of philanthropy. What’s your advice?
Gearing everything you do to get into college sounds like a terrible way to live, and I think admission officers and interviewers see past students who do things just for the CV. I prefer the process being a more organic one, where students genuinely think about what they’re interested in, take action to explore those interests and get engaged in larger conversations that matter in life.
Given that their applicants sport similar academic results, the elite U.K. universities often use interviews to whittle down the field. A recent question purportedly posed to an Oxford applicant was: “If you were a fish, what kind of fish would you be?” How do you coach a student for that hurdle?
Interviews in the U.K. and U.S. are very different.
In the U.K, at the Oxbridge level and for certain specialized programs, they tend to be very academic and specific to the subject for which the candidate is being interviewed for. For instance, maths or medicine interviews will be highly technical and involve both prerequisite knowledge and problem-solving skills. The candidate might get a fish question, might be shown a piece of bark and asked to talk about it, or might be asked to describe how the human brain works depending on the subject. To many, the questions would seem very specific, but from an interviewer’s point of view, if a candidate is applying to a specific field, it is generally expected the applicant be knowledgeable and read materials beyond the high school level. Interviewers are looking to see how candidates react to and deal with “out of left field” questions. Similar styles of question are also known to have been asked during British boarding school interviews.
In the U.S., interviews tend to happen at the Ivy League or top tier level, and interviewers are looking more for passion, interest and fit. Unlike the U.K. it’s more of a personality and motivational assessment than a subject specific or intellectual assessment.
Applicants can’t fully prepare for these interviews, so we try to prepare students to think on their feet. These are not questions for which you can memorize or regurgitate answers.