Do Asians face discrimination when applying to Ivy League schools? Do they need to appear less “Asian” when submitting their college applications in order to be admitted? These are questions I often receive when counseling students on competitive admissions — usually when students learn I worked as an admissions officer at MIT and Caltech. They’re questions I’ve come across in articles such as “’The Asian Penalty,’” most recently featured in The Boston Globe. And while the questions posed might sometimes lessen the sting one might feel at the possibility of not getting admitted to one’s dream school, the reality is much more complex.
As “’The Asian Penalty’” article hinted, top schools are going to have more than their fair share of prospective pre-med students (and we can probably add computer science and a handful of other popular majors to the list as well). Might these top schools value a student who is interested in economics over a student interested in more popular offerings like pre-med or computer science? Depending upon the school and its needs, yes! But that economics student should be a genuine economics student, someone true to his authentic self — not a pre-med student disguised as a prospective economics major. He should be someone who has pursued his economics interests with gusto, not someone who spent his summer doing scientific research in a bio lab because his true interest was in biology.
Do some schools value football players over badminton players? Saxophonists over violinists and pianists? Definitely so. A school might have more than its fair share of violinists, pianists, tennis players, cross country runners, and badminton players. So when a saxophonist or football player comes across the desk of an admissions officer for such a school, of course that student’s application will stand out, regardless of the applicant’s ethnicity or lower test scores. But if an admissions officer comes across a badminton player who’s merely masquerading as a football player, the admissions officer will probably be less excited. My admission colleagues and I valued students who pursued their interests and passions with gusto more than we valued someone trying to game the system; we valued strong biologists who lived and breathed biology over prospective “economists” who really wanted to be biologists.
I remember a phone call I had two weeks ago with a family over these exact same questions. Mom and I were discussing whether Indian classical dance was going to be an important component of her daughter’s application. In reality, it was not going to be a stand-out activity for elite schools, but it was an important activity for mom — important to the family for cultural and religious reasons. Was it important to keep that activity on the resume? You bet! I had absolutely no doubt in my mind her daughter was going to be a doctor. She was doing everything right: taking every AP she could, spending time doing scientific research, obtaining great scores and grades. But was she going to be a doctor who got her start at an Ivy? Maybe not. Was going to an Ivy more important than her becoming a doctor? Surely not. So we decided it was much more important she become successful in life, in her prospective career, in her passions, and in her culture than to hinge all her hopes on an Ivy.
The reality is Ivy+ schools discriminate against ninety to ninety-five percent of their applicant pools. Their admissions processes are built upon discrimination. It’s just not the kind of discrimination this article purports. I often ask my students if Harvard and Stanford didn’t discriminate against ninety-five percent of their applicant pools, but instead, admitted ninety percent, or even fifty percent of those who applied, would they still want to go? The answer is always a resounding, “no.”
Not being admitted to an Ivy+ doesn’t mean students are not going to be successful in life or will be unable to pursue their prospective careers. It just means there’s stiff competition for the careers they’re pursuing. They might simply have to take a route other than the one they initially envisioned.