Asian American parents and students often come to us with concerns about the admissions process. There is a common perception that being Asian hurts a student’s chances of being accepted into a top school, one not helped by lawsuits against Harvard and Yale which allege the same thing.
Students and parents should not despair, however. Around 6% of America’s population is Asian, and around 20% of students at top colleges are Asian. It is clearly possible for Asian students to succeed, and in this guide we’ll break down myths about their paths to success, and some truths about how the process is challenging. While it is true that there are difficulties associated with applying as an Asian American student, it is still possible for them to succeed in their admissions journey.
Myths and Truths About Asian American Admissions
Myth: All Asian applicants are seen as the same
The most common concern we hear from students and parents is that they are too “stereotypically Asian” and that colleges won’t value their accomplishments. They worry that their student’s interests in STEM, choices of extracurriculars, and academic performance make them too similar to other candidates.
There is a wide variety in what it means to be interested in STEM, and in what it means to be Asian. Students can be in love with math, build robots for battlebots or other competitions, or program apps in their free time and fall under the umbrella of STEM. A student’s interest in the subject overall isn’t what makes them unique or common, it’s how they express their interest that colleges care about.
What it means to be Asian is also widely varied, as students with heritage from dozens of countries are all lumped into the umbrella term of “Asian.” While there is no differentiation in checking the box, in holistic admissions many colleges do consider the difference between Thais and Chinese, Laotians and Hmong. Top colleges know there is more to a student than an ethnic label.
Truth: All students can be seen as bland
While Asian students often worry overmuch about being seen as an undifferentiated mass, it is a problem which impacts students regardless of background. The problem isn’t just what activities a student participates in, but how they relate to these activities and discuss them.
Students need to demonstrate passion and drive through their activities, and their essays are a good place to demonstrate their personality, passions, and character. There are few truly unique activities, though some are more common than others. In order to stand out in a common activity, students need to relate to it and discuss it in an uncommon way.
This affects Asian students as well, but students of all backgrounds will find success if they demonstrate how they are unique and interesting people. It is fine for students to participate in “stereotypical” or “common” activities, like math olympiad or playing the violin. They should, however, both relate to their passions for these activities in unique and interesting ways and excel in the activities they choose to pursue if they want to be competitive for admissions.
If you are an Asian-American student who is dedicated to the violin, and excel in its performance, by no means should stereotypes prevent you from pursuing it. If your relationship is cooler, and violin and electric bass stir your interests and abilities equally, electric bass will help you stand out more. This is true for non-Asian applicants as well, though implicit bias may hurt Asian-Americans more in this regard. Do not discard opportunities that are stereotypical, but make sure you are passionate about and talented in the activities you choose to pursue; and if all options are equal, choose the one which helps you stand out more.
Myth: You have to/absolutely cannot write a personal statement about identity
These are a pair of related, competing ideas. The first is that Asian American students need to address their identity in the personal statement, the other is that they absolutely can’t. The discussion of personal identity is one of the possible topics for a personal statement, but is by no means a requirement for Asian American applicants.
The point of a personal statement is to let admissions officers know how you think, and what your passions are. This means that there aren’t any solid rules for what to write about, or any clear “right” or “wrong” topics.
Students should write about their identity if they feel it is core to their character, and they have a strong story to tell about it. Maybe they learned a language to connect with their grandparents. Maybe they connected to their history by learning to play a traditional instrument, or to dance in the style of their culture. So long as the essay discusses who the student is, and helps admissions officers get to know them as a person, it will have done its job.
Students shouldn’t write about their heritage or identity just for the sake of writing about it. They should find the story that best represents them, and tell it as best they are able. At its best, a personal statement tells admissions officers something they wouldn’t otherwise know about the student, and opens a window into their heart and soul.
Myth: Schools have quotas to maintain diversity, and this hurts Asian applicants
The use of quotas in admissions is explicitly illegal, and while some schools do consider race in admissions, the amount they do so is limited as well. While there are lawsuits alleging that the consideration of race in admissions hurts Asian American applicants unduly, this has yet to be proven.
There is evidence that Asian American students may be hurt by implicit bias on the part of some admissions officers, but this is not an institutional failing, though the problem may be systemic.
There is evidence that Asian students with high grades often don’t get accepted, but this is due to colleges wanting more than grades alone. High grades are the baseline, and thousands of students with perfect grades are rejected each year in favor of students that schools deem more interesting. This often impacts Asian students heavily.
Truth: Applicants are judged relative to their background
Students are judged relative to their peers with similar backgrounds from the same region. All students from a region (a state, or portion of the country) are read by the same admissions officer, and judged relative to others with similar circumstances. How granular these divisions are can vary based on the college in question, but students will be compared to those that are like them.
While colleges do consider ethnicity, many also judge students on hardships overcome. This is especially true for the UC schools, which are not allowed to use race in admissions decisions. Therefore, students who have faced economic hardship will be credited more for their academic success.
Many students and parents believe that it is more challenging for Asian American students to get admitted to top schools, and perhaps it is. Due to the secretive nature of the admissions process, it’s hard to be certain about why any individual student is admitted or rejected. While the recent court cases are bringing many aspects of the admissions process to light, much more remains uncertain.
There is evidence to support claims that it is harder for Asian American students to get into top colleges. If you have concerns about this or any other concerns about the admissions process, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Ivy Scholars’ founder and CEO, Sasha Chada, has personal experience with this, and all our mentors are eager to guide parents and students through every step in the admissions process.