Learning to Stand Out Among the Standouts
By Jay Mathews, March 22,
Robert Shaw, an educational consultant based in Garden
City, N.Y., was working with a very bright Asian student who
feared the Ivy League would not notice her at a competitive
high school in New Jersey, where 22 percent of the students
were Asian American, and she was only in the top 20 percent of
her high-scoring class.
So, Shaw said,
she and her parents took his daring advice to change their
address. They moved 10 miles north, where the average SAT
score was 300 points lower and there were almost no Asians.
It worked, Shaw said. His client became class
valedictorian, and got into Yale and MIT.
"As admissions strategists, our experience is that Asian
Americans must meet higher objective standards, such as SAT
scores and GPAs, and higher subjective standards than the rest
of the applicant pool," he said. "Our students need to do a
lot more in order to stand out."
Asian American students have higher average SAT scores than
any other government-monitored ethnic group, and selective
colleges routinely reject them in favor of African American,
Hispanic and even white applicants with lower scores in order
to have more diverse campuses and make up for past
Many Asian Americans and some educators wonder: Is that
fair? Why shouldn't young people of Asian descent have more of
an advantage in the selective college admissions system for
being violin-playing, science-fair winning, high-scoring
"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," said Ed Chin, a New Jersey
physician who has campaigned for years for a change in college
Yet, Chin notes, Harvard humanities professor Henry Louis
Gates Jr. recently estimated that two-thirds of blacks at
Harvard are not descendants of American slaves but the
middle-class children of relatively recent immigrants from the
Caribbean and Africa. "Why should they deserve admission with
lowered standards -- relatively speaking -- based solely on
the color of their skin over a high-achieving Asian American
living in a Chinatown ghetto or a black ghetto, or a poor
white from the slums of New York City?" Chin asked.
At some selective colleges, the percentage of Asians on the
admittance list is reportedly significantly lower than the
percentage of Asians who applied. But colleges usually do not
release the ethnic breakdown of their applicants, so there has
been little research on the matter.
Stanford University and Brown University, however, studied
their admissions data in the late 1980s and found enough
evidence of cultural bias and stereotypes to alter procedures.
"Since then, the Stanford staff has been very careful to
guard against all kinds of bias in the selection process,"
said Robin Mamlet, Stanford's dean of admissions. For several
years, admissions staff members were trained annually on such
issues as shyness to be sure as little bias as possible
affected the decision process, she said.
About 25 percent of Stanford undergraduates are of Asian
descent, higher than most other such similarly selective
colleges as Georgetown, 10 percent; Princeton, 12 percent;
Yale, 13 percent; and Columbia, 14 percent. But Mamlet said
she cannot be sure if Stanford's higher percentage is a result
of different admissions procedures or its location in Northern
California, with a large population of high-performing Asian
Americans. More than 40 percent of undergraduates at the
University of California at Berkeley, for instance, are of
Harvard admissions director Marlyn McGrath Lewis said: "We
have no evidence that our admissions committee disadvantages
Asian American applicants." Seventeen percent of its
undergraduates are of Asian descent, and the university was
cleared in 1990 of alleged racial discrimination against
Asians. The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil
Rights said whites were admitted at a higher rate but because
they included more recruited athletes and children of alumni.
Scholars say Asian cultures tend to emphasize education and
say they are not surprised that Asian Americans, who make up 4
percent of the U.S. population, are found in much higher
concentrations in selective colleges. In their 1996 book
"Beyond the Classroom," Laurence Steinberg, B. Bradford Brown
and Sanford M. Dornbusch said that "of all the demographic
factors we studied in relation to school performance,
ethnicity was the most important. . . . In terms of school
achievement, it is more advantageous to be Asian than to be
wealthy, to have non-divorced parents, or to have a mother who
is able to stay at home full time."
Many Americans, including some of Asian descent, have grown
accustomed to seemingly irrational and unfair admissions
decisions by selective colleges and shrug off the Asian
numbers as something that can't be helped.
But Arun Mantri, born in India with children at Fairfax
County's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and
Technology, said he thinks the system should change. Asian
American applicants' chances "would improve dramatically if
race was not used as a factor in admissions, perhaps at the
cost of the white applicants, something that only a few
selective schools have dared to do," he said.
Victoria Hsiao, who works with Shaw at the admissions
strategy firm Ivy Success, said that when she attended
Stuyvesant High School in New York, "my Asian friends and I
all tried to make ourselves stand out, as we did not want to
be stereotyped as Asians with good grades, playing the piano
and doing scientific research." She joined the debate team
instead of the math team and got into Cornell.
Shaw said about 40 percent of his clients are Asian, but he
tells all that they need to learn about great but lesser-known
colleges. "Students can get a quality education at hundreds of
colleges throughout the country," he said, "so parents should
definitely expand their horizons to other target competitive
institutions beyond the Ivy League."
That is not enough for Chin, who compares the limits on
Asian admissions to the quotas that Ivy League colleges used
to place on Jewish admissions. "There obviously needs to be a
change to level the playing field," Chin said. Some estimates
put the enrollment of Jews at Harvard as high as 30 percent,
he said, "and admissions for them is indeed race and