Why it’s Harder for Asians to Get into Harvard College

get into harvard collegeThe New York Times recently published an op-ed piece, “Is Harvard Unfair to Asian-Americans?” that explores the theory that it’s harder for Asian-Americans to get into Harvard college than pretty much anyone else. According to the article, there are more qualified Asians applying to get into Harvard college, and their test scores are higher than their peers. However, each incoming class of Harvard undergraduates has the same number of Asians each year.

This isn’t anything new; in fact, it confirms a lot of what we already know not just about how to get Harvard college, but about ivy league admissions. First, there will always be parts of the admissions process that are simply out of your control. Second, and more importantly, there’s a lot you CAN control and what we can glean from this article can be used for more effective application strategy.

1. Perfect Test Scores do NOT Guarantee Admission

This is true for everyone, but it seems especially true for Asian applicants.

“To get into the top schools, [Asian-Americans] need SAT scores that are about 140 points higher than those of their white peers. In 2008, over half of all applicants to Harvard with exceptionally high SAT scores were Asian, yet they made up only 17 percent of the entering class (now 20 percent).”

WHAT IT MEANS: For Asian applicants, a high test score does NOT differentiate you from your competition. That means that you need to stop obsessing over getting that perfect score. Don’t take the tests over and over again unless you’re absolutely SURE that you can do significantly better. It’s not worth it for a point here or there. Once you hit the target range for the schools you’re applying to, stop. And start focusing on other parts of your application.

2. Extracurricular Activities Matter

“The most common defense of the status quo is that many Asian-American applicants do well on tests but lack intangible qualities like originality or leadership. As early as 1988, William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions, said that they were ‘slightly less strong on extracurricular criteria.'”

WHAT IT MEANS: Showing up to extracurricular activities is not enough. The question is not IF you participate but HOW you participate. You should pick activities that demonstrate your passions and interests, where can grow as a person, and most importantly, make an impact. Seek out opportunities to demonstrate your leadership skills or your ability to work in a team. Admissions committees are looking for students that can contribute to their campus community; use your extracurricular activities to show them how you’ll be an asset to your college.

3. Individuality is Key

“The truth is not that Asians have fewer distinguishing qualities than whites; it’s that — because of a longstanding depiction of Asians as featureless or even interchangeable — they are more likely to be perceived as lacking in individuality. (As one Harvard admissions officer noted on the file of an Asian-American applicant, ‘He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor.’)”

WHAT IT MEANS: It’s not that Asians are not unique; everyone has something special to bring to the table. But often Asian applicants are so preoccupied with test scores and grades that they forget to nurture their individuality. Take the time to figure out what sets you apart and how you’ll stand out from the crowd. Once you know your best stories, feature them in your application essays.

We see it every year. Asian applicants come to us with nearly perfect SAT scores, but they’re missing what really matters in their college application. That’s why we encourage ALL students (not just Asian students) to start early in high school (or even before!) to build a rich profile that shows individuality, leadership, and all those intangible qualities that admissions committees are looking for.

So wherever you are in the process, it’s time to start focusing on what’s going to make you stand out (… especially if you’re trying to get into Harvard college).

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