How to get into an elite college if you’re Asian

Alice Chen specializes in helping excellent students get into top-ranked colleges and universities. Her bio is here.

In this blogpost, Chen discusses what it takes to gain admission to an elite institution if you’re Asian or White:


Basically perfect

Test Scores:

SAT: 1500+

SAT Subject Tests: 750+

APs: Many 5s


Extraordinary – here are profiles of some of my students – they’ve been generalized to protect student identities

-Asian female applicant: Extremely prestigious international science fair. Grand Prize regional science competition. Highly competitive musician.

-White male applicant: Nationally ranked debater. Student body tri-president. Drama enthusiast. Excellent at computer science.

-Asian female applicant: Researcher at internationally-renowned university – likely to be listed as an author on a paper with research study she designed. Taught self biology. Captain of sports team. Shy but forced self to participate in musicals where she bloomed.

But that’s not all. There are those essays (personal statements):

Typically [they] must be original and outstanding.


-White male student: Originally wanted to write about building confidence as a student body tri-president. I didn’t think the story sent the right message, so under my advice, the student opted to write about experiences as a dishwasher at Cracker Barrel.

Even though he was a top student, nationally-ranked debater and had major leadership, the dishwasher experiences demonstrated that he was humble, worked hard and could work cross-culturally. (His Asian female dishwashing co-workers said he was the “hardest working white boy” they had ever seen.)

Highlighting these character traits worked for him because he was a white male. If he were Asian, I would’ve advised an essay to bring out more classic American style leadership traits, since Asians are stereotyped and penalized for being “hard working” and “humble”.

-Asian female student: Originally wanted to write about high-level scientific research. Her dad did not think she had any hardship stories to share but after getting to know my student, I discovered she had a parent with a serious illness. We decided to focus the main essay on the illness and how it impacted her life mission.

(Afterwards, I ran the two essay ideas – research vs. parent illness – by a former Stanford admissions reader. She agreed the research essay most likely would have resulted in a denial. Essay topics really matter.)

(Emphasis added)

Chen concludes with some special advice for Asian applicants, including the following:

If you’re Asian-American, the stereotype among admission readers is that you’re quiet, hard working and interested in STEM.

Use your essays to dispel that myth. Demonstrate the classic white male leadership style (speak out, take initiative, etc.)

And this is important – if you’re an Asian-American male, I typically recommend against writing about STEM for your primary essay unless it’s a truly outstanding take on it. If you’re female, there’s more leeway with that topic. In general, avoid writing about piano/ violin and other stereotypically Asian extracurriculars.

The goal is to stand out, right?

Colleges want diversity and you’re being compared against your Asian-American peers. (They’ll never admit it, but look at the discrepancy in stats between racial groups that’s required to get in).

The last paragraph is the key. In a color-blind admissions regime where all applicants were compared to one another without regard to race, Asians wouldn’t be penalized based on racial stereotyping.

College admissions officers have nothing against serious students, humility, males interested in STEM, or people who play the violin and piano extremely well. Blacks with these qualities would be viewed as stellar candidates for admission.

It’s the racial preferences that force many Asians to present themselves to colleges and universities as other than who they are. That’s one of the many reasons why Chief Justice Roberts was so right to say, “It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.”

Unfortunately, the Roberts Court, even with six Justices appointed by Republican presidents, seems strangely reluctant to put an end to that sordid business.

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