Is There a Bias Against Asian College Applicants?

February 6, 2021

As an Asian teenager, or parent of one, you’ve likely heard that Asian students are at a disadvantage in the admissions process at elite American colleges and universities. As a first order of business, let’s explore whether that this belief is, in fact, true.

Between 2000 and 2015, the Asian population in America grew 72%, and yet by 2021, Asians still comprise only 5.6% of the total U.S. population. However, if you examine many of the finest universities in the country, you will see that the undergraduate Asian representation on campus is generally 4-6 times their percentage of the population as a whole. Let’s take a quick look at some of those numbers:

  • Caltech: 37%
  • UC Berkeley: 35%
  • Carnegie Mellon: 31%
  • MIT: 30%
  • UCLA: 28%
  • Johns Hopkins: 27%
  • Rice: 26%
  • Penn: 25%
  • Stanford: 23%
  • Princeton: 22%
  • Columbia: 21%
  • Duke: 21%
  • Emory: 21%
  • Harvard: 21%

Given these stats, one might instantly conclude that being Asian actually enhances one’s chances of gaining admission into an Ivy or Ivy-equivalent school. However, a deeper examination of the available data/evidence reveals conclusively that the reality is that for Asian-American students as well as Asian international students, competition for a place at a prestigious university in the U.S. is unquestionably stiffer. Let’s examine some of the evidence that supports this claim, before launching into how to overcome the obstacles before you.

Results for Asian students on the SAT

In 2019, the average SAT score among all test-takers was 1059; the average score amongst Asian students was a robust 1223. Asian students’ mean score on the English section was 586 versus a 637 on the Math section. Researchers at Princeton University found that applicants who identify as Asian need to score 140 points higher on the SAT than a white applicant in order to have an equal chance at admission into an elite college—they dubbed this the “Asian tax” in college admissions.

Studies on acceptance rates

One well-known 2005 study found that if race were eliminated as a consideration in the admissions process (there was no affirmative action), Asian students would be the biggest beneficiaries, experiencing an acceptance rate 6 points higher across elite universities. No other group was negatively impacted anywhere close to this extent.

Another study of Harvard’s admissions practices between 2000 and 2017, found that the acceptance rate for Asian-American students was 8.1% compared to a 11.1% figure for white applicants. While we’re on the subject of Harvard…

What the Harvard court case tells us about implicit bias

Recently, the U.S. court system weighed in on bias against Asian-American students at Harvard. While the school ultimately won the case, much evidence was revealed as to how white students were routinely given superior ratings by Harvard admissions officers in subjective categories like “positive personality,” being “widely-respected,” as well as areas such as likeability, courageousness, and even kindness.

Princeton inquiry

As part of a probe by the Department of Education, a number of notes made by Princeton admissions officers regarding Asian applicants were made public. Among the more telling quotes were that Asian applicants had “very familiar profiles” and that some Asian individuals were referred to as “standard premeds” and “difficult to pluck out”.

Given this evidence, it is fair to conclude that Asian applicants, whether American or international, do indeed face additional obstacles as they weave their way through the college admissions gauntlet—which naturally leads us to our list of solutions/action-steps…

How can Asian students overcome these obstacles?

Because of negative factors like bias and unofficial quotas, Asian applicants may need to construct a stronger applicant profile than the average admitted student to have a genuine chance of getting into the very best American colleges.

Asian applicants and their parents simply cannot look at averages of Ivy League or other highly-selective schools and assume that, if they fall in the 50th percentile SAT range, they will have an excellent chance of admission. As an applicant of Asian descent, possessing grades and test scores that fall in the upper-quartile will lead to a far better chance at earning acceptance. In addition to this rather general advice of just trying to “be better” than your competition, there are also a number of other more specific steps you can and should take.

1) Shine through on the essays and supplemental prompts

American colleges care far more about subjective components of the application and other “soft factors” than institutions of higher education just about anywhere else in the world. First- or second-generation families may not be as acutely aware of this reality as white students, whose parents may have gone through a similar admissions process in their youth.

As a result, Asian students may need extra encouragement to let their genuine personality, passions, interests, dreams, and emotions become part of their college application. The Common App essay and supplemental essays/short answers/lists (e.g. your favorite books (Columbia), letters to future roommate (Stanford) are ideal opportunities to make a personal connection with an admissions reader). A human connection made by composing an essay that is so authentic it leaps off the page can put that applicant at a massive advantage. Some ideas for how to approach this task include:

  • Allow your personality and uniqueness shine through. Don’t be afraid to share what makes you different. While this may sound rather trite, we promise it is of the utmost importance.
  • Communicate your genuine passion for learning. What keeps you up at night? What kind of learning do you pursue in your spare time? What podcasts, websites, books, or periodicals do you engage with?
  • How do you use your gifts to help your (or a) community? How do you presently give back or how might you like to contribute to society in the future.
  • Think about your core values and what makes you tick. What types of problems are you dying to help solve? This could be a global problem, an intellectual puzzle, or even a personal challenge.

Thinking along these lines can be a fun and freeing endeavor that ultimately leads to compositions far superior than those that function more as a rote list of accomplishments.

2) Excel (even more) on standardized testing

With the average SAT/ACT score for Asian students already so much higher than other groups, you might be thinking, “But, my SAT scores are already strong!” However, as we mentioned a moment ago when referencing the so-called “Asian-tax,” you need to be better than your competition, not just in the same ballpark. Scoring at the 75th percentile or above a given university’s mark for accepted students is, without question, the level that you should be striving for.

IB/AP tests are also wonderful opportunities to demonstrate mastery of content that unequivocally shows your child’s academic prowess and depth of understanding. Previously, SAT Subject Tests were in the same category, but those have been discontinued by the College Board.

3) Consider elite liberal arts schools

Asian students may be at a disadvantage when applying to many private research universities due to a glut of applicants, but, on the other end of spectrum, many of elite American liberal arts schools actually struggle to enroll Asian students. Schools like Swarthmore, Amherst, and Williams may not possess the same cache in China, India, or South Korea as Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford but in graduate/professional school and employment circles, they are every bit as impressive. In fact, many of these top-flight liberal arts colleges are feeders to most prestigious law, medical, and PhD programs in the country. Here’s a look at the percentage of the undergraduate body that identifies as Asian at some of the top-ranked liberal arts colleges:

  • Amherst: 15%
  • Swarthmore: 15%
  • Williams: 12%
  • Vassar: 12%
  • Colby 8%
  • Carleton: 9%
  • Macalester: 8%
  • Middlebury: 7%
  • Bowdoin: 7%
  • Hamilton: 7%
  • Wesleyan: 7%
  • Bates: 5%
  • Kenyon: 4%

4) Apply to flagship public universities

As Asian students work on creating their college lists, they should make sure that they also consider some of the notable public state universities in the U.S. This is because admissions at public universities is often more formula-based and less likely to utilize any type of unofficial quota for Asian-American or international students. Schools like the University of Wisconsin – Madison, the University of Michigan, and Purdue University not only have excellent reputations but they also take roughly half of the student body from out-of-state and admit a large number of international students.

Those wishing to pursue a career in finance should take note that Baruch College in New York City, Rutgers University, and the University of Michigan all sit alongside the likes of Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton as the top feeder schools to Wall Street investment banks.

5) Consider applying early decision

Most highly-selective colleges offer a binding early decision or restrictive early action round with a November deadline. With early decision, students apply to one school, committing to attend that institution should they be granted acceptance.

In general, colleges that offer early decision offer far more favorable acceptance rates to early applicants than to those in the regular round. For example, in the 2019-20 admissions season, Dartmouth accepted 23% of ED applicants and Notre Dame accepted 26%. Middlebury took in 45% and Northwestern said yes to 25%.

Compare this to the acceptance rates for the general applicant pool:

  • Dartmouth: 6%
  • Notre Dame: 12%
  • Middlebury: 13%
  • Northwestern: 7%

Academic research has demonstrated that applying ED is worth 100 points on the SAT.

6) For international students, highlight your English proficiency

The TOEFL exam, even if not required, can be beneficial for international applicants as way to further demonstrate their level of English proficiency.

Likewise, the college interview, sometimes optional and sometimes required, can be another chance to showcase your English proficiency. In fact, the admissions interview can more important for international applicants than for American students in a number of ways, as it is also an opportunity to convey a sincere interest in attending school in the U.S. and to make a memorable impression on an admissions official. Many times, this interview is conducted by a third party such as the popular InitialView which interviews students on behalf of selective U.S. colleges. This is a videotaped interview conducted in-person in your home country or via webcam that is then sent, unedited, to the colleges to which you apply.

College Transitions’ final thoughts

As with any challenge in life, it is beneficial to take in the landscape with a clear-eyed view, with full awareness of the minefield that lies ahead. Asian-American and international students from Asia need to be cognizant of the uphill battle they face in the quest to gain acceptance at a highly-selective American college. Yet, just because the climb is uphill doesn’t mean the task is unachievable. Hard work and utilizing some of the strategies we have outlined can still lead to the desired postsecondary result.