Secret World of College Admissions

Patricia Alex

January 30, 2005

Forget “The Apprentice.” For real competition, check out “The Applicant” – a contest in which high-achieving Asian kids from New Jersey ‘s moneyed suburbs jockey for the Ivy League.

Consider the case of a Chinese-American girl at Holmdel High School. Her grades and test scores were top-notch, she ran cross-country and she was an accomplished pianist. Still, her prospects seemed uncertain.

The problem: her all-too-familiar profile.

She didn’t, and couldn’t, stand out among her peers. She ranked in the top 20 percent in the highly competitive school where nearly a fifth of the students are Asian.

“We needed to get her away from the other Asian kids,” said Robert Shaw, a private college consultant hired by the girl’s family.

Shaw advised bold steps: The family got a place in Keyport, a blue-collar town near their home, and the girl transferred to the local high school. There she was a standout: The only Asian kid in the school, she was valedictorian for the Class of 2004.

Next came an extracurricular makeover, one a bit out of character for a Chinese- American girl, said Shaw. “We suggested some outrageous activities, like Miss Teen New Jersey,” where she won a talent competition playing piano.

“We had to create a contrarian profile,” Shaw said. “We put her in places where she could stand out.”

The girl was accepted to Yale and to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is now a freshman.

Shaw helped the family play the admissions game. The ethnic, geographic and racial profiling that goes into assembling classes at the nation’s top-tier colleges and universities is the worst-kept secret in American higher education.

“It’s a very well-known thing but colleges don’t want to talk about it,” Shaw said. “It is certainly not a meritocracy, it’s about being the right type of kid.”

More than grades
With a huge pool of outstanding applicants, admissions at the top schools long ago stopped being about the numbers.

Good statistics alone are not the key to the Ivy League, said Willis J. “Lee” Stetson Jr., dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania . “In a really competitive pool, it’s the extracurricular stuff that makes the difference.”

Penn gets almost 19,000 applications for 2,400 seats a year, and the odds are no better at other top-tier schools. So how does a kid stand out in a large pool of students who have 1,500s on their SATs and 4.0 grade-point averages?

The children of alumni usually get preference, as do athletes. Admissions officers look for geographic balance as well, courting a mix of international and American students.

And, even as the nation’s highest courts have ruled against racial and ethnic quotas, a de facto system remains in place as admissions officers strive for “balance” and the inclusion of so-called “underrepresented” populations, like blacks and Latinos.

“If you give me a Hispanic kid with a 1,350 (SATs), I can get that kid into every Ivy League college, or an African-American kid with 1,380 to 1,400,” Shaw said. “But give me an upper-middle-class Caucasian or Asian with a 1,600, and I can’t guarantee anything.”

Recently, an Asian client of Shaw’s from suburban Philadelphia got “wait-listed” at Yale despite a 1,600 SAT score and a 4.1 grade point average.

Shaw, a partner in the Long Island-based Ivy Success, honed his pragmatism while working in the admissions office at Penn. He recently changed his name from Hsueh to make it easier to pronounce, he said, but allows that a less Asian-sounding name may be an advantage when his young daughters reach college age.

A ‘hidden agenda’
The schools deny quotas exist. On its Web site, Princeton University says: “We do not have a profile of the ideal applicant, nor do we map out a checklist of all the particular ‘types’ of students we plan to admit in a given year.” Asians make up 13 percent of the Princeton enrollment.

Lauren Robinson-Brown, Princeton ‘s director of communications, said admissions staffers consider all applications without “criteria such as ethnicity or geographic region.”

But admissions counselors and parents who’ve been through the process say they know differently. “I’m not saying that colleges have racial quotas, but I imagine that most schools want representation of different cultural and ethnic groups,” said Jonni Sayres, a counselor in Englewood and Teaneck.

Bev Taylor, director of Ivy Coach on Long Island, is more blunt. “Colleges have a hidden agenda. They are not going to say this,” she said. “They look for diversity and unless you know the culture of the school, you are not going to know what’s diverse.”

A bulge in the college-age population has made admission harder for everyone, said Stetson of Penn, which just filled almost half its incoming freshman class through early admission.

Although less than 4 percent of the population, Asians make up about 14 percent of the Ivy League. And the numbers are even higher for schools located in cities, where Asians generally gravitate. At Penn, Asians make up almost 23 percent of the student body, 16 percent at Harvard.

Still, because they are in such a highly competitive subgroup, they are admitted to the Ivies at a lower rate than other groups, with about one in every 15 gaining entry compared with an average of one in 10, Shaw said.

As a group, Asians score the highest on standardized tests – a testament to a cultural emphasis on scholarship – and generally have high grade-point averages.

When California eliminated racial preferences – set-asides for underrepresented groups – Asian enrollment skyrocketed in the venerable University of California system. Although Asians are 13 percent of the state’s population, they make up 42 percent of students of the campus at Berkeley , 38 percent at Los Angeles and 61 percent at Irvine.

Some counselors advise Asian students to apply to top-tier schools outside urban centers, such as Duke University in North Carolina or Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where they will still be considered a minority.

“One of my biggest obligations as a counselor is to get across to the parents that they need to look at areas who will appreciate them more,” said Sayres, the Teaneck counselor.

Politics of admission
The glut of A-students presents a dilemma for top-tier universities that want their classes to mirror the broader society. Such institutions are more likely to “attribute a higher degree of importance to a student’s race or ethnicity,” according to a soon-to-be-released report from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

Shaw and others say the system can work against individuals in a highly competitive pool like Asians. There are also complaints that Asians are counted as minorities by colleges but don’t receive minority preferences at many top-tier schools. Others balk at an analysis that views admissions as a competition among minorities – that blacks and Latinos take what otherwise would be places occupied by Asians. They note that whites remain the majority at most selective colleges.

There is concern, as well, that almost 30 distinct groups are lumped together under the Asian rubric, from the fifth-generation Japanese-American to the entrepreneur from India to the poor Hmong farmer newly arrived stateside. Despite their variety, there is a belief that the bar is set higher for the entire ethnic group.

“The perception is that there are so many who are qualified that they have to be a little higher up on the ladder,” said Lance Izumi, who studies education at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, a California think tank.

Shaw and others have no doubt that the perception is a reality when it comes to admissions. They worry that the trend is creating upper-limit quotas for Asians at the best schools, such as those imposed on Jews prior to World War II when they began to break into the Ivy League after decades of overt anti-Semitism.

The politics of admissions can be bewildering and disheartening, especially for parents. “They are very disappointed because they’ve done everything right,” said Sayres. “For the Asian students, especially the Korean students, they lose faith if their child doesn’t get into the Ivies. And it’s just not possible anymore. There are too many kids and too few places.”