One of my earliest memories is from when I was four years old, when my mom asked me if I wanted to play piano. All her friends were signing up their kids for either violin or piano lessons, and it seemed like it would be a good idea for me to do it as well. I said yes.
Asian “tiger” parents forcing their kids to play an instrument is a well-known stereotype, and I fit it well. I did not always enjoy the hours of practicing, but I learned to love it later during high school, when it became my refuge away from schoolwork and stress. I earned multiple awards during my years playing piano and it became a comforting anchor amidst the uncertainty of my path ahead.
When I applied to college, though, I allotted a single bullet point to piano. Perhaps I could have expanded on my relationship with piano more in one of my supplementary essays, but I chose not to do so. I thought it would have made me seem “too Asian,” and I needed to stand out.
In the long, arduous process that is college admissions, Asian Americans find themselves facing a unique struggle. Like me, many Asian Americans—primarily of East Asian descent—learn violin or piano from a young age, participate in math competitions, and display skill in math and science. But when applying to college, where you must “stand out,” being just another piano-playing Asian kid doesn’t exactly help your case. Universities look for well-rounded students that are not only strong academically but are passionate about their interests; for example, Harvard University lists “growth and potential,” “character and personality,” and “contribution to the Harvard community” as some of the qualities they seek in an incoming freshman (“What We Look For”). Applicants thus choose to highlight some part of their identity, whether an activity or experience, that can demonstrate these qualities and give them an edge over the next applicant. To enter the most prestigious universities, applicants must overcome one in twenty odds to be chosen as part of the incoming freshman class.
Already a difficult feat, it’s even harder to stand out for Asian Americans when a racial context is added to their application. Most universities adopt affirmative action policies with the intent of accounting for systemic racial inequalities and increasing diversity on their campuses. With Black Americans making up 15 percent of college-age Americans but still only six percent of freshmen at elite universities, schools are aiming to increase diversity and counter underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic Americans with affirmative action policies (Ashkenas et al.). Asian Americans, however, are said to be “overrepresented.” Despite making up just 5-6 percent of the US population, Asian Americans are 22.2% of Harvard’s 2017 freshman class, for example (“Harvard Admitted Students Profile”). Because of their overrepresentation, many Asian Americans believe that universities accept fewer Asian Americans relative to other races. They cite the now infamous 2009 Princeton study that reported that Asian Americans needed to score 140 points higher on the SAT than White students, 270 higher than Hispanic students, and 450 higher than Black students to demonstrate the difference in standards for each race (Espenshade and Walton). Though the goal of affirmative action is to promote racial equality and level the playing field, Asian Americans feel more and more that the policy discriminates against them.
It’s more than just expecting higher test scores and pure achievement, though. Students must stand out among thousands of applicants, but Asian American students are often characterized as a monolith, all successful and part of the “model minority.” Asian American applicants tend to play violin or piano, excel in math and science, and have knack for computer science. Admissions officers, in turn, take these typical characteristics as the standard for judging Asian Americans, rewarding applicants that deviate from this typical case. In documents from Princeton University’s admissions office obtained by Buzzfeed News, admissions officers wrote of numerous Asian American applicants having “familiar profiles,” referring to them as “standard premeds” (“Asians With ‘Familiar Profiles’”). Though these students may have excelled, because they were too much like other Asian Americans, admissions officers passed over them for less “typical” Asian Americans.
With the number of college applicants growing every year, pushing students to stand out is necessary, especially when most have the test scores and similar levels of extracurricular achievement. But these admissions offices may be sending the wrong message. As it has become notoriously difficult for Asian Americans to enter elite universities, many more well-to-do families resort to paying thousands of dollars for college admissions counselors that ensure a track into an Ivy League school. Numerous counseling firms advise their clients to appear less “Asian,” recommending that they cut focus on stereotypically “Asian” activities like playing piano or violin, math competitions, and science fair in favor of student government or a classics club. At Top Tier Admissions, co-founder Mimi Doe names breaking stereotypes as one of their focuses when working with Asian clients; ThinkTank warns against writing essays on a student’s “Asian immigrant upbringing,” and even suggests changing one’s last name (“College Admissions Advisors”). Of course, there’s no way to know whether doing so is what improves an applicant’s chances. But the message is clear: your Asianness might hurt your chances for the school of your dreams.
I heard this message, too, when I applied. I knew writing about piano wouldn’t make my application special, so I diminished the significance of piano in my life on my college applications. But I still decided to write about my Chinese heritage in my main essay—it’s part of who I am. I talked about my work leading a nonprofit in raising money for impoverished children in China, but I constantly worried that talking about my cultural heritage would emphasize my Asianness and put me at a disadvantage. As waitlist after waitlist arrived, I wondered if I should have completely rejected every bit of my identity that suggested a typical Asian kid. My Asian American friends, similarly, questioned their achievements—one had poured blood, sweat, and tears into reviving our school’s math club, and another played Prokofiev’s third piano concerto in concerts. Both were rejected from their dream schools, and we were left to speculate if perhaps we would have been accepted if we were different people with different identities. Universities look for our personalities in our applications, but when we are told that we can’t completely be ourselves, those portions of our identity can lose their worth. It could mean that our Asian American identity isn’t of value.
Never mind that Asian parents only push their kids to play violin and send them to supplementary Saturday morning math classes because it’s the only way they know how to support their kids and increase their chances of getting into university. When 90% of the Asian population in the US are either immigrants or children of immigrants (Hu-Dehart 125), most Asian American families lack the kind of history that, for example, students with legacy have. Parents may not know the college admissions process as well if they didn’t attend university in the US, instead enforcing the activities that they believe to be worthwhile. And they should be worthwhile, even if these activities are often common across Asian American families: playing an instrument teaches the importance of practice, and a strong math foundation leads to better problem-solving skills. As classical music and the arts are defunded in public schools and American students’ math scores routinely fall below that of all other first world countries (Desilver), students that display these skills should be considered the unique ones. But due to their association with the typical Asian American applicant, these characteristics have instead become liabilities. Though Asian American students face their own distinct set of challenges, their struggles and hard work are overlooked and invalidated when universities decide that typically “Asian” achievements aren’t good enough for a spot at their school.
In response to this faulty implementation of affirmative action, some Asian Americans call for consideration of socioeconomic class rather than race, claiming it a better indication of resources and privilege. In 2015, a coalition of more than 60 Asian American organizations filed a federal complaint against Harvard University accusing it of utilizing racial quotas, ruled illegal in landmark 1978 Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke(Frumin). While previous Supreme Court cases, such as Fisher v. University of Texas, upheld affirmative action policies against white plaintiffs (Liptak), the now pending case against Harvard focuses on discrimination against Asian Americans in favor of Black and Hispanic Americans. Thus, it could have profound implications on the constitutionality of affirmative action.
However, this places affirmative action in the frame of Asian Americans versus other racial minorities, which is problematic. Just as the “model minority” myth was created to discount Black Americans’ complaints of racism during the Civil Rights Movement (Chow), the current argument against affirmative action uses Asian Americans’ supposed success to claim that race-based policies cannot be beneficial. In this way, the issue with affirmative action is not between Asian Americans and other racial minorities, and the answer is not to completely dismantle affirmative action. Though Asian Americans’ frustration with the current system is understandable, as long as race is still a source of systemic inequality, society needs race-based programs to counteract the still existing racism.
Instead, there needs to be reflection on what messages admissions officers are sending students when they have that idea of a “typical Asian” in their heads. Universities should recall what affirmative action should be at its core: considering the barriers a student may have faced due to their race and ethnicity in a holistic assessment of their application. It’s not about racialized standards, especially when those standards are based on stereotypes. Thus, admissions officers must ask themselves: How are we diluting Asian Americans’ achievements and deeming them weaknesses by virtue of those successes being typical of Asian Americans as a whole? How do monolithic characterizations of Asian Americans dehumanize them and devalue their identities? How can we consider applicants’ race without making it seem like a disadvantage? For society at large, how do we focus on increasing resources and access to broader opportunities for Asian Americans, such that they aren’t pushed into the only paths to success that their parents know?
Two years ago, I was afraid of discussing my Chinese American identity in the college application that was meant to represent the best of who I was. With change in the implementation of affirmative action, hopefully, Asian Americans don’t have to cut off corners and fold up our identities.
Whether that means writing about a piano competition or debate club, we’ll be completely ourselves.
Ashkenas, Jeremy, Haeyoun Park, and Adam Pearce. “Even With Affirmative Action, Blacks and Hispanics Are More Underrepresented at Top Colleges Than 35 Years Ago.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 24 Aug. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/24/us/affirmative-action.html. Accessed 23 Feb. 2018.
Chow, Kat. “‘Model Minority’ Myth Again Used As A Racial Wedge Between Asians And Blacks.” NPR, NPR, 19 Apr. 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/19/524571669/model-minority-myth-again-used-as-a-racial-wedge-between-asians-and-blacks. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
Desilver, Drew. “U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 15 Feb. 2017, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/15/u-s-students-internationally-math-science/. Accessed 25 Feb. 2018.
Espenshade, Thomas J., and Alexandria Walton Radford. No longer separate, not yet equal: Race and class in elite college admission and campus life. Princeton University Press, 2009.
Frumin, Aliyah. “Asian-American groups file racial bias complaint against Harvard.” MSNBC, NBC Universal, 19 May 2015, www.msnbc.com/msnbc/asian-american-groups-file-racial-bias-complaint-against-harvard. Accessed 24 Feb. 2018.
“Harvard Admitted Students Profile.” Harvard University, The President and Fellows of Harvard College, https://college.harvard.edu/admissions/admissions-statistics. Accessed 23 Feb. 2018.
Hensley-Clancy, Molly. “Asians With ‘Very Familiar Profiles’: How Princeton’s Admissions Officers Talk About Race.” BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed, 19 May 2017, https://www.buzzfeed.com/mollyhensleyclancy/asians-very-familiar-profiles-princeton?utm_term=.yjXj6DD3QY#.dw0ZPYYaX4. Accessed 21 Feb. 2018.
Hensley-Clancy, Molly. “College Admissions Advisors Work To Make Asian Kids Less “Asian”.” BuzzFeed News, BuzzFeed, 28 May 2015, https://www.buzzfeed.com/mollyhensleyclancy/college-admissions-and-the-business-of-making-asian-kids-les?utm_term=.xavgQ88V0l#.bog3W44rln. Accessed 21 Feb. 2018.
Hu-DeHart, Evelyn. “An Asian American perspective on segregated schooling, Brown v. Board, and affirmative action.” Race, Equity, and Education. Springer, Cham, 2016. 125-137.
Liptak, Adam. “Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action Program at University of Texas.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 23 June 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/24/us/politics/supreme-court-affirmative-action-university-of-texas.html. Accessed 24 Feb. 2018.
“What We Look For.” Harvard University, https://college.harvard.edu/admissions/application-process/what-we-look. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.
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