Recently, there has been substantial coverage about whether colleges discriminate against Asian-Americans in admissions and even test prep. What does that mean for these students? How should such students navigate SAT / ACT prep and college admissions? This article surveys the current state of admissions and gives some tips.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of PrepScholar or any affiliate. While even broaching this topic can be seen as controversial, I also believe, as an educator, that I’m responsible for giving advice that helps the greatest number of students understand the landscape. This article specifically addresses Asian-Americans applying from the US and not applicants directly applying from Asia.
The intersection of race and college admissions has always been a sensitive issue, but recently it has boiled over to the front pages of newspapers. Sociology professor Thomas Espenshade writes that “To receive equal consideration by elite colleges, Asian-Americans must outperform Whites by 140 points [on the 1600-scale SAT].” Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that, while Asians of college age doubled in the last 25 years, their enrollment rates at Ivy-League schools have stayed the same. S.B. Woo, founder of the National Asian-American Educational Foundation, concludes that the “discrimination is obvious”.
Others defend using race as a factor in admissions. Director of Education Equity Khin Aung argues that considering race allows benefits of diversity such as “creating the most effective learning environment.” Jeff Neal, a spokesperson at Harvard, states that Harvard “continues to support the use of holistic admissions process," which implicitly includes race.
To catch up with the current state of conversation on the topic, all you have to do is Google “Asian college admissions”.
Are Asian-Americans Discriminated Against in College Admissions?
The value of affirmative action is controversial, but the existence of affirmative action is undisputed. The vast majority of experts in college admissions and SAT / ACT prep agree that affirmative action exists — college admissions is not totally blind to race. Given an ACT / SAT score range, it is an empirical fact that Asian-Americans have a lower acceptance rate than the average white American in many data sets such as the Espenshade and Radford 1997 elite college admissions data. Likewise, a survey of the admitted class of 2017 at Harvard revealed that SAT scores for Asians (including Indians) were higher than those of whites.
However, as anyone who has studied statistics can tell you (and I do have a Master’s degree in the field), those facts above are correlations and not causations. They suggest, but do not prove, that an Asian-American with otherwise the same application to the same school as a white American will have a lower chance of admission. I call this the Hypothesis that being Asian Lowers Admissions Chances (HALAC). HALAC, of course, implies that being Asian means that getting into a given college will be harder for you than for a white American.
What This Article Does and Does Not Do
This article will give you advice as to what an Asian-American may want to consider doing to maximize chances of college admissions. On both the front of the university and the government, policy moves too slowly for it to help most Asian-Americans with this issue. Therefore, this article doesn't take any stance on the correct institutional policies or political views as a response to HALAC. Additionally, given that causality is difficult to prove, this article doesn't take a stance on whether causally the HALAC effect exists.
Instead, this article focuses on things you, as an Asian-American, can do right now to maximize your chances of being accepted into top colleges. If you read through the evidence and believe that the HALAC effect exists, then the suggestions below can be useful to you. If you Google the evidence and don't think it supports HALAC, that's fine too — the advice below will be less applicable to you in that case.
What Doesn't Work
Before I give you the tips for what works for Asian applicants under the HALAC effect, I will first go over what absolutely doesn’t work.
First, lying doesn’t work nearly as well as you might think. What if you just don’t check the Asian box? What if you check “don’t want to disclose”? The problem is that colleges can often tell your race through other means. You do have to give colleges your legal name — if your last name is Nguyen, Lee, Kim, or Patel, for example, the admissions staff will almost certainly figure it out. What about just changing your name or making up your name? This will really get you into hot water as colleges are pretty good about calling your past teachers and running background checks on you. A good rule of thumb is this: if a casual friend who knows you would unambiguously say you’re of Asian ethnicity, it’s hard to get around it. Just put down that you’re Asian and be done with it. By telling the truth on your name and ethnicity box, you at least signal honesty.
On the other hand, if you have a legitimate reason for not identifying as Asian, then you can, in fact, consider this path. Suppose you’re genetically 25% Asian and 75% Hispanic, and your parents were both born in the United States. Some college applications ask you to identify with one or as many ethnicities as you want. Under the HALAC effect you probably do want to omit Asian, if allowed.
Also, mass action will rarely work to your advantage for admissions. By mass action, I mean protesting the HALAC effect, suing colleges, complaining to the government, and so forth. Colleges may be reluctant to admit a student likely to cause the administration a headache. Remember, university administration is a highly political entity. The government political process also works way too slowly. It will cost millions to fight it out in court and years to reach a judgment.
If your goal is to raise your chances of admissions under the HALAC effect, I would think twice about filing an official grievance. Of course, there are other fine reasons that you may want to take mass action in the future, perhaps due to your political or ethical beliefs. However, I’m just telling you that, almost always, taking official or mass action won’t increase your personal short-term chances of getting into a certain school.
Who Does This Article Apply To?
This article applies much more to Americans of Asian heritage, i.e. students who have studied in the US at least a few years before they apply to college. It applies much less to students who are applying directly from another country. These latter students are better classified as international students. For them, there is a whole set of other factors that are more important — for example appetite of a college for international students, authenticity of documents, etc.
Throughout this article, the term “Asian” includes Indian and other ethnically related neighbors — since the data across these groups are all similar.
How You Can Combat the HALAC Effect
Now that you understand what the HALAC effect is, how can you use that information to increase your chances of getting into top schools? Below are three strategies for combating the HALAC effect; read through them to learn how to maximize your chances of admission.
Step 1: Account for the HALAC Effect
Before you can combat the HALAC effect, first you have to find where it exists.
The HALAC effect is not something that can be magically erased by easy action on your part. Therefore, in response to the HALAC effect, the first and most important thing that a student of Asian heritage should do is to account for it correctly. By this, I mean realizing that your chances of getting in are lower and planning accordingly which colleges you’ll apply to and how you’ll apply to them.
Accounting for the HALAC effect means that you should adjust where your reach, target, and safety schools are. Instead of putting them as high as you might otherwise, target them a little lower. If you target too high, you run the risk of overshooting — not getting into the target schools of your choice and instead getting into a safety school that you didn’t spend much time researching.
You should also account for the HALAC effect more at classically “elite” colleges. Colleges that are US News ranked 1-10 probably suffer most from HALAC, with the effect decreasing through colleges 10-50 in rank. The effect becomes much lower in colleges ranked above 50. In fact, most HALAC studies focus on the top colleges for exactly this reason: the effects are more concentrated and more statistically significant there.
There are many potential reasons for the concentration of the HALAC effect on highly ranked colleges. Proportionally, more Asians apply to these colleges, leading to the HALAC effect when colleges diversify away from Asians. Also, these schools tend to care the most about diversity factors because they are already oversubscribed by great academic performers. These diversity factors tend to be big drivers of the HALAC effect. Conversely, a more moderately rated college will show a lesser HALAC effect because, to them, someone academically strong is itself a great asset.
How do you account for the HALAC effect? One method is to apply to more colleges when doing applications. Apply to three times the number of reach schools you would otherwise and twice the number of target schools. Applying to more schools ensures that you compensate for lower chances due to HALAC.
The more accurate method to account for HALAC is to just do an SAT / ACT score adjustment. That is, lower your SAT by 100 points (on the 1600 scale) or your ACT score by 2 points, and then go through the colleges you’re applying to “as if” you got your adjusted score. For example, if you really got a 1500 on your SAT, think of your chances of getting into college as if you got a 1400 instead. When you look up your chances using our “what are my chances table”, use 1400 instead of 1500. By doing this adjustment, you’ll correctly identify the right reach, target, and safety schools.
Why 100 points on the SAT and 2 points on the ACT? These are rough numbers that are closest to a large set of consensus estimates for the HALAC effect. They’re a little lower than the Espenshade study but higher than some other casual surveys. I should disclaim that these numbers are rules of thumb and not hard scientific numbers.
Also, for rank 1-10 schools, you should adjust for the full 100 points, but if you’re applying to schools ranked 10-50, a rule of thumb is you can account for just a 50-point adjustment. The adjustment beyond rank 50 will be smaller still.
Step 2: Combat the HALAC Effect Through Test Scores
Given that Asians need a 100-point increase on the 1600-SAT to reach the same admissions chances, another way to combat the effect is just by having a higher SAT / ACT score. This does require more time and dedication, but it’s definitely possible. It’s not easy to improve by 100 points on the SAT or 2 points on the ACT. However, such improvements are definitely doable. In fact, we at PrepScholar have a 160-point guarantee for the SAT and a 4-point guarantee for the ACT. You’ll need to work harder, but you can overcome the HALAC effect this way.
Some stereotype Asians as studying more than usual for the SAT / ACT. However, with their need to score higher just to have the same chances under HALAC, this behavior is much less of a surprise.
Step 3: Combat the HALAC Effect Through Diversity in Other Areas
To combat HALAC closer to its roots, it’s useful to examine how the HALAC effect arises. Supporters of affirmative action, including the universities themselves, always emphasize diversity as the primary goal. While one can argue about whether that is the sole goal of affirmative action, it is clear that diversity provides a strong channel to drive the HALAC effect. Looking at the diversity driver of the HALAC effect will be another key for Asians to overcome it.
Under this diversity driver model, the reason HALAC occurs is because, in the eyes of admissions officers, too many Asian applicants all look the same on paper. They are too similar along too many dimensions. These applicants all do well in school, have high ACT / SAT scores, play violin or piano, and play a racket sport like tennis. Oh and, of course, they are all Asian. The problem from the point of diversity isn’t that an applicant is merely Asian, but rather that an entire host of applicants all look the same along other dimensions.
A colorful but useful analogy for the diversity needs of colleges is putting horses into barn stalls. The horses represent applicants, and the barn stalls are the “spaces” and archetypes that the school has for these applicants. One stall might be labeled “Asian, high grades, piano player” — and this stall is overfilled. But if you were white, the “white, high grades, piano player” stall is only half full! You can’t change your ethnicity, but you can definitely change your other labels, your other dimensions. It turns out that “Asian, high grades, lacrosse star” is wide open too! Why not fill that stall instead?
Put in more theoretical terms, to the extent the HALAC effect is about diversity, you can generate diversity along other dimensions. Instead of being an Asian who’s a top ranked violin player (stereotypical Asian), why not try being a top guitar player? You can go further than that. While a guitar is not stereotypically Asian, it is still a very common instrument. Perhaps you are better off trying to be a top French horn player? Instead of playing badminton, why not try soccer or squash?
Generally, think about what the stereotypical Asian applicant looks like. If you can be equally good along a dimension but break the stereotype, it is definitely to your advantage. Being in your state’s top 20 tennis players is probably less advantageous than being one of your state’s top 20 lacrosse players. Being a top 50 debater in your state is probably better than being a top 50 math competitor.
It is important that you break the Asian stereotype in ways that are low cost to you. If you can jump from being a top 20 tennis player to a top 20 lacrosse player for free, you definitely should. But life is rarely that simple — and that’s just one of many reasons I don’t like the plain advice “appear less Asian”.
What if you’re a nationally ranked tennis player and don’t know a thing about lacrosse? What if math is your passion and debating is more boring to you than breaking rocks? You have to account for the fact that breaking stereotypes can be costly. I would say that, for an Asian applicant, a rank 50 state debater is stronger than a rank 50 math competitor. But a rank 50 debater is definitely weaker than a rank 5 state math competitor and is probably equal to a rank 20 state math competitor. When it comes to top colleges, they care about what you’re best at and your natural spike. I would be extremely cautious about sacrificing your best dimension in the name of diversity. In fact, I would almost never sacrifice your spike for diversity.
The take-away message is this: if you can diversify in extracurriculars at low cost, then do it. However, if you have a special talent, and it happens to be in an area that “looks Asian”, then don’t give it up. The right calibration is probably a loss of 2x in rank. If you can switch from an Asian-heavy activity to an Asian-light one and lose just 1.5x in rank (e.g. rank 20 to rank 30), then make the switch. But if you have to give up 4x in rank (rank 20 to rank 80), don’t make the switch.
Hopefully, the above article gives you a good sense of the unique landscape that Asian-American applicants face in United States college admissions. We started out with some background on the debate — although if you want the full story it’s best to Google the controversy yourself.
Then we talked about what the data shows and whether you believe in the Hypothesis of Asians having Lower Admissions Chances. In such a case, we examined how big the HALAC effect can be (about 100 points on the SAT scale).
The good news is that there are steps Asian-Americans can take to increase their chances. First, look for diversity in dimensions beyond race; look for diversity in extracurriculars. Second, it’s important to ensure that you’re strong on the SAT / ACT front to make up those 100 points. Do both of these things and you'll give yourself a much better shot at getting into your dream schools.
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Fred is co-founder of PrepScholar. He scored a perfect score on the SAT and is passionate about sharing information with aspiring students. Fred graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor's in Mathematics and a PhD in Economics.