Systemic Racism: Students Downplay Stereotypically Asian Hobbies To Boost College Admissions Odds

(Glen Cooper/Getty Images)
December 2, 2022

Asian-American college applicants are going to extraordinary lengths to conceal their race, the New York Times reported on Friday, stripping their applications of activities and accomplishments that might seem stereotypically Asian.

Students interviewed by the Times said they had downplayed their interests in chess, violin, and piano in an effort to avoid being rejected on racial grounds.

"It is a little sad now that I think about it," Marissa Li, a student at Harvard University, told the Times. "I wasn't really able to talk about the activities that meant the most to me."

Other students said they chose not to declare their race for fear of incurring an admissions penalty, a practice that has been going on for years. In 2004, the test-prep company Princeton Review advised Asian applicants to conceal their racial identity.

It is now routine for college counselors to advise against activities deemed stereotypically Asian. Shin Wei, the founder of IvyMax, said he tells students to pick an instrument other than piano or violin. Sasha Chada, the founder of Ivy Scholars, said he does the same thing.

"It doesn't make me happy to tell ninth graders that there are musical instruments they shouldn't play or academic pursuits they shouldn't engage in because it's going to make them look bad because of their ethnicity," Chada told the Times.

The evasions reflect the widely held sense, strengthened in the wake of recent court battles, that affirmative action policies discriminate against Asian students. One 2009 study found that Asians need to score 140 points higher on the SAT than whites—and 450 points higher than blacks—to have equivalent odds of admission. The lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University unearthed similar data, which could prompt the Supreme Court to outlaw affirmative action when it decides the case next term.

A major point of contention in that case has been Harvard's "personal rating," which admissions officers base on essays, recommendations, and interviews. Asian applicants consistently receive lower personal ratings than applicants of other races, which Students for Fair Admissions argues is a back door for racial discrimination.

The dynamic has drawn comparisons to the Ivy League's Jewish quotas in the 1920s, when schools like Harvard were concerned that having too many Jewish students would dilute their brand.

"The same stereotypes used to grade down Jewish applicants in the 1920s—that they were nerds or grinds, that they would spend too much time studying to be 'well rounded'—are being used against Asian-American applicants today," Mark Oppenheimer, who hosts a podcast about the history of Jews in the Ivy League, told the Times.