NEWARK: Dozens of new students crowded into a lobby of the University of Delaware's student centre at the start of the school year. Many were stylishly attired in distressed jeans and brightly coloured sneakers; half tapped away silently on smartphones while the rest engaged in boisterous conversations.
All but one - a lost-looking soul from Colombia - were from China.
Among them was Mr Fan Yisu, whose flight from Shanghai had arrived six hours earlier. Too excited to sleep, he had stayed up all night waiting for orientation at the English Language Institute to begin. Like nearly all the Chinese students at Delaware, he was conditionally admitted, and can begin taking classes only after he completes an English programme.
90 per cent of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations, 70 per cent have other people write their essays, 50 per cent forge high school transcripts and 10 per cent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive, says Zinch China, a consulting company that advises US colleges and universities about China.
He plans to major in finance, he said, and return home to work for his father's construction company after graduating. He had chosen to attend college more than 10,000km from home, he added, because 'the Americans, their education is very good'.
That opinion is widely shared in China, which is partly why the number of Chinese undergraduates in the United States has tripled in just three years to 40,000 - making them the largest group of foreign students at US colleges.
While other countries, such as South Korea and India, have for many years sent high numbers of undergraduates to the United States, it is the sudden and startling uptick in applicants from China that has caused a stir at universities.
It is also a trend that many countries are seeing, as rising incomes allow more Chinese to seek an overseas education. In Singapore, the 50,000 or so Chinese students at all educational levels form one of the largest groups of foreign students.
At Delaware, the growth has been stark. In 2007, there were just eight Chinese students; this year, there are 517.
At first glance, the trend is a boon for colleges and students alike. While China's rapidly expanding middle class can now afford to go overseas, they are also a godsend for universities that have faced sharp budget cuts in recent years.
On closer inspection, however, it can be a tricky fit for both.
Colleges eager to bolster their diversity and expand their international appeal have rushed to recruit in China, where fierce competition for seats at local universities and an aggressive admissions-agent industry feed a frenzy to land spots on US campuses.
But college officials and consultants say they are seeing widespread fabrication on applications, whether that means a personal essay written by an agent or an English proficiency score that does not jibe with a student's speaking ability.
US colleges, new to the Chinese market, struggle to distinguish between good applicants and those who are too good to be true.
Ms Tang Wenting, a junior majoring in management and international business, for instance, had very poor English when she first applied to Delaware.
An agency helped her with her application, charging her US$4,000 (S$5,060) for it. Because her English was not good enough for her to write the admissions essay, staff at the agency asked her questions about herself in Chinese and produced an essay.
Now that she can write in English herself, she does not think much of what they wrote. But it served its purpose: She was admitted, and spent six months in the English-language programme before beginning freshman classes.
As for allowing an agent to write her essay, she sees that decision in pragmatic terms: 'At that time, my English not better as now.'
Zinch China, a consulting company that advises US colleges and universities about China, interviewed 250 US-bound Beijing high school students, their parents, agents and admissions consultants.
It concluded that 90 per cent of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations, 70 per cent have other people write their essays, 50 per cent forge high school transcripts, and 10 per cent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive.
The 'tide of application fraud', it predicted in a report, will only worsen as more students go to America.
At an orientation in September, the director of the English Language Institute at Delaware's Newark campus, Dr Scott Stevens, mixed compliments and warnings as he reminded his audience of primarily Chinese students not to cheat. 'You are all very intelligent,' he said. 'Use that intelligence to write your own papers.'
But he was candid about the challenges Delaware is facing as the population of Chinese students grows - and confronting plagiarism is near the top of the list.
Dr Stevens told of how one student memorised four Wikipedia entries so that he could regurgitate whichever one seemed most appropriate for an essay - an impressive, if misguided, feat.
For those on the ground, there is deepening concern that US colleges have entered China without truly understanding it. For officials like Dr Stevens, who has been dealing with international students for nearly three decades, Chinese undergraduates are like a code he is still trying to decipher.
'How can we reach them? How can we get them to engage? That,' he said, 'is something that keeps me up at night.'
NEW YORK TIMES