Cultural Misunderstanding: Trouble for Asian College Applicants

It is widely believed that American universities “don’t like” Asian applicants. Some people think that U.S. colleges have prejudice against Asian students who, despite high test scores, are not admitted at the rate that Asian families feel they deserve. Even though Asian students are indeed admitted at a rate greater than the proportionate Asian share of the U.S. population, prejudice is perceived, lawsuits are filed, protests and angry commentary persist.

When high-scoring Asian students do not achieve desired results, but lower-scoring non-Asian students do receive admissions offers to highly-selective colleges, one should not presume that cultural prejudice exists. Rather, one should consider whether a cultural misunderstanding is to blame.

Although American universities use American techniques to select students, Asian students resist the American way, or maybe they just don’t understand it. The best American colleges utilize a holistic admissions grading method. Tests are not entrance examinations in the U.S.; they are merely a part of a multi-faceted approach. For that reason, test scores are not the sole or even a primary factor in admissions decisions. They are merely a starting point, not the end point.

The holistic admissions process considers several factors, not just testing. For Asian students, one of the most surprising things about the process is that highly-selective American colleges grade not only academic ability, but also non-academic ability and human factors. Because of the subjective way that human factors are evaluated, they are almost always the most important attribute that distinguishes who gets in from who does not.

Unfortunately, Asian students suffer in the human part of the evaluation. Why?

The problem arises from the different cultures of the East and the West. In the East, concepts of humility, modesty, and acceptance of personal responsibility are high virtues. We often see Asian students write about their faults, using words like shame, defect, and disgrace to express a high moral code. However, this is not the high moral code of America.

American culture was built upon Judeo-Christian beliefs and Western European experience. America believes in the positive, not the negative. America believes in can and dislikes cannot. Americans believe that accepting responsibility is valuable, but recovering and achieving is even more valuable. As a result, admissions representatives at American colleges do not appreciate Asian sentiments in the way they are intended. To them, Asian ideals are “negative,” not virtuous.

The Common Application provides a choice of essay prompts, one of which is to recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. Whether in this prompt or others, Asian students focus too heavily on the aspect of failure, thinking that this demonstrates their high values. However, what the prompts really are asking is to describe the response, not the failure. Show us your success, not your humility.

In a sense, the problem is analogous to a disrespect of culture. When traveling in a foreign country, Americans often act like they are in America, not in France, or Brazil, or Korea. Many Americans don’t even attempt to speak the languages or respect the customs of other cultures.

When Asian students communicate through their college essays, they are more successful when they recognize the American cultural point of view. In other words, “speak” in the dialect of the people who are reading the essays. If you want to study in America, understand that Americans see things in an American way.

Pay attention to the balance that U.S. admissions representatives are seeking. To them, a “defective” student (yes, we see essays where students describe themselves in this way) is not a good person to add to their interactive college community. They do not see humility and modesty; they foresee problems.

We would never ask that any student misrepresent himself or herself. Rather, we recommend that, in describing oneself, you understand the perspective of the reader.