Do I have to be Jeremy Lin to get into Harvard?

Editor’s Note: This article is the third in our four-part series Demographic Factors in College Admissions

The answer: Not quite.  But the admissions process at top tier universities may be more skewed than you think.  Asian Americans in particular are facing seemingly insurmountable odds in their quest to gain acceptance to elite universities.  In fact, as Daniel Golden reveals in a recent Bloomberg article, an Asian American has filed a lawsuit, accusing Harvard and Princeton of ethnic discrimination.  While universities have denied such practices for years, it is an established fact that being of Asian descent (particularly Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Indian, and Pakistani) drastically influences an applicant’s chances of admission.  If your son or daughter is Asian American, read on to learn how ethnicity will factor into his or her college application.

Highly competitive institutions pride themselves on their ability to build “diverse” freshmen classes through their meticulous selection process.  However, different ethnicities seem to be judged by different standards. Specifically, Asian Americans are accepted at far lower rates than their Latino, African-American, and Native American counterparts.  In fact, Golden draws from No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal by T.J. Espenshade, a Princeton professor, saying that “If all other credentials are equal, Asian Americans need to score 140 points more than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and 450 points above African-Americans out of a maximum 1600 on the math and reading SAT” in order to be competitive for admission at elite private institutions.  Moreover, this Princeton professor states that, when comparing applicants with similar grades, scores, and athletic accomplishments, whites are three times as likely as Asians to be accepted; Hispanics are six times as likely; and African-Americans are more than fifteen times as likely. Jian Li, who received a perfect score on his SAT in addition to several other outstanding academic merits, is no exception; according to Golden’s article, Li was rejected by Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and Stanford.

In their defense, these elite universities turn away hundreds of applicants with perfect standardized test scores every year.  According to schools like Princeton and Harvard, this is largely due to the “holistic” approach that admissions committees use when reviewing each application.  However, even Princeton University’s Spokeswoman, Cass Cliatt, openly admits that “race is one component that factors into” the admissions process.  In other words, it seems that either the vast majority of Asian Americans are “holistically” less qualified than every other ethnicity, or race has a larger impact on one’s chances than universities care to admit.  Discriminatory remarks that admissions committees have been found to make like, “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor” or “we don’t want another academic nerd” seem to point to the latter. In fact, no honest and experienced college admissions counselor will inform you otherwise.

High GPA and tests scores alone will not get you accepted to the nation’s top schools. Finding a way to differentiate yourself from the other thousands of applicants with similar scores, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity is key.

To avoid the quasi-discrimination that being an Asian American entails, some change their names and thus hide their racial identity on their applications.  This enterprise is highly unadvisable as it can be interpreted as lying and thereby discredits an application. So what can Asian Americans do to leverage their chances in spite of their ethnicity?  No one should count on being blessed with Jeremy Lin’s athletic abilities. Instead, Jeremy Lin should serve as an example of someone who breaks Asian stereotypes and thus successfully differentiates himself from his ethnic pool.  After all, it was not basketball alone that got Jeremy Lin into Harvard; he had great test scores and a GPA of 4.2 at Palo Alto High School, one of the best public schools in America.

For certain ethnic groups, admissions officers are more lenient when it comes to GPA and test scores.  However, for Asian Americans, outstanding grades and scores on both the SAT and SAT Subject Tests are the baseline to even be considered at competitive universities.  Consequently, Asian Americans should be especially cognizant of what extracurricular activities they choose to pursue in high school and should carefully consider how they represent themselves on their applications.  Asian Americans especially need to display leadership in unique ways. Even shy and quiet applicants that admissions officers tend to stereotype can accomplish this; they just need to know where to look. Participating in Key Club or the science team is not the answer.  Instead, Asian Americans need to be innovative in their extracurricular activities as well as the way they represent themselves in their applications. In short, questions like, “does applying as pre-med or an engineer help me stand out from the competition or actually hurt my chances,” deserve careful deliberation.

Overall, it is extremely difficult to wade through the misinformation out there about college admissions.  This is especially true for Asian Americans, for whom conventional wisdom does not apply because it is deliberately misleading.  So it is generally best to avoid the guesswork of how to optimize your chances by seeking out a college admissions consultant to coach you through every step of the process.

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