‘Am I ‘Likable’ Enough Yet?’: How Asian Americans Can Still Stand Out on College Applications

Gaining admission to elite colleges and universities is increasingly challenging, with admissions percentages dropping across the board. However, according to an article published last Friday in The New York Times,there may be an additional roadblock for Asian-American applicants. Although these students out-rank their fellow applicants in terms of GPA, test scores, and extracurricular quality, Harvard consistently (perhaps systematically) rates them the lowest in “personal rating,” a score that attempts to sum up an applicant’s positive personality traits. Asian-American applicants to Harvard were 25% more likely than white applicants to be described with the dreaded “standard strong” — academically qualified but unexceptional.

Many of the parents and high school students I work with, regardless of race, mistakenly believe that a “standard strong” application is the goal. Often, after having worked with a student to come up with an essay topic that displays their personality and gives them a “hook,” I will hear from the parents. “This essay makes mty kid look like a loser,” they’ll say, or “why aren’t you talking more about his accomplishments?” or “This topic is too weird — why not write about the time she won the big game?”

In my experience, parents of every background, but especially those who did not attend college in the US, fall prey to the misguided idea that the college essay, and application in general, should be “standard strong,” not quirky, risky, or ‘out-there.’ Many parents and teachers go too far when editing a student’s college application essay, polishing away the rough edges that gave it personality. Not only is this wrong because it misrepresents the student to colleges, but this misrepresentation isn’t even to their benefit. However, it is Asian-Americans who stand to lose the most from this.

Asian-American applicants to Harvard were rated the lowest of any race in categories like “positive personality,” courage, kindness, being “widely respected,” and “likability.” There’s no real way to determine how kind or courageous or charming a candidate is, so an applicant’s score depends on bias-prone opinions formed by admissions officers, interviewers, and writers of recommendation letters. (Interestingly enough, Asian-American applicants were not “scored down” in the same way for the in-person interview portion of the process. Perhaps snap judgments and biased evaluations are easier to make when examining a piece of paper than interacting with a person in real life.)

I strongly condemn Harvard for this apparent bias — especially because Harvard discovered evidence for this bias back in 2013 through an internal investigation that was never published or acted on. It’s long been said, by people from the Obamas and Cesar Chavez to Naomi Campbell and Charlotte Whitton, that women and minorities have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition they deserve. This shouldn’t be the case — but as long as it is, Asian-American college applicants must work even harder to portray positive personality traits and find ways to stand out, particularly in the essay portion of the application.

My job is to give my students their best possible chance at admission into a school where they will thrive. That’s why my mentoring and tutoring emphasizes emotional intelligence, honest and personable essay-writing, and the pursuit of genuine passions and interests. Every applicant should be sure to reflect their individual passions and search for that unique “hook” to their application — but Asian-American applicants doubly so.

All of my students are steered away from “standard-strong” activities and interests (like student government, classical music, and volunteering at hospitals), but these are especially dangerous for Asian-Americans. Of course, students who are passionate about an activity shouldn’t avoid it for fear of coming across as boring, just as they shouldn’t avoid a quirkier activity for fear of seeming weird. Instead, students should be encouraged to take their passions to new heights. If you’re truly passionate about the violin, can you play at local coffee shops or farmers’ markets to raise money for refugees? Give lessons to underprivileged kids? Invent and crowdfund a new chinrest? If you’re more interested in video games, why not set up an event where you and your friends teach seniors to play Fortnite?

At the end of the day, an application is an opportunity to tell the story that only you can tell, and this should be the goal for students from all backgrounds. It is wrong that Asian-Americans must try even harder to stand out, but until we can adequately correct current biased admissions processes, applicants can and should dig deep, find out what makes them a unique addition to any college campus, and sell the admissions officers on authenticity, not perfection.

Chris Rim is the CEO and founder of @CommandEdu, a premier higher education consultancy with an emphasis on developing passionate, well-adjusted students.

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