The Secret World of College
By Patricia Alex,
Sunday January 30, 2005
Apprentice." For real competition, check out "The Applicant" -
a contest in which high-achieving Asian kids from New Jersey's
moneyed suburbs jockey for the Ivy League.
Consider the case of an Asian girl at a competive high
school. Her grades and test scores were top-notch, she ran
cross-country and she was an accomplished pianist. Still, her
prospects seemed uncertain.
The problem: her all-too-familiar profile.
She didn't, and couldn't, stand out among her peers. She
ranked in the top 20 percent in the highly competitive school
where nearly a fifth of the students are Asian.
"We needed to get her away from the other Asian kids,''
said Robert Shaw, a private college consultant hired by the
Shaw advised bold steps: The family transferred to another
high school. There she was a standout: The only Asian kid in
the school, she was valedictorian for the Class of 2004.
Next came an extracurricular makeover, one a bit out of
character for an Asian girl, said Shaw. "We had to create a
contrarian profile,'' Shaw said. "We put her in places where
she could stand out."
The girl was accepted to Yale and to Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, where she is now a freshman.
Shaw helped the family play the admissions game. The
ethnic, geographic and racial profiling that goes into
assembling classes at the nation's top-tier colleges and
universities is the worst-kept secret in American higher
"It's a very well-known thing but colleges don't want to
talk about it,'' Shaw said. "It is certainly not a
meritocracy, it's about being the right type of kid."
More than grades
With a huge pool of outstanding applicants, admissions at
the top schools long ago stopped being about the numbers.
Good statistics alone are not the key to the Ivy League,
said Willis J. "Lee" Stetson Jr., dean of admissions at the
University of Pennsylvania. "In a really competitive pool,
it's the extracurricular stuff that makes the difference."
Penn gets almost 19,000 applications for 2,400 seats a
year, and the odds are no better at other top-tier schools. So
how does a kid stand out in a large pool of students who have
1,500s on their SATs and 4.0 grade-point averages?
The children of alumni usually get preference, as do
athletes. Admissions officers look for geographic balance as
well, courting a mix of international and American students.
And, even as the nation's highest courts have ruled against
racial and ethnic quotas, a de facto system remains in place
as admissions officers strive for "balance" and the inclusion
of so-called "underrepresented" populations, like blacks and
"If you give me a Hispanic kid with a 1,350 (SATs), I can
get that kid into every Ivy League college, or an
African-American kid with 1,380 to 1,400,'' Shaw said. "But
give me an upper-middle-class Caucasian or Asian with a 1,600,
and I can't guarantee anything."
Recently, an Asian client of Shaw's from suburban
Philadelphia got "wait-listed" at Yale despite a 1,600 SAT
score and a 4.1 grade point average. Shaw, a partner in the
Long Island-based Ivy Success, honed his pragmatism while
working in the admissions office at Penn.
A 'hidden agenda'
The schools deny quotas exist. On its Web site, Princeton
University says: "We do not have a profile of the ideal
applicant, nor do we map out a checklist of all the particular
'types' of students we plan to admit in a given year." Asians
make up 13 percent of the Princeton enrollment.
Lauren Robinson-Brown, Princeton's director of
communications, said admissions staffers consider all
applications without "criteria such as ethnicity or geographic
But admissions counselors and parents who've been through
the process say they know differently. "I'm not saying that
colleges have racial quotas, but I imagine that most schools
want representation of different cultural and ethnic groups,''
said Jonni Sayres, a counselor in Englewood and Teaneck.
A bulge in the college-age population has made admission
harder for everyone, said Stetson of Penn, which just filled
almost half its incoming freshman class through early
Although less than 4 percent of the population, Asians make
up about 14 percent of the Ivy League. And the numbers are
even higher for schools located in cities, where Asians
generally gravitate. At Penn, Asians make up almost 23 percent
of the student body, 16 percent at Harvard.
Still, because they are in such a highly competitive
subgroup, they are admitted to the Ivies at a lower rate than
other groups, with about one in every 15 gaining entry
compared with an average of one in 10, Shaw said.
As a group, Asians score the highest on standardized tests
- a testament to a cultural emphasis on scholarship - and
generally have high grade-point averages.
When California eliminated racial preferences - set-asides
for underrepresented groups - Asian enrollment skyrocketed in
the venerable University of California system. Although Asians
are 13 percent of the state's population, they make up 42
percent of students of the campus at Berkeley, 38 percent at
Los Angeles and 61 percent at Irvine.
Some counselors advise Asian students to apply to top-tier
schools outside urban centers, such as Duke University in
North Carolina or Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where
they will still be considered a minority.
"One of my biggest obligations as a counselor is to get
across to the parents that they need to look at areas who will
appreciate them more," said Sayres, the Teaneck counselor.
Politics of admission
The glut of A-students presents a dilemma for top-tier
universities that want their classes to mirror the broader
society. Such institutions are more likely to "attribute a
higher degree of importance to a student's race or ethnicity,"
according to a soon-to-be-released report from the National
Association for College Admissions Counseling.
Shaw and others say the system can work against individuals
in a highly competitive pool like Asians. There are also
complaints that Asians are counted as minorities by colleges
but don't receive minority preferences at many top-tier
schools. Others balk at an analysis that views admissions as a
competition among minorities - that blacks and Latinos take
what otherwise would be places occupied by Asians. They note
that whites remain the majority at most selective colleges.
There is concern, as well, that almost 30 distinct groups
are lumped together under the Asian rubric, from the
fifth-generation Japanese-American to the entrepreneur from
India to the poor Hmong farmer newly arrived stateside.
Despite their variety, there is a belief that the bar is set
higher for the entire ethnic group.
"The perception is that there are so many who are qualified
that they have to be a little higher up on the ladder," said
Lance Izumi, who studies education at the Pacific Research
Institute for Public Policy, a California think tank.
Shaw and others have no doubt that the perception is a
reality when it comes to admissions. They worry that the trend
is creating upper-limit quotas for Asians at the best schools,
such as those imposed on Jews prior to World War II when they
began to break into the Ivy League after decades of overt
The politics of admissions can be bewildering and
disheartening, especially for parents. "They are very
disappointed because they've done everything right,'' said
Sayres. "For the Asian students, especially the Korean
students, they lose faith if their child doesn't get into the
Ivies. And it's just not possible anymore. There are too many
kids and too few places."