asians and difficulty of getting into harvard ivy league top colleges jade luck club jadeluckclub Celebrating Asian American Creativity

Tiger Children: Getting into College Even Harder Because Asian Kids are So Damn Qualified

Asian in America Don't ID as Asian for College

asians and difficulty of getting into harvard ivy league top colleges jade luck club jadeluckclub Celebrating Asian American Creativity

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When I went to Harvard a million years ago, or in the late 1980’s, my incoming class was about 9% Asian. At the time, I believe the U.S. population was about 4% Asian. I vaguely remember thinking that Harvard, while stating that they wanted to duplicate ethnicity percentages along the lines of the general population, actually doubled the Asian population in my incoming class. But what I didn’t know was the percentage of Asians that applied. I still don’t know, but I suspect that the rejection rate as a race is higher than for other groups.

I did a little research and found this article in The Washington Post

“Chin said ‘Chinese and ALL Asian Americans are PENALIZED for their values on academic excellence by being required to have a HIGHER level of achievement, academic and non-academic, than any other demographic group, especially Whites, in order to be admitted to Harvard, the Ivies and the other Elites in this zero-sum game called admissions based on racial preferences.’

This may not be intended as a quota system, but Chin says it sure looks like one. He notes that in the 1980s some colleges, particularly Stanford and Brown, looked hard at their admissions decisions and discovered they were turning down many Asian American applicants while accepting white applicants with virtually the same characteristics.”

So what happens when admissions are color blind? The University of California system is a good example. Numbers from 2008:

  • U.C. Berkeley 43% Asian.
  • U.C.L.A. 40% Asian.
  • U.C. San Diego 50% Asian.
  • U.C. Irvine 54% Asian.

This provokes an argument for Affirmative Action for Caucasians in the U.C. system but what would happen if private colleges remove race as an admission criteria (which they would never do in a million years!)? Can you imagine the Ivy Leagues 50% Asian? But if you look at what happened at the U.C. system, arguably some of the best schools in the U.S. and maybe THE best schools judged by quality AND price, then it’s not a big leap to say that this could happen if elite private colleges ever decided to admit color blind.

This is the article that my friend sent me that started me down this train of thought … that while competitive public schools in N.Y. are color blind — the article is about Stuyvesant with its 72% Asian population — and how colleges (specifically elite private ones) have a way of correcting this imbalance. Reactions?!

p.s. Here are stats from the U.S. Census bureau on Asian Americans.


From New York Magazine, Paper Tigers

Entrance to Stuyvesant, one of the most competitive public high schools in the country, is determined solely by performance on a test: The top 3.7 percent of all New York City students who take the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test hoping to go to Stuyvesant are accepted. There are no set-asides for the underprivileged or, conversely, for alumni or other privileged groups. There is no formula to encourage “diversity” or any nebulous concept of “well-­roundedness” or “character.” Here we have something like pure meritocracy. This is what it looks like: Asian-­Americans, who make up 12.6 percent of New York City, make up 72 percent of the high school.

This year, 569 Asian-Americans scored high enough to earn a slot at Stuyvesant, along with 179 whites, 13 Hispanics, and 12 blacks. Such dramatic overrepresentation, and what it may be read to imply about the intelligence of different groups of New Yorkers, has a way of making people uneasy. But intrinsic intelligence, of course, is precisely what Asians don’t believe in. They believe—and have ­proved—that the constant practice of test-taking will improve the scores of whoever commits to it. All throughout Flushing, as well as in Bayside, one can find “cram schools,” or storefront academies, that drill students in test preparation after school, on weekends, and during summer break. “Learning math is not about learning math,” an instructor at one called Ivy Prep was quoted in the New York Times as saying. “It’s about weightlifting. You are pumping the iron of math.” Mao puts it more specifically: “You learn quite simply to nail any standardized test you take.”

And so there is an additional concern accompanying the rise of the Tiger Children, one focused more on the narrowness of the educational experience a non-Asian child might receive in the company of fanatically preprofessional Asian students. Jenny Tsai, a student who was elected president of her class at the equally competitive New York public school Hunter College High School, remembers frequently hearing that “the school was becoming too Asian, that they would be the downfall of our school.” A couple of years ago, she revisited this issue in her senior thesis at Harvard, where she interviewed graduates of elite public schools and found that the white students regarded the Asians students with wariness. (She quotes a music teacher at Stuyvesant describing the dominance of Asians: “They were mediocre kids, but they got in because they were coached.”) In 2005, The Wall Street Journal reported on “white flight” from a high school in Cupertino, California, that began soon after the children of Asian software engineers had made the place so brutally competitive that a B average could place you in the bottom third of the class.

Colleges have a way of correcting for this imbalance: The Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade has calculated that an Asian applicant must, in practice, score 140 points higher on the SAT than a comparable white applicant to have the same chance of admission. This is obviously unfair to the many qualified Asian individuals who are punished for the success of others with similar faces. Upper-middle-class white kids, after all, have their own elite private schools, and their own private tutors, far more expensive than the cram schools, to help them game the education system.


So readers, here’s my question. When applying to private colleges when Asian, what happens if you DON’T check the box for race identification? Does it improve your chances? Do they check your box anyway when you appear for an interview? What if you are only partially Asian? Hmmm… things to research more deeply!! What do YOU think? Please share!!!

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25 thoughts on “Tiger Children: Getting into College Even Harder Because Asian Kids are So Damn Qualified”

  1. My quick reaction to this… yet another good argument for eliminating or giving less weight to standardized tests. Regardless of race, because as you mentioned, plenty of white kids are coached to fly through the tests too.

    1. To AllisonS,
      I wonder how much the demographics would shift if standardized scores were eliminated versus getting rid of affirmative action… There are sone top colleges who don’t use scores like Kenyon. And most top MBA schools like Harvard don’t require the GMAT so this might be the future. And possibly both scores and race not a consideration. Thank you for your insightful comment.

    2. “white kids” ??? Are you racist?
      How about cultural diversity.
      Ethnic and cultural diversity are important.
      We can not admit only chines because they coached to fly through the tests from grade 1.

      1. To Min Po,
        Thank you for your plethora of comments. I can see that you don’t think Asians are being discriminated against. You might want to read the research including the book by Espenshade that has stats if you want data though it will refute your position. To each his own. You certainly are entitled to think whatever you want. Myself, I prefer to see the research.

  2. Self-identifying as Asian is extremely helpful to any applicant (to college or for employment) because there is a very positive perception of Asian students. Everyone thinks if they are Asian they must be bright, already well-educated and hard-working. Since this stereotype is often the case, this high standard raises the bar of competition for everyone. A large pool of better-qualified applicants makes it harder to beat-out other applicants. I would say, if you are Asian, but not a student with top scores, choose a college with fewer Asians, so that you are not competing with the huge pool of the best-prepared Asian applicants. If you are a top student and want to go to schools with lots of other top Asian students, the competition is stiff.

    1. I am just wondering if you are Asian, or even partially Asian, and you have top scores and want to go to an elite private school if NOT self-identifying thus throwing you into the Asian pile, would increase your chances of admittance because the Caucasian applicants get a larger percentage of of the class allocation. I also suspect that the scores and grades are higher as an average for Asian applicants.

      For jobs, though, I agree with you! Self-identifying as Asian might be positively perceived and companies, both private and public, are not trying to keep to a certain percentage of Asian employees that would make the pool more competitive relative to other ethnicities.

      1. This is fascinating since our teenagers, who are half Asian, are about to head into the college prep phase. Since their last name is not Asian, they will have the option to self-identify or not. But Asian kids whose last name is obviously Asian do not have the option.

        It’s a double-edged sword for Asians being perceived as hardworking in the working world. While Asians are perceived as diligent and smart, they are also often perceived as not leadership material. I overheard many years ago at an architecture firm two principals talking about the Asian draftsmen in the office as “good workers”…no mention of other possible characteristics such as being resourceful, creative and having leadership potential. Granted this was many years ago but there probably still is an underlying perception of Asians as “good workers” but not leaders or management.

        1. To Chris,
          I would guess that Admissions departments can’t be so quick to judge by last name now that there are lots of Asians with mixed ancestry. For example, one family at my elementary school’s last name is “Chu” but the children are only one quarter Chinese. I would think that those kids should have the right to claim EITHER Asian or Caucasian depending on what they want.

          I also think that the idea of Asians not being leaders or senior level managers will start to change as more and more Asians go into business and are assimilated such that they do learn leadership skills through sports and extra-curriculars and by just being able to make decisions on their own throughout their life.

  3. Though I’m Asian, I kind of agree with the Stuyvesant’s music teacher. Yes, Asian kids excel in academics. But a lot of them are so narrow-sighted and sheltered, since they have been coached by their parents/cram schools/tutors since very young. Is this a good thing? My answer isn’t no, but I can’t say yes either.

    I guess checking the Asian box helps less if you are applying for schools that are already rich in Asian population, such as schools in NY or CA. But other places, I think it helps – having a “minority” student always helps diversity, and as Nancy said, there’s always positive stereotype following Asians. And Asian students pay well 😉

    However, I wonder maybe this looks just more pronounced in Asian population since Asian is minority. I went to a high school with high white population, and the town’s average income was always one of the top 10 in the nation. The parents there were even more passionate about their kids’ education than Asian parents I’ve seen – countless after-school tutorings on pretty much everything.

    I wonder what would happen if the standardized tests are eliminated. I think schools need to seriously consider either eliminating them, or minimize their portion in admission process.

    1. To Ceberus,
      I think you are right that you have to look at the colleges and universities that you are applying to and try to understand if the Asian population is large or small (relative to the applicant pool which may be hard to figure out). I would guess that mid-Western small cities might have smaller Asian populations applying especially if the schools are not well known. Good point and thank you!

  4. A lot of elite private schools care about whether the applicant has a strong personal network. That’s why “Legacies” and kids that went to exclusive private high schools are coveted by the Ivy League.

    How many asian kids with the intelligence of a George W Bush get into Yale and HBS? I don’t think it’s racist per se, but merely an acknowledgement of the reality that people with the right connections and family background have a higher likelihood to succeed in the real world than someone who is good at taking tests.

    1. To Old Man Cheung,
      You are right about Legacies getting preferential treatment. This is especially so if the Alum was a generous donor and it counts even if this person was two or more generations back. I have heard from my alma mater (Harvard) that Asians are notoriously bad donors. I’m not sure if we are just cheap or if many of us are supporting family members back in another country. I know that An Wang was a big donor for Harvard, but he is the only Asian that comes to mind.

      It’s not so much Legacy anymore; it’s really about how much money is donated through your family line.

  5. These studies are always interesting to me. I’m partially Asian and the other part is Black, it would be interesting to study that dynamic. Most Black/Asian people I know have the “tiger-mom” but since we’re in the “problem minority” does the identifying with the “model minority” help our chances. Most universities will have an underrespresentation of Black students so is the Asian identification matter?

    1. To Marie,
      I would definitely self identify as African American. If you also self identify as Asian American, I would be that it would be fine; admissions to college could focus on your African American ethnicity; this is a group that they struggle to find qualified applicants and never hit their quotas.

  6. The ETS, the company that produces most of the standardized tests used for admissions in the U.S., has advised strongly to universities for the last few years to use the SAT score, GRE score, etc., as only one part of a holistic admissions process. They also advise avoiding using a certain score as a threshold score for admission. In studies, a student’s high school GPA has proven to be a stronger predictor for success in college than the SAT.

    However, although universities know this, a number is a “hard” piece of evidence that is easier to defend than more ambiguous factors, such as the written statement.

    As an Asian and an academic who has participated in admissions process for graduate students (admissions for undergraduates is handled by the university, not the individual departments) at a public institution, I’ve observed stereotypical thinking both pro and con. And we do seek minorities other than Asians, who are well represented in the student body.

    However, the elites, mostly private schools independent of federal funding, can handle “equitable representation” in whatever way they wish, which the public institutions cannot. It’s ironic–more than ironic to me that when efforts are made to ensure that Caucasians are proportionately represented in the student body, it is out of a sense of equitable representation, but when it comes to African Americans or other historically less highly represented groups, some of those same people argue against “quotas” or merit or …

    I think the solution is to spend more time on admissions and truly make admissions holistic, but institutions have a difficult time doing so in difficult economic times, when the committee may be understaffed and overburdened.

    1. To LKMemphis,
      Do you happen to know the ratio of number of Asian applicants to number of Asians accepted? I think this is a number that is stunning and a case for why not to check the Asian box.

      Thank you for sharing your insights into admissions at your university. This world of admission politics is both murky and socially impactful, particularly for elite colleges. I remember seismic changes when these elite colleges were forced to go Co Ed and then when they began admitting minorities as a result of the Civil Rights Act.

      I think we are at that chasm again … changes the come about now will define what we, as a culture, believe in. As a melting pot country, will we continue to define ourselves by our ethnicity? What about when our ethnicity starts to become a melting pot with blurry definitions? Does one drop of Asian blood make you Asian? Or do you have to be more than 50%? And what about if you are an adopted Chinese baby raised by non-Asians? Culturally are you still Asian? And when will Asians, as a model minority, stop wanted or needing to be singled out for “assistance” such as minority set-asides in business?

      The other interesting observation is that Asians, as families log more and more generations in America, are producing more assimilated children and these kids are not the Tiger Cubs variety high-test taking-classical-musically-trained-but-boring-applicant. I’m noticing more athletes, leaders, and self actualized young people than ever in my town. Test scores and high grades aside, I think that is what we are shooting for in raising our children … and these kinds of Asian kids will be the ones to break the last glass ceiling barriers that still exist.

  7. Yikes. I am Yale class of ’93. I can tell you from off the record discussions I have had, that this is very true.

    1. To Jin,
      Thanks for stopping by and for your comment. I’ll be posting on this topic for a few more months. I found a lot of articles on this topic including a place to file a lawsuit with the Department of Education. It’s an interesting conundrum that top private colleges face … and the only way to combat this, I believe, is just to leave the optional race question blank.

  8. Thanks for bringing up this discussion. My kids are still a long way from college applications, but this is a topic Asian Americans need to keep an eye on. Not as in… study and practice piano harder… but in being informed and outspoken about these things.

    1. To HapaMama,
      Your children have the advantage of ambiguity when it comes to their ethnicity as a hapa. I doubt things will change dramatically over the next ten to twenty years but hopefully in their lifetimes race ceilings will be raised but probably not abolished.

  9. Asian-Americans are vastly overrepresented at all these schools, despite comprising a mere 5% of the U.S.
    Berkeley, U.C.L.A. , U.C. San Diego and U.C. Irvine are lacking cultural diversity.

    1. To Pin Po,
      This is the argument and reason why many Asian American groups support Affirmative Action. But there is another argument to look at each applicant as an individual rather than group them by race. When you do that (CalTech) is an example, you see the Asian Americans nearly double at the expense of other minority groups. Yes, I agree that the UCs have less cultural diversity and they have changed their admission criteria to decrease the Asian population. Expect it to go down soon.

  10. I knew of two ambitious Chinese girls who took prep courses and crammed for the PSAT and SAT and they scored lower than I did who never prepped and didn’t get enough sleep for either. I think prepping does give them self confidence so that their score seems high to them when they get it because they gave it their best shot.

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