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College Admissions for Asian Americans: What More Should I Do?

How much does race play into college admissions? Recently, The Economist published an article, “The Model Minority is Losing Patience,” about Asian Americans filing complaints and even lawsuits against elite universities like Harvard for racial discrimination during the admissions process. According to the article, Asian Americans have become increasingly more outspoken about universities that use race as a factor in their admissions selections. Asian-American students find that they work harder than their peers but do not get selected to top universities as much. What gives?

The elite universities interviewed in the article state that they want to diversify their populations, and so they do consider race, among many other factors, during the admissions process. Unfortunately, this means that colleges may overlook highly qualified Asian-American students to admit students of other races, such as African Americans and Hispanic Americans, who may have lower scores on standardized tests and weaker academic profiles. Indeed, a well-known study conducted at Princeton University by Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford reveals that on a 1600-point scale for the SAT, Asian Americans needed to score 140 SAT points higher than whites, while blacks needed 310 fewer points, to gain admission to top tier colleges.

While it can be a bit disheartening to think that college admissions process disadvantages Asian Americans, the system is what it is and will remain this way until there is a major overhaul in college admission processes to eliminate affirmative action and remove race from the “holistic admission process” altogether. The Economist article reports data that illustrates what happens if race is removed from the equation. In California, public universities are allowed to use economic but not racial criteria in admission. There, one sees a high percentage of Asian-American student enrollment, 41% at UC Berkeley and 44% at California Institute of Technology. The Economist article provides a helpful chart that compares the growing Asian-American population versus the percentage of Asian-American undergraduate enrollment since the 1990, which shows that compared to Ivy Leagues where the percentage of Asian-American undergraduate enrollment hovers around 10-20% from 1990 to 2013, at Caltech the percentage grew from around 20% to around 40%, proportionately reflecting the growth of Asian-American population aged 18-21 from 0.4 Million to 0.8 Million during this period. What this chart suggests is that there seems to be a limited number of seats at Ivies for Asian-American applicants although the Asian-American population is growing, making the admissions so much more competitive for Asian-American applicants. Given that Ivies are known to prefer the privileged (e.g., children of the alumni, the rich, and the well-connected, etc.), the admissions quandary applies not only to Asian-American applicants but also to the vast majority of applicants who do not fall into these special categories. So how can the rest of us compete with the privileged and rise above the admissions factors like economic status and racial background that hold us back?

At Berkeley2 Academy, we often advise Asian-American students through the college admissions process, and one thing that we always remind these students is that the bar is set higher for them. Gaining admission into top universities of course requires excellent academic profile. Although there is no “cut off” for a certain academic standards at top tier colleges, an SAT or ACT score in the top percentile and being ranked in the top of the class are almost prerequisites for applying to these top tier colleges, not something that will simply make you stand out. What The Economist article makes clear is that universities don’t solely care about standardized test scores, GPA, or high school rank. They consider many factors outside of academics in a “holistic review process.” You may not like that among these “factors” are criteria like race and economic status, but you can use this to your advantage and strategize how you can stand out, gain a competitive edge, and ultimately receive that coveted acceptance letter.

“What more should I do?” you ask? Well, that’s the wrong question that will lead you to a rejection letter. Rather, a smarter question to ask is, “What can I do differently?”

Here are some suggestions:

1. Be yourself!

Now, I know what you are thinking. What else is new, right? But this is the single most important thing you need to remember as you prepare yourself for the competitive college admissions ahead. Being yourself is your biggest asset and your ticket into these selective colleges. Why? Colleges are looking to create a diverse student body as said above. They do not want an entire freshmen class composed of math geniuses or violin virtuosos. Diversity creates better learning environments and stronger communities. Strong academics and even outstanding extracurricular achievements, however impressive you may think they are, are the great equalizers at these selective colleges. But there is one thing you can always come out ahead with: being yourself. No one can be better at being you than you, right? :) Whether it be showing your quirky personality through your admission essays, or spending hours engrossed in space research, searching for the next habitable planet for humanity, being your true self is your unique advantage, your unique asset. So, relax, and look inward to discover yourself and embrace it with gusto!

2. Do what you want!

No, I do not mean play League of Legends all day. Figure out what you want in life and pursue it! Think about your life goal, and how you will get there. Then take active steps towards it. If you want to be a doctor, what can you do now to help you get closer to this goal? If you feel passionate about caring for elders, volunteer at a nursing home instead of trying to earn a spot at a selective pediatric hospital summer volunteering program everyone is applying to. If you love writing, submit your writing to competitions and English professors to get feedback. There is no greater or lesser activity. What matters is how much this activity means to you and whether you did it out of genuine love for it. There is no right answer or one single answer to get you from where you are to where you want to be. Carve your own path. Only then you will realize that when you sit down to fill out your college applications, you’ve truly done something that will set you apart from others and will get you noticed.

3. Explore the world!

The world is your oyster! Go out there and seek opportunities that interest you outside the school. If your school doesn’t have a soccer team and you love soccer, join a community soccer league or make one in your neighborhood. Too many students do not explore their school’s activities and resources, and others just feel confined by the limits of their own school. Don’t let your circumstance lull you into helplessness. Take the initiative and actively engage in and improve your school, your community, your world. When you realize that the world is missing something, that’s your calling to do something about it. We all know colleges want students who will contribute something to their community. If you are doubtful, go read any admission essay topic, and you will see. You won’t need impressive writing skills if you already have actions to show how you can potentially contribute to your community. Leave your unique mark on the world, and you can’t look any more attractive to these top tier colleges.

4. Master the art of PR!

If you have taken into heart the above advice and find yourself ready to fill out your college application, do yourself justice and clearly show yourself and what you’ve accomplished!

In particular, it cannot be stressed enough how important the admissions essays are. And more than that, it is so important that these essays are as original and unique as possible. Writing the “immigrant story” or the “dual culture” story typically isn’t going to cut it. Focus on personal stories that go beyond race, or, if you do decide to discuss race, then find an angle that is more uncommon than the familiar tropes.

Letters of recommendation are another important piece of the admission package. You cannot fake curiosity and passion, and teachers have a hard time conjuring up these attributes if you haven’t shown them in class. Most teachers will try to say nice things about you, but vague letters with flowery language ultimately show that they know little about you, thus rendering the letters not too credible. Make an impression on your teachers, and better yet, bond with them over a shared love.

Of course, there’s also the resume. Students know the “formula” that makes a strong resume. They become leaders in clubs. They volunteer. They intern. But the formula is known, and students start looking the same when they all use it. So, again, how do you differentiate? Is it really that remarkable that you did all the same clubs as thousands of other students? The time and effort is important, and in no way should be disregarded, but universities like to read between the lines. Have you been in a club for four years and never been a leader? Do all your community service hours come from junior year? Do you hold multiple officer positions but are failing a class? Think about what message you send, and let this realization influence how you will present yourself on paper. Carefully craft your resume, from the order of items to each description, so that colleges can easily get the correct message you are trying to communicate rather than searching for one themselves and getting the wrong message. You want colleges to know you are devoted to medicine? Hopefully your time commitment and extent to which you sought opportunities related to medicine show through, but make sure these are listed at the very top, indicating that these are your priorities above band, tennis, and breakdancing.​

At the end of the day, there is no formula for getting into top universities. If there were, then someone would have discovered it, and it would have become overused, which then is no longer an effective formula. Rather than searching for this mystical formula and becoming just another applicant, search and find yourself. The most important advice to keep in mind with college admissions is similar to finding the right one, the love of your life. You have to be yourself and be confident in who you are and know what you want in life, then relentlessly push yourself towards it. Then and only then, will you start to look attractive to someone you are trying to impress, whether that’s someone you have a crush on, or a dream college you’ve been waiting your whole life to be accepted at.

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