The Competitive Nature of College Admissions for Asian Americans

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A woman writing a letter on a paper.

Asian Americans and College Admissions

Getting into a top university is no easy feat – especially for Asian Americans. We all know that college admissions for Asian Americans is competitive, but how competitive is it?

In fact, when we speak to parents and students across the country,  one of the common misconceptions we encounter is that students and parents don’t really understand how competitive it really is. And while stories of students getting into one of the HYPSM float around, those numbers are far fewer than one may realize.

Let us break down some numbers for you.

Assume a given class has on average 1600 students. This may vary by school – for example, Harvard’s undergraduate class size is ~1700, Princeton ~1300, Yale ~1400, etc. With a class size of 1600 students, roughly 20% of the class size are Asian American. While this percentage has slowly trickled up higher over the past 3 or so years due to more lawsuits about affirmative action, we can safely assume that number. So let’s take 20% x 1600 = 320 per class.

Let’s assume there are nine of the very top schools HYPSM + Columbia, Penn, Chicago, and Caltech – that means 9 x 320 = 2880 < 3000 spots in the entire country. And if you only consider HYPSM, that means there are only 5 x 320 = ~1500 spots in the entire country for Asian Americans to get in!

The odds of getting one of those spots is extremely low. Compare and contrast that to another school like Berkeley, which doesn’t bias against ethnicity and race and has a much higher acceptance rate for Asian Americans – in fact, 50% of the student body is Asian.

Statistically speaking, it is much more difficult for Asian Americans to get into top colleges. In fact, research done by Princeton sociologists noted that Asian Americans were penalized 140 SAT score points compared to Whites, while Blacks were awarded 310 SAT score points and Hispanics awarded 130 points in the admissions process.

Admissions in America is not a meritocracy – lower class, legacies, under-represented minorities, athletes, and LGBT groups are favored in the process. At the Ivy League, Stanford, and MIT, the Asian American population comprises roughly 20–22% of the student body for more than the past decade despite increase in scores, national recognition, and extracurricular activities to boast. The only exception are schools like Caltech and Berkeley, which doesn’t practice race-based admissions and has nearly 40% of the student body who are Asian.

Lawsuits have been filed with the Department of Education against elite schools like Harvard and Princeton, including a student by Jian Li, who decried that the admissions process wasn’t fair. This has been going on for decades, but it’s not going to change anytime soon.

We work with Asian students every year; in fact, a majority of our clients are Asian American as they tend to value the importance of education from a cultural standpoint. Suffice to say, one of our strategies for our students is actually to make them appear less Asian. In fact, cultural identities or the immigrant story are rarely mentioned in essays. The less Asian you appear, the better shot you have at getting in.

As college admissions consultants, we’ve been incredibly successful at getting our Asian clients in by packaging them to the admissions officers in a way that is effective and compelling and plays the right cards. We’ve got the data the show for it, and real applications that our students have submitted that have been successful at getting this hyper-competitive demographic into the best universities.

While racial barriers and discrimination will continue to exist, we are happy that we’ve been able to help our students overcome these barriers by playing the right cards in their favor to optimize their chances at admission.

Are Harvard and the Ivy Leagues truly race blind?

Our short answer is no. If Harvard and other Ivy Leagues were truly race blind, there’s no way they could possibly and consistently target (and cap) the number of Asian American students to 20%, whites to roughly 45–50%, international students to 10%, and save the remaining 20% for Hispanics, Africans, and Native Americans.

This is done intentionally to increase the diversity of the student body while still giving half of the seats at a given Ivy League to white applicants. You can see all the stats here: Undergraduate Ethnic Diversity at Princeton University

Now let’s conduct a thought experiment: redact the last names of all the applicants (and perhaps first names), remove ethnic reporting, and then judge the applicant based on the rest of the criteria like essays, academics, extracurriculars, etc.

We are confident that those numbers would be greatly swayed in Asian American’s favor and the number of Asian applicants enrolled could shoot up to as much as 50% of the student body based purely on merit alone.

a worried student sitting on the couch

Ivy Leagues are biased against Asians and tend to stereotype high achieving Asians students. An Asian who scores 1600 SAT is equivalent to a White student with 1500, and African-American student with 1250 on the SATs based on econometric regressions run on real data. The only way that Harvard can really justify their admissions process is by including subjective factors into the application, like personality traits. That much is obvious to us.

A fair and better admissions process is to judge academic and extracurricular merit on a race blind basis. We can understand the argument that lower income students should have greater opportunity to get in – primarily because they weren’t given the opportunity in the first place. That’s okay and reasonable to us.

But race and affirmative action are one of the worst ways to judge a candidate – it’s tough for us to buy that argument. In addition, you can argue that there is significant overlap among the racial groups that are given affirmative action with the low income groups as well – and that’s okay. But to prevent others who have high degree of academic and extracurricular merit on the basis of race (Asians, in particular – Jews, previously) – is not okay.

Stressed college student looking at the laptop screen while surrounded by books.

Let’s look at the data.

Take UC Berkeley, for example, which uses race-blind admissions. Over 43% of the student class at Berkeley are Asian American. As expert college consultants, we can tell you that Asian Americans are definitely disadvantaged in this process.

Of course, there will be others who claim that the admissions process is holistic, and every candidate is evaluated thoroughly. That’s true as well, but we can also tell you that if every admissions officer read an applicant profile without their names (Cheng, Chang, Wu, etc) included in the application, far more Asians would have been admitted. It’s evident to us that there’s very real prejudice at play here.

So when you hear of an Asian American getting into one of the top universities, understand that is an incredibly difficult feat – you really have to be stellar in your academics, extracurriculars, and of course the application in order to seal the deal. So ~1500-3000 spots in the entire country given the millions of applicants that apply every year. Will one of those spots be yours? Feel free to schedule an initial consultation today to gain insight into how to navigate the college admissions process.



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