When it came time to fill out his college application form, Max Li chose not to declare his race. Even though he knew his last name sounded Chinese, he selected “prefer not to say.”
Clara Chen was advised to avoid the Advanced Placement exam for Chinese because college admissions officers might assume, based on her last name, that she already spoke the language, which could undermine the value of her score. She took the test for Advanced Placement French instead.
When Marissa Li was growing up, she loved playing competitive chess, and spent hours studying the matches of some of her favorite players, like Bobby Fischer. But on her college application, she barely mentioned her interest in the game because she was afraid that it might come across as too stereotypically Asian.
“It is a little sad now that I think about it,” Ms. Li, 20, said in a recent interview. “I wasn’t really able to talk about the activities that meant the most to me.”
In October, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by Students for Fair Admissions that accused Harvard of systematically discriminating against Asian American applicants.
Students for Fair Admissions said that, compared with other racial groups, applicants of Asian descent consistently received a lower “personal rating” — a subjective score for traits like self-confidence, likability and kindness.
That lawsuit seems to have confirmed what many Asian American teenagers have quietly thought for years, as they downplayed aspects of their identity or changed their hobbies or interests as part of an effort to appear, as students, parents and college admissions counselors said, “less Asian.”
Asian Americans are a hugely diverse, complicated group, and students don’t fit into cookie-cutter stereotypes. But in the high-stakes competition for spots at elite colleges, in which so much of an applicant’s life must be boiled down to 500 or so words, many Asian American students are acutely aware of what not to be.
While it’s difficult to measure how widespread this phenomenon is, the rumor that students can appear “too Asian” has hardened into a kind of received wisdom within many Asian American communities, along with the idea that Asian American students must meet a higher bar academically than other racial groups to get into the same schools.
Students for Fair Admissions noted in its brief that “an entire industry exists to help them appear ‘less Asian’ on their college applications.” The group pointed to a popular test-prep guide published in 2004 by the Princeton Review, which advised students of Asian descent to try to conceal their racial identity.
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Many families still seek out professional advice. In interviews, college admissions consultants spoke about trying to steer their Asian American clients away from so-called typically Asian activities such as Chinese language school, piano and Indian classical instruments like the venu flute.
They had other tips, too: Writing about your family’s immigrant hardship story is too basic. And don’t bother checking the race box on the common application unless you’re Latino or Black — doing so may not hurt your chances of getting in, but it won’t help you either.
Harvard and supporters of affirmative action have argued that there is no such thing as a penalty for Asians and that race is, in fact, one factor among many used to evaluate applicants. The university says that, in shaping a class, it strives for diversity in not just race but also academic interests, geography, politics and socioeconomic background. Supporters have noted that the number of admitted Asian American applicants had steadily increased for decades. They made up about 28 percent of those admitted this year, up from nearly 20 percent in 2013. By comparison, Asians make up about 7 percent of the country’s population. (About 15 percent of admitted students this year were Black; 13 percent were Latino; and 3 percent were Native American.)
But Harvard’s arguments have done little to dispel the suspicions of many Asian Americans. Consultants say that, if anything, concerns among students about appearing too Asian are only growing.
Sasha Chada, the founder of Ivy Scholars, a college admissions counseling company based in Texas, said that while his company’s Latino clients often emphasized their ethnicity and their engagement with Hispanic cultural organizations on their college applications, his company frequently gave Asian American students the opposite advice, urging them to shift away from “classically Asian activities” to improve their chances of getting into the country’s elite universities.
“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,” Mr. Chada said.
Many consultants said that, when it came to elite college admissions, it was not enough to just be a well-rounded student. Differentiation is the name of the game, regardless of race.
Part of the problem, some college consultants say, is that there are kernels of truth in the stereotypes of Asian applicants. Within the communities, violin and piano are, in fact, oversubscribed activities, the consultants say, making it difficult for most students to stand out.
“I often tell families that instead of playing violin or piano, which is something almost every Chinese American can check off on their profile, try a different instrument,” said Shin Wei, the founder and chief executive of IvyMax, an admissions counseling company based in California.
For many immigrant parents like Jing Zeng, getting their children into a top college is seen as crucial for upward social mobility. But navigating a new and opaque admissions system that takes into account factors besides test scores can feel daunting, leading many first-generation parents to look at what families around them are doing and push their children into the same types of activities.
“When we came to this country, we had nothing — we have no background, we have no legacy,” said Ms. Zeng, 52, who emigrated from China in the mid-1990s and recently sent her son off to Pomona College in California.
In its brief, Students for Fair Admissions drew a parallel between Harvard’s approach to Asian American applicants and the efforts by Ivy League schools, including Harvard, to limit the number of Jewish students in the 1920s.
Others see parallels as well. “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,” said Mark Oppenheimer, the host of “Gatecrashers,” a podcast about the history of Jews in the Ivy League.
Supporters of Harvard say that the historical comparison is flawed and that there is no evidence that Harvard’s current admissions policies are driven by animus toward Asian Americans or that they are designed to suppress the number of Asian Americans admitted to the school.
Students for Fair Admissions has also argued that, among Asian American students, the perception of bias has contributed to “unusually high” levels of anxiety and suicide. Even some of the most outspoken supporters of race-conscious admissions have acknowledged the negative impact of that perception on students’ mental health.
Sally Chen is the education equity program manager at Chinese for Affirmative Action, a San Francisco-based advocacy organization. As a child of working-class Chinese immigrants, she said that she had benefited from affirmative action when she had applied to Harvard and that there was no evidence of discrimination against Asians in the school’s admissions process.
At the same time, she added, “I know through talking to other Asian American students and families how harmful it can be for students to think that their experiences or their background are not compelling or not valuable.”
In interviews with about a dozen or so former and current Asian American students at Harvard, most said that they were disturbed by some of the lawsuit’s revelations but also that they supported the university’s efforts to foster a diverse student body, even more so after having experienced the diversity of the campus firsthand.
Some of the students said they had written about their Asian identity in their admissions applications, but they described carefully calibrated essays — intended to relay an applicant’s life while also avoiding stereotypes. Ms. Li, the chess player, said she had felt that she had more space to discuss her identity from a generational perspective. She wrote about how translating between Chinese and English at an international competition had reflected her struggles communicating with her immigrant parents.
Lap Nguyen, 20, a junior at Harvard, had also leaned into generational themes, writing about his love for the language of his birth country, Vietnam, and his experience teaching that language to his little brother.
This nuanced consideration of how Asian American students should present themselves could become even more freighted if racial preferences in college admissions are ruled unconstitutional. During the Supreme Court hearing, the justices considered what kind of personal essays could be allowed. Would students, for instance, be allowed to write about their personal experiences of racism?
Patrick Strawbridge, a lawyer for Students for Fair Admissions, said, “What we object to is a consideration of race and race by itself,” adding that an Asian American student might write about traveling to a grandparent’s home country.
For now, Asian American students are still figuring out what to write. Grace Ou, 17, a senior at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology in San Francisco, said that in her college application essays she planned to write about her identity.
It was a turnaround from her younger years, when classmates sometimes made her feel that she was “too Asian” because she played the violin and had a Chinese middle name.
That changed when several Chinese family friends and acquaintances in Ms. Ou’s working-class community in San Francisco were attacked during the pandemic, part of a recent wave of anti-Asian hate incidents across the country. Seeing the strength of her community in that vulnerable moment made her determined to embrace her identity as an Asian American woman, she said.
“In terms of college applications, I don’t think I’m going to try to stay away from that,” she said. “It is who I am.”