Preparing for College

Asian Admissions Angst

Are you of Asian heritage? Are you aspiring to a so-called "elite" college? If so, you probably don't need me or this blog post to tell you that there are rumors (and even some semi-hard evidence) that top colleges "discriminate" against Asian applicants. Why is that?

First of all, if you want to hear about this topic from an avalanche of "real" Asians, got to the College Confidential discussion forum. There, you will find a thread with over 1,300 posts that dissects the topic from almost every angle. Here's the premise:

Do Elite Colleges Discriminate Against Asian Students?

Interesting article by Kim Clark of US News with loads of statistical data on how various ethnic and socioeconomic groups fare in the admissions process at elite private colleges: Do Elite Private Colleges Discriminate Against Asian Students? - US News and World Report

The data is from a recent study of 1997 applicants to seven elite colleges. (Not sure why the recent study used 1997 data.) From the article:

Translating the advantages into SAT scores, study author Thomas Espenshade, a Princeton sociologist, calculated that African-Americans who achieved 1150 scores on the two original SAT tests had the same chances of getting accepted to top private colleges in 1997 as whites who scored 1460s and Asians who scored perfect 1600s.
The whole study can be viewed here:

Of course, the tone of the article implies that SAT scores and GPA are and should be the prime determinant of whom is admitted. Arguably, one could make the case that once some minimum standard was met to insure that the student could do the work, additional academic accomplishment past that point should be merely one of a variety of factors like leadership, community service, athletic or musical ability, and so on.

Nevertheless, it's interesting data.

And here are a couple interesting responses:
So in line with kmccrimmel´s excellent post and to rephrase bundles´ question: Should achievement to date be the only factor in elite college admissions? I think the universities clearly and openly answer that question as no. Of course, achievement, be it test scores, gpa, extracurriculars are extremely important in identifying potential future achievement, but on paper, statistics can truly misrepresent the inner talent of a person. We all know that an outstanding gpa and phenomenal test scores are achieved by a combination of hard work and natural intelligence--but you can never know through stats what that combination is for any individual. So another question is: Should an exceptional work ethic and ambition be the sole criteria for admitting students to the elites? I think adcoms have also clearly answered that as no. There is a greater proportion of high-achieving Asians, because there is a greater proportion in that group with these qualities. (Let´s leave out debate about racial IQ differences, because if they exist, they do not account for the differences we´re seeing). There are many highly intelligent students of all races, who although also work very hard, may not put quite as much effort into raising their statistics, but instead use more time to think creatively. And many of these kids will be the greatest future achievers. The problem is that it very difficult to identify which applicants are which, but I genuinely believe that´s what adcoms try to do. I´ve seen many acceptances of Asians with less than perfect stats on CC admitted to the top schools, as was the case with a Chinese girl from my kids´school who was admitted to HYPS. They obviously have the je ne sais quoi that adcoms are looking for, and I submit that that elusive quality is equally distributed among all races.
There are some arguments in this thread saying Asian students have less chance to HYP because they focus too much in sciences and engineering and these schools don't have enough resources to accommodate them. These arguments are just guess work.

Let's take a close look at the major concentration of the Harvard class of 2013:

Humanities 22%

Social Science 26%

Bio Sciences 26%

Physical Sciences 7%

Engineering & Computer Sciences 11%

Math 8%

None listed <1%

Harvard College Admissions § Applying: Statistics

This statistics clearly indicates that math, engineering, and sciences (except Bio sciences) are not impacted majors at Harvard. As matter of facts, social science students complain that Harvard don't have enough resources for them:

Here are the facts: In the social science division of Harvard College, there are roughly 11 concentrators for every faculty member, and the ratios are worse in Harvard's two largest concentrations, government and economics. In the natural sciences, applied sciences, and engineering, there are approximately five students per professor. In the humanities, there are about four.

Unsurprisingly, this imbalance affects the quality of academic advising. In October, The Crimson published data from surveys administered to outgoing seniors in previous years; consistently, social science concentrators were less satisfied with their advising than their classmates in the hard sciences and the humanities.

Clearly, the supply of social science professors isn't keeping pace with student demand. So as the Faculty increases its size over the next three years, you might expect that growth would be focused on the social sciences.

Supporting this thesis is an interesting article from, by Kara Miller, which says:

SAT SCORES aren't everything. But they can tell some fascinating stories.

Take 1,623, for instance. That's the average score of Asian-Americans, a group that Daniel Golden - editor at large of Bloomberg News and author of “The Price of Admission'' - has labeled “The New Jews.'' After all, much like Jews a century ago, Asian-Americans tend to earn good grades and high scores. And now they too face serious discrimination in the college admissions process.

Notably, 1,623 - out of a possible 2,400 - not only separates Asians from other minorities (Hispanics and blacks average 1,364 and 1,276 on the SAT, respectively). The score also puts them ahead of Caucasians, who average 1,581. And the consequences of this are stark.

Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade, who reviewed data from 10 elite colleges, writes in “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal'' that Asian applicants typically need an extra 140 points to compete with white students. In fact, according to Princeton lecturer Russell Nieli, there may be an “Asian ceiling'' at Princeton, a number above which the admissions office refuses to venture.

Emily Aronson, a Princeton spokeswoman, insists “the university does not admit students in categories. In the admission process, no particular factor is assigned a fixed weight and there is no formula for weighing the various aspects of the application.''

A few years ago, however, when I worked as a reader for Yale's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, it became immediately clear to me that Asians - who constitute 5 percent of the US population - faced an uphill slog. They tended to get excellent scores, take advantage of AP offerings, and shine in extracurricular activities. Frequently, they also had hard-knock stories: families that had immigrated to America under difficult circumstances, parents working as kitchen assistants and store clerks, and households in which no English was spoken.

But would Yale be willing to make 50 percent of its freshman class Asian? Probably not.

Indeed, as Princeton's Nieli suggests, most elite universities appear determined to keep their Asian-American totals in a narrow range. Yale's class of 2013 is 15.5 percent Asian-American, compared with 16.1 percent at Dartmouth, 19.1 percent at Harvard, and 17.6 percent at Princeton.

“There are a lot of poor Asians, immigrant kids,'' says University of Oregon physics professor Stephen Hsu, who has written about the admissions process. “But generally that story doesn't do as much as it would for a non-Asian student. Statistically, it's true that Asians generally have to get higher scores than others to get in.''

In a country built on individual liberty and promise, that feels deeply unfair. If a teenager spends much time studying, excels at an instrument or sport, and garners wonderful teacher recommendations, should he be punished for being part of a high-achieving group? Are his accomplishments diminished by the fact that people he has never met - but who look somewhat like him - also work hard?

“When you look at the private Ivy Leagues, some of them are looking at Asian-American applicants with a different eye than they are white applicants,'' says Oiyan Poon, the 2007 president of the University of California Students Association. “I do strongly believe in diversity, but I don't agree with increasing white numbers over historically oppressed populations like Asian-Americans, a group that has been denied civil rights and property rights.'' But Poon, now a research associate at the University of Massachusetts Boston, warns that there are downsides to having huge numbers of Asian-Americans on a campus.

In California, where passage of a 1996 referendum banned government institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, Asians make up about 40 percent of public university students, though they account for only 13 percent of residents. “Some Asian-American students feel that they lost something by going to school at a place where almost half of their classmates look like themselves - a campus like UCLA. The students said they didn't feel as well prepared in intercultural skills for the real world.''

But what do you do if you're an elite college facing tremendous numbers of qualified Asian applicants? At the 2006 meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a panel entitled “Too Asian?'' looked at the growing tendency of teachers, college counselors, and admissions officers to see Asians as a unit, rather than as individuals.

Hsu argues it's time to tackle this issue, rather than defer it, as Asians' superior performance will likely persist. “This doesn't seem to be changing. You can see the same thing with Jews. They've outperformed other ethnic groups for the past 100 years.''

Which leaves us with two vexing questions: Are we willing to trade personal empowerment for a more palatable group dynamic? And when - if ever - should we give credit where credit is due?

It's a difficult situation for both Asian applicants and college admission officials. Read the data and form your own opinion.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.