How Asian Americans Can Stand Out Despite Admissions Bias？
Updated: Apr 11
From 2000 to 2017, the Asian-American population nearly doubled from 10 million to 19 million. Within the same time period, the total number of college-enrolled Asian Americans rose from 1.1 million to 1.5 million, an increase of about 40%.
“In contrast, total admission to Harvard College has remained steady during this time, while the number of total applicants has doubled.”
In the 90s, during the dot com boom, America attracted over 200,000 immigrants per year, mostly from Asia. With this new wave of incoming Asians came their offspring: Asian Americans who are now and have been applying to colleges in the states. Meanwhile, the number of international students in the United States has more than doubled, from 0.4 million to 1 million, of which 0.7 million are from Asia alone.
In recent years, there has been “a systematic attempt to discredit high GPAs and SAT/ACT scores from Asian-American students as somehow tainted and the result of ‘privileged’ upbringing. The truth is their high scores are because they worked hard and not by virtue of legacy or political power. This bias has left many Asian-Americans red-faced despite their communities’ having championed and supported diversity in all walks of life.”
In short, hard work is not paying off, and hard work it has been. Let’s take a closer look by breaking down the data:
In 2016, the college enrollment rate was highest for Asians (58 percent) compared to Two or more races (42 percent), White (42 percent), Hispanic (39 percent), Black (36 percent), Pacific Islander (21 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native (19 percent).
In addition, from 2000 to 2016, total college enrollment rates increased for White (from 39 to 42 percent), Black (from 31 to 36 percent), and Hispanic young adults (from 22 to 39 percent) but were not measurably different for the other racial/ethnic groups during this time period.
The 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2010 was highest for Asian students (74 percent), followed by White students (64 percent), students of Two or more races (60 percent), Hispanic students (54 percent), Pacific Islander students (51 percent), Black students (40 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native students (39 percent).
In 2017, the percentage of 8th-graders who reported that they had zero absences from school in the last month was higher for Asian students (62 percent) than for students who were Black (42 percent), White, Hispanic, of Two or more races (40 percent each), Pacific Islander (38 percent), and American Indian/Alaska Native (35 percent).
The percentage of students who were 9th-graders in fall 2009 earning their highest math course credit in calculus by 2013 was higher for Asian students (45 percent) than students of every other racial/ethnic group.
The percentage of students who were 9th-graders in fall 2009 earning any Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate (AP/IB) credits by 2013 was higher for Asian students (72 percent) than for White students (40 percent). The percentages for Asian and White students were higher than the percentages for students of any other racial/ethnic group.
In 2016, among those with a bachelor’s or higher degree, Asian full-time, year-round workers ages 25–34 had higher median annual earnings ($69,100) than their White peers ($54,700), and median earnings for both racial/ethnic groups were higher than those of their Black ($49,400) and Hispanic ($49,300) peers.
In 2013–14, about 2.6 million public school students (5.3 percent) received one or more out-of-school suspensions. A higher percentage of Black students (13.7 percent) than of students from any other racial/ethnic group received an out-of-school suspension, followed by 6.7 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students, 5.3 percent of students of Two or more races, 4.5 percent each of Hispanic and Pacific Islander students, 3.4 percent of White students, and 1.1 percent of Asian students.
Unfortunately, colleges focus on creating diverse graduating classes, at least that’s what they say. We’ve seen actions taken by public schools, like the UC campuses, that match the talk. However, at most private schools, we still do not see Asians as the majority ethnic group, even though the academic qualifications speak for themselves. Asian Americans make up just roughly 20% of Ivy League undergraduate populations.
In actuality, research shows that Asian Americans need to score 300 points higher on the SAT to have the same probability of acceptance. Asian-American applicants to Harvard were 25% more likely than white applicants to be described as academically qualified but unexceptional.
“In some cases, universities seem to be shifting metrics from objective to subjective measures in an attempt to justify rejecting applicants. The University of Chicago says it doesn’t care about ACT/SAT scores. Just send a two-minute video, as if videos will un-bias the system. Now, young scholars have to make sure their looks appeal to the admission folks. I recollect a comment made about a prospective student’s video: ‘Will this student appeal to our recruiters?’ Codeword – not good-looking enough.”
If we take a step back and just focus on numbers, it does make sense that while everyone is trying to squeeze into the same elevator, perhaps taking the stairs is a better idea. That is, instead of focusing on what makes most Asian-American applicants the same, perhaps it’s time to focus on how to make an Asian-American student stand out.
Essays and activities can be very individualized and absolutely need to be chosen carefully in order to add originality (or however much you can) to the student’s profile. Unfortunately, many adults help with essays too much, sanitizing the language and therefore taking away the student’s voice and personality. This is shooting yourself in the foot. This safe writing no longer stands out, and it’s Asian Americans who are at the highest risk of losing out the most as a result.
I often tell my students that what you write about is infinitely less important than how you write it. Everyone can write about the same topic, but only a few will stand out because of the writing style and tone. Make sure that your essays represent you, not just a list of your achievements. Show us your humor. Show us your values. Show us your inner thoughts and emotions.
Most of all, show us what you want in life. If you don’t know, then keep thinking. You aren’t deciding the rest of your life, just an idea – a plan. Whatever your true passions and interests are, focus on them! I’ve had students write great and effective essays about Pokémon and video games because they were truly memorable and unique experiences. Don’t be afraid of most topics, especially a topic that you spent most of your high school years on. Imagine not writing about the thing you enjoy the most, instead of writing about that one AP test you got a 4 on instead of a 5. Why?!
“Asian-American applicants to Harvard were rated the lowest of any race in categories like ‘positive personality,’ courage, kindness, being ‘widely respected,’ and ‘likability.’”
Don’t forget that college admissions officers are human. People inherently have biases. There’s even something coined as voter fatigue. NBA fans, get ready for this: why doesn’t LeBron James win MVP every year? Are people getting tired of voting for the same person? Seeing the same person win every year?
It is not impossible to stand out as an Asian American; you simply need to get outside of your comfort zones. There are too many people squeezing into the same elevator as you. Plus, colleges compare you to students at your high school, meaning the people who live in your city. If you live in a predominantly Asian-American area (for example, my high school was 75% Asian), then you’ll have to try even hard to stand out. Instead of working harder, consider working smarter.
Overall, the essay is very much like a one-way interview. What you choose to tell them is critical. If you don’t tell them, they won’t know. Perhaps talking about yourself sounds like bragging and feels impolite, but you need to tell them about yourself.
I’ve had wonderful results this year with Asian-American students from predominantly Asian schools. Their GPAs and test scores were not what caught colleges’ attention. It was their activities and passion. Their relentless pursuit of experiences that differed from the majority of Asian-Americans’ interests. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be the best at the most popular skills. You just have to love and do it.