Why Aren’t More Asians Accepted by Top Colleges?

For years, I’ve been hearing about apparent prejudice in the admissions process by the Ivy League and other highly-selective colleges. Recently, we have seen an increase in these stories of unfairness towards Asians, including lawsuits and complaints to the U.S. government.

Having served with Harvard admissions for three decades, I’ve seen how private colleges evaluate applicants. Here is what most people don’t understand: high test scores and grades are not the sole determinant for admission to American private universities.

To appreciate why high-scoring students do not prevail in the American system, you must first understand the American mentality. Americans see themselves as world leaders, contributing not only to their own country, but also influencing other societies around the globe. The U.S. mentality is one in which individuals are expected to contribute to communities. American high school students are pushed to serve hundreds of hours in community service, both domestically and through international missions.

American universities are built upon this idea of community. Here, college is more than just classes and coursework. From the American perspective, the student body itself – the students, and the structures that bring the students together – is as important as academics. We believe that students teach each other through their interactions, and that a variety of shared experiences and perspectives is an invaluable part of the college education. As a result, American universities are looking not only for academicians, but also for students who will contribute to the school in diverse ways.

“Diversity” in admissions means more than ethnicity or national origin. Diversity means the ability to provide something different to a campus community. For example, a student who was born and raised in China can contribute different experiences and perspectives than can a Chinese-American student who was born and raised in Florida. Qualified students who contribute athletically are valued as much as those who contribute only academically. Leadership and one’s social role in the community are critically important to highly-selective colleges.

Generally, our private colleges (as opposed to most public universities) use more than SAT and ACT scores to select applicants. Rather, the best schools in America use a “holistic” system to evaluate candidates.

What is the holistic system? It is an evaluation method in which applicants are given numerical grades in several areas, after which the several grades are combined into overall grades. Then, further factors – most notably the unique aspects of each student – are used to create a diverse class complete with a wide variety of contributors.

Basically, highly-selective colleges evaluate not only mental ability, but also non-academic ability and human attributes. Harvard grades applicants in three areas: academics, activities, and “personal qualities.” Dartmouth uses an almost identical group of three factors, evaluating intellectual engagement and curiosity, commitment and motivation in activities, and character.

Students who are strong in only one area are considered “angular” or “well-lopsided,” and they often do not achieve great results in the holistic system. Grades, test scores, research, academic competition, and publications only apply to the academic admissions attribute. Without strength in the activities and human scales, smart students do not fare well in the admissions process. Although some applicants do gain admission based solely on their academic performance, most applicants cannot rely merely upon test scores.

In many cases, the most important admissions determinant is the human scale. Why? It is difficult to provide the quantity and quality of data necessary to score well in an area that is entirely subjective. Although admissions essays can give some insight into an applicant’s personality, all applicants’ essays are biased. Instead of focusing solely on grades, tests and a student’s own words, applicants must remember that teacher recommendations are critical components of the admissions evaluation. Teachers can give unbiased insight into an applicant’s human qualities. Duke University grades teacher recommendations separately, and George Washington University starts its evaluation process by first reviewing what teachers write about a student. In addition, because admissions interviews commonly occur after the “first read” grading has been conducted, they can raise an applicant above the pool of qualified “finalists.” It’s not all about test scores.

No matter how perfect a square peg may be, the American holistic admissions system uses round holes in picking students.