During a September dean meeting to discuss college prospects, Melody* ’15 was told that college admissions officers would hold her grades and test scores to a higher standard because she is Asian.
“So right from the start, because I’m Asian, college admissions officers would look at me in a different way, which I thought was not completely fair,” Melody* said.
Fearing that her racial heritage would harm her chances of admission to certain colleges, she had doubts about marking the box on her college application that would indicate she was Asian.
“If my name weren’t Asian, I wouldn’t have,” Melody* said. “But I thought I better check it because they would know right away anyway.”
The belief that being Asian makes it less likely to get into highly selective colleges is one that many students share, but it is unclear whether their fears are founded.
A higher academic standard for Asians exists, Upper School Dean Kyle Graham said, because Asians have the highest average SAT scores and are often compared to other Asian students.
According to the SAT Percentile Ranks for 2013 College-Bound Seniors published by the College Board, an Asian student who received a 700 in all three sections was in the 91st percentile for critical reading, 75th percentile for math, and 89th percentile for writing compared to others of the same race. A white student with the same scores was in the 94th percentile for critical reading and math and the 95th percentile for writing.
“Think of kids as competing against their demographic in the admissions process,” Graham said.
Some students also think that the college admissions officers consciously limit the number of Asians that they accept. Although Asians are considered to be an overrepresented minority at many high-level colleges, they think that the percentage of Asians should be even higher based on their test scores.
“I do think there is discrimination in the sense that I think they have a quota on Asians, and there are a ton of extremely qualified Asians,” Yoshie* ’16 said.
While Asian enrollment at Ivy League colleges has leveled off to about 15 to 20 percent of students in the last 10 years, it has increased to 40 percent in step with the population increase of college-age Asians at the California Institute of Technology, where admissions are race neutral, according to a graphic published in 2012 on nytimes.com.
This could be a result of the fact that many colleges seek to construct racially diverse student bodies.
“No one is ever going to go on record and say they have a quota,” Graham said. “Do I think that a sophisticated dean of admission would know what percentage was African American last year? Yes. Do they have a goal for what they want it to be next year? Yes. I think with every population, they have a sense of where they’d like to be, where they want to go, where they want their average SAT score to go, what they want their yield to be. They don’t just hope for the best. They have to accomplish certain goals.”
Some Asians have mixed feelings about the possible bias against their demographic because they think that admitting more Asians could reduce the number of spots for underrepresented minorities.
“They are discriminating against Asians so that they don’t discriminate against other populations,” Tao* ’16 said.
Graham also thinks that whether it is detrimental to be Asian depends on the college.
“At Hamilton College, where I first worked, a small liberal arts school, Asians were underrepresented, so if an Asian student came into committee, we would actually act affirmatively,” Graham said. “So in that case, it would help students tremendously. Then I went to NYU. Totally different story.”
Upper School Dean Beth Slattery questions whether a bias against Asians even exists and thinks it could just be a misconception of students. She recalled a time when she had to review applicants for USC from the Bay Area, most of whom were Asian. Their test scores were high, and almost four-fifths of the group of about 2,000 applicants wanted to major in biological science or engineering.
“Knowing that I could only recommend for admission a very small percentage, you have to start teasing out ridiculous nuance,” Slattery said. “It had nothing to do with, from my perspective, a student being Asian. All of a sudden, someone who wants to be a creative writer seems much more interesting than someone who wants to be an engineer. But I can see why those things get comingled with ethnicity.”
If there is a bias against Asians, it is not as conscious as students believe it to be, Slattery said.
“I don’t think it’s overt discrimination, but I do think that admission officers need to be more mindful, and I’m not sure that all of them are being as thoughtful as they need to be about the ways in which those biases exist, but under the surface,” Slattery said.
With test scores and grades, Slattery thinks that no higher standard for Asians exists.
“I think people don’t understand that once you hit the unspoken threshold, it doesn’t matter that much how much above that threshold you are,” Slattery said. “You break 740 on all three sections. There’s not a school in the country that’s going to hold that against you, and so the idea that someone might have a 740 and think, ‘Oh I have to get an 800 because I’m Asian,’ I don’t think that’s true. I think that they shouldn’t feel like they should have perfect scores.”
She said it is important for students to remember that with holistic admission, acceptance is based on more than grades and test scores.
“Kids often think, if my grades and test scores are better, I am more qualified,” Slattery said. “But the truth is, holistic admission values grades and test scores more than it values other things, but it essentially takes everybody who is qualified and makes them somewhat equal.”
Some students think that admission for Asians might be limited due to a lack of variety in extracurricular activities and choice of majors among Asians.
“I think Asians’ hobbies can be pretty predictable, and we probably have similar extracurriculars,” Melody said. “Play music, do community service, get good grades. There is a norm.”
That Asians appear to face discrimination could be more the result of colleges wanting their student population to cover a wide range of interests than it is of their goal to have racial diversity, Slattery said.
“There probably is some bias about the activities that are probably unfairly stereotypically Asian,” Slattery said. “There’s probably some merit to that part of it, either in picking particular majors or doing particular activities. It’s not specifically discrimination as much as it is, ‘Oh we already have enough kids who do those things,’ but it’s not unrelated to race.”
*Names have been changed