College Admissions Advisors Work To Make Asian Kids Less "Asian"

A federal complaint filed this month claims Harvard's admissions system discriminates against Asian applicants. It came as little surprise to the professionals specialized in getting kids into college.

One of Brian Taylor's clients at Ivy Coach, an elite college admissions counseling firm, was a talented cellist. He loved the instrument so much that he sometimes played it for fun on the street, collecting tips. But when it came time to apply for college, Taylor said, "There was no mention of the cello on his college application. Not one."

Ivy Coach cut out the cello for one reason: because the client was Chinese-American. "He checked just about every proverbial box we always discourage our students from checking," Taylor said: he played a string instrument, ran track, and was a competitive mathlete. Instead of those pastimes, Ivy Coach encouraged the boy to focus his application on his passion for government, which Taylor thought would buck against stereotypes. He was accepted to several Ivy League schools.

After a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups filed a federal complaint earlier this month alleging Harvard’s admissions process discriminated against Asians, the advice of counselors like Taylor has particular resonance. Among the many professionals who charge thousands of dollars — sometimes tens of thousands — to help students get into Harvard and other elite colleges, there's a common refrain: The best way to get an Asian kid into an Ivy League school is to make them seem less “Asian."

There's an entire cottage industry, in fact, made up of pricy college counselors who help Asian applicants overcome pervasive and damaging stereotypes and a brutally competitive admissions process that some say discriminates against Asian candidates. One major company has even advised candidates not to emphasize their family's immigrant roots during the application process.

The complaint against Harvard, filed earlier this month, alleged the school stacks the deck against Asian and Asian-American applicants, creating artificial quotas that limit the percentage of Asian students and effectively require Asians to notch higher grades and test scores to be admitted. It cited a study that found Asian-Americans applying to elite schools must score 140 points higher than white applicants on their SATs to be on equal footing, and 450 points higher than a black applicant.

It also argued that affirmative action policies, which favor black and Latino applicants, lead to discrimination against Asians and should be ended; a similar lawsuit last year was backed by a prominent anti-affirmative-action activist. A number of prominent Asian-American groups have opposed the complaint and are strong supporters of affirmative action.

In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit from earlier this year, Harvard denied all of the allegations of discrimination, saying it used a holistic admissions process that included race, and test scores, as just two of many factors in an incredibly competitive admissions process.

Most educational experts agree that both the lawsuit and federal complaint are unlikely to go anywhere; in a wide-ranging admissions process that accepts just 5% of 37,000 applicants, it is nearly impossible to prove that a particular student deserved acceptance over another. Others have pointed to the fact that Asians are already dramatically overrepresented in Harvard's class, and have seen admissions rates climb: 21% of Harvard students identify as Asian, compared with 17% in 2004. As a whole, Asians make up just 6% of the population.

The merits of the suit and its attacks on affirmative action policies will be debated both in the courtroom and among the mosaic of activist groups focussed on fairness in college admissions. But among many of the the people paid big money by college applicants for help and advice, the barriers for Asian applicants are clear.

“A lot of our work is finding strategic ways for our Indian or Asian clients to break the stereotypes,” said Mimi Doe, who runs Top Tier Admissions, one of the country's most prestigious — and most expensive — college admissions consulting companies. Half of her clients, she said, are of Asian descent, and struggle with ethnic and cultural assumptions that were long ago jettisoned when evaluating white applicants.

“We set out to help our Indian and Asian candidates who do seem to fall into these typical robotic, soulless stereotypes to zero in on areas that will set them apart,” Doe said. Top Tier's services can run upwards of $40,000 for students who begin in middle school.

College admissions coaching and counseling are enormously popular among Asian-Americans. At California's Harvard Square 2 Academy, among the country's largest college admissions companies, 99% of the company's 3,000 students are Asian, said Ann Lee, the company's founder. HS2 Academy is in the process of opening a Hong Kong location, it said.

Another well-publicized company, ThinkTank Learning, has 12 locations in California and two in China; on its Chinese language blog, one post says, "If you are Asian, it may not be an advantage anymore to write your personal statement on your Asian immigrant upbringing, you might even want to strategize to change your last name to increase your odds of admission."

"A good portion of our students are Asian, and we tell them right up front, ‘You're going to face discrimination,’” said Taylor, the director of Ivy Coach. “Our [clients] aren’t mathletes, they don't play the violin if they don't love it, and Mommy's not forcing them. We would rather them use those hours that they’d be playing the violin to do something that every Asian applicant isn’t doing.”

Some advisors disagree with the need to spin an application in a way that downplays ethnic or cultural backgrounds. Kavita Mehta, an admissions consultant based in Mumbai, said she doesn't take stereotypes into consideration when she works with her clients, who are mostly Indian. "When it comes to trying to 'game the system,' we've always found that that backfires," Metha said. "Passion for whatever you do comes through. It’s best to go in with the strongest, most consistent application — and that’s the one you’re putting in truthfully."

But while all applicants must do their best to stand out from the crowd in elite college admissions, for Asians, professionals say, the fight is different.

White applicants are judged not against their racial groups but against more nuanced subsets, said Pamela Ellis, the founder of college admissions coaching firm Compass Education Strategies. For white students, Ellis said, “It’s not racial. It might be be socioeconomic, for example. You have to avoid a clichéd essay about the safari you went on.”

But where white students face clichés, Asians must fight against racist stereotypes — pervasive cultural ideas that all Asians are the same, pursue similar activities, and lack creativity and passion.

Doe said she and Top Tier Admissions urge Asian students, some of whom she counsels beginning in eighth or ninth grade, to avoid focusing on science and math "unless they're really good at it" and instead turn toward something like literature. It's important, Doe said, for Asian applicants to "be authentic and do what they love." But also important: "They've got to break out of those stereotypes."

"By all means, continue to love music, if you love music," Doe said, "That doesn’t mean you have to demonstrate your love of music in all of your applications, if it means you're going to look like every other Asian applicant."

One Asian applicant, Doe said, had a "zillion" math awards and a love of computer science. But he used his application essay to talk about his interest in classics, including a classics club he had started for inner-city children, and got into a slew of top-tier schools.

The federal complaint from earlier this month hinges in large part on the role of stereotypes that Doe and others guide their clients to avoid. Despite Asian students' academic achievements, the complaint says, "racial biases, often coupled with a lack of understanding of Asian cultures, have plagued the college admissions process ... admissions officers treat Asians as a monolithic block and denigrate these applicants as lacking creativity, critical thinking, leadership skills, and risk-taking.", the nexus of college admissions discussion for stressed-out high school students, is flooded with posts by students who worry they are "too Asian" and are searching for advice about how to "stand out," whether they should quit dragon dancing in to avoid stereotypes, and even how to disguise their Asian last names.

"How to become 'less Asian'?" one poster, Yakisoba, asked in a College Confidential forum. "I feel that as I grow older and older, I am becoming more inclined to stick with Asian stereotypes and cultures," wrote the poster, who was just a freshman in high school. "Although I'm in the beginning of high school and have plenty of opportunities to explore new [extracurriculars], I feel like I need to correct this behavior soon, or else it will be too late come college application time."

Among the advice given to Yakisoba: Don't write essays "about your Asian heritage," try sports besides tae kwon do, and maybe start playing the drums instead of the violin.

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