On the day that Li Chang, 19, received admission offers from seven well-known US universities in late June, his father Li Wanjin had the most satisfying sleep in a year.
The relieved father called many friends the next morning to share the news.
He also called the recruitment agency he used to help his son's university applications - and promised to pay it the rest of the 50,000 yuan ($8,060) fee on time.
Except for the Test of English as a Foreign Language and remote video interviews that his son had to do in person, the rest of the preparations and work for the applications was done by friends and the agency.
The agency handled and "improved" the application materials including the student's resume, recommendation letters, intern experience and high-school transcripts.
Friends who are English-language specialists or foreigners were also mobilized to help prepare 10 self-recommendation letters written to read like those that came from the hand of a high-school student.
"These letters were really good. Even if I were the admission officers, I would like the boy whom these letters described," Li Chang joked.
Many have noticed the problem associated with such applications.
On July 1, cable TV channel CNN reported admission officers saying that as many as one in 10 applications to US colleges by Chinese students may include fraudulent materials like fake essays and high-school transcripts.
The report also blamed recruitment agencies. The Ministry of Education has certified nearly 500 recruitment agencies, but thousands more are said to operate outside official scrutiny.
All of this is occurring as the number of Chinese applicants rises and US colleges admit more of them. Almost one in four foreign students on US campuses is Chinese and most pay full tuition.
Figures from the Institute of International Education, an independent, non-profit education group, show that the number of Chinese students in the US reached 235,597 in the 2012-13 academic year, increasing 21.4 per cent from the year before.
Tip of the iceberg
Harry Lee, CEO of Amber Education Group, said the problem may be much worse.
"The US has long been a hot destination for Chinese who want to study overseas. But Chinese applicants are often unfamiliar with the admission procedures for US colleges, so about 90 per cent of students will seek recruiting agencies as representatives," Lee said.
"In Hong Kong, recruiting agencies charge only about 6,000 yuan for a student, but in the mainland, the price generally stays at 20,000 to 30,000 yuan and doubles if applying to the top 50 US colleges," he said.
"I often hear Hong Kong students from US schools complain that some mainland students in their classes are actually below the average level. Some cannot even catch up with the classes. They fail tests and cannot graduate as scheduled."
Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said the problem is a serious one.
"In 2012, 299 Chinese students in New Zealand were found with counterfeit application materials. They received deportation orders from the New Zealand government and were banned from entering the country for five years," he said.
Using fake application materials is also morally wrong. It leaves an indelible stain on the perpetrator, brings shame on all Chinese students and makes it more difficult for others who are applying to the schools, Xiong said.
Chen Yin, a former manager of the US section at a large recruitment agency in Qingdao, Shandong province, said profit is the main culprit fueling the rampant practice.
"We don't call this 'faking materials'. It's seen as a process of 'improvement'. Good students have much material to use and we mainly help them select the most attractive parts to highlight and invite high-level writers to edit their application documents," Chen said.
"But for average students, especially those from rich families with poor academic performance, we will provide a package service," she said.
"US colleges favour students with abundant experience. We will ask parents to use their relationships to get references of internships with well-known companies or NGOs.
"For academic transcripts, some schools will help students adjust their scores. But for schools under strict management, we will sometimes fake academic certificates," she said.
In her eight years of experience, Chen said she found that 80 per cent of the teachers approached would sign and approve the recommendation letters the agency had prepared without any changes.
But with increasing scrutiny and regulation from US colleges, it is also becoming more risky to fake materials. Every year, several students will leave school after being found with fake application material or grades that do not match the academic levels reflected in their applications, she said.
Measures from the US
Many US colleges have rolled out several measures in recent years to assess students, such as conducting remote video interviews and accepting academic transcripts processed by third-party institutes.
"Students submit fraudulent credentials every year. This isn't something new, though we do see fraudulent credentials submitted with increasing frequency," said Shawn L. Abbott, assistant vice-president and dean of admissions of the office of undergraduate admissions at New York University.
"Through our holistic admission process, however, which now often includes an interview with candidates to probe deeper into their resumes and English language ability, we are able to frequently uncover cases where students have submitted fraudulent credentials," he said.
"Much like many American universities, NYU does see many students submit fraudulent credentials every year. And each year, we investigate each fraudulent submission to the best of our ability and resolve accordingly. It is increasingly common for us to revoke admission for candidates when we are certain that fraudulent credentials have been submitted.
"When students submit fake materials to gain admission, the integrity of our entire admission process is called into question. This is precisely why our admission process is a holistic one where we look at multiple credentials and variables before making final admission decisions," he said.
"There are many, many variables that we evaluate in our admission process including academic records, test scores, resumes, extra curricular accomplishments, talents, personal characteristics, letters of recommendation, interviews, and a number of writing samples."
Rhine Lu, admission officer of New York University Shanghai, a Sino-US joint venture university, said they have zero tolerance over fake application materials.
Paul Turner, Asia Pacific director and business development director of the Northern Consortium of UK Universities said: "I am not aware of any major problems with fraud. Certainly NCUK students don't have problems but I think the US may be different as it is an immigration country and people are looking at all ways to get there."
He also pointed out that there have been some problems with private colleges not keeping an eye on foreign (non-EU) students in the UK who then go off and spend more time working than studying. Recently, the UK government removed 57 such colleges' right to invite non-EU students.
Many Chinese parents' view of overseas diplomas as a shortcut to good jobs and success is a fundamental reason for the problem, educators said.
Strict penalties for fraudulent university applications must be enforced as meritocracy is an important aspect of society, Xiong, from the 21st Century Education Research Institute, said.
"Why do Chinese parents want to send their children to the best schools, not the ones most suitable for them? They really need to rethink the problem as a diploma is not everything," Lee, the Amber Education Group CEO, said.
"I also suggest fully opening the market for recruitment agencies and letting it decide. Students in Hong Kong will consult at least six agencies before using the most reasonable one. But in the Chinese mainland, there are not as many options," he said.
Wang Xiang, the owner of an overseas study intermediary agency in Shenyang, Liaoning province, also blamed the increasing number of overseas "diploma mills" - which offer illegitimate degrees and diplomas for fees - as one of the reasons that have led to the growing number of fake application materials from Chinese students.
"For the sake of money, these diploma mills even help students counterfeit material to pass admission investigations by foreign governments. It's not only China's problem. It also needs other countries' efforts," he said.
Liu Ce and Luo Wangshu contributed to this story.