To get into elite colleges, some advised to ‘appear less Asian’

Bella English

JUNE 01, 2015

As lawsuits allege racial quotas at elite colleges, high-achieving applicants call on consultants to help win admission — and receive guidance on minimizing their ethnicity

Brian Taylor is director of Ivy Coach, a Manhattan company that advises families on how to get their students into elite colleges. A number of his clients are Asian American, and Taylor is frank about his strategy for them.

“While it is controversial, this is what we do,’’ he says. “We will make them appear less Asian when they apply.”

That a hard working, high achieving Asian-American student would want to appear less Asian on a college application may seem counterintuitive. But Asian-American students already make up a disproportionate percentage of the student body at many select schools, compared to their share of the general population.

And that’s the problem.

Some call it “the bamboo ceiling” of racial quotas, telling stories of Asian-American students with perfect SAT scores and GPAs turned down by elite colleges who limit the number of Asians they will admit, effectively forcing them to face a higher bar for admissions than other racial groups, including whites.

In response, groups of Asians have filed lawsuits against top schools, including one on May 15 by a coalition accusing Harvard and other Ivy League institutions of using racial quotas to admit lesser qualified candidates over Asians.

And some families are turning to consultants who offer services aimed at helping their students stand out from the competition and avoid what James Chen calls “the Asian penalty” in admissions.

Chen founded Asian Advantage College Consulting 20 years ago in response to what he considers bias against top Asian students in elite college admissions. His firm, which is based in Alameda, Calif., also has clients on the East Coast, he says, including Boston.

“The admissions officers are seeing a bunch of people who all look alike: high test scores, high grades, many play musical instruments and tend not to engage in more physical sports like football,” Chen says.

If students come to him early in high school, Chen will direct them to “switch to another musical instrument” or “play a sport a little bit out of their element.”

And for the college essay, don’t write about your immigrant family, he tells them: “Don’t talk about your family coming from Vietnam with $2 in a rickety boat and swimming away from sharks.”

One of Chen’s New York clients is a girl who attended a top public examination high school in the city, where more than half the class is Asian. She got a perfect score on her SAT, was valedictorian, class president, and captain of the badminton team.

Her father, who asked that the family not be identified, told the Globe that he contacted Asian Advantage when his daughter was a sophomore. He and his wife emigrated from China, and their daughter was born here. “In general, we have the impression that it’s not easy for Asian Americans to apply to college,” he said.

Chen said that he worked with the teenager to “deemphasize the Asianness in her resume.” She played the piano, but he encouraged her to participate in musical theater. Badminton was a no-no on her college app: Too many Asian students play racquet sports. Ditto for Asian Club. And she was to avoid saying that she was interested in biology or wanted to be a doctor.

“She put down social sciences,” Chen says.

She was accepted early admission into Harvard.

At Ivy Coach, much of the advice Taylor offers his clients echoes that of Chen. Be careful, he tells them, to avoid appearing like a “grade grubber”: “Schools don’t want students who care too much about their grades. They want kids who love learning.”

Ivy Coach offers an “unlimited package” for students for $100,000, which includes helping them throughout high school with all aspects of their college applications: testing, essays, letters of recommendation.

The Asian controversy is another aspect in the complex and charged debate over diversity and privilege in higher education. Some schools and education advocates say affirmative action and diversity should be defined by socioeconomic class as much as race or ethnicity. And many also point out that, despite stereotypes, there is wide diversity within the Asian demographic: those from India, China, and southeast Asia differ greatly from one another.

It was a different story when the parents themselves were applying to college. Joe Chow didn’t feel hampered 40 years ago by the fact that he was Asian. In fact, it helped him.

“In the early 1970s, Asian-Americans were really an underrepresented minority,” he says. “So we benefited from the civil rights movement.” Chow graduated from Brandeis University and earned his MBA at MIT.

Chow and his wife Selina, who is board president of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, encouraged their children to focus on English, speech, and performance.

“Our family is not totally traditional from an Asian perspective,” says Chow, a retired executive vice president at State Street who lives in Brookline. “Selina and I are much more comfortable with our children getting a good liberal arts education.”

Their oldest daughter went to Northwestern University, their son to Skidmore, and their youngest daughter is a junior at Colby College. Some of their Asian friends have questioned why they “wasted their time” on liberal arts over math and science.

At Ivy Coach, some of the toughest work is with the parents. “Asian-Americans are extremely competitive among each other,” Taylor says. “They want to impress.” Few such parents refer his firm to one another. “No one wants others to know they’re using us. But we always get the siblings and the cousins.”

That brand of hard-nosed ambition has paid dividends. The number of high-achieving Asian-American students applying to the top schools has soared in the past decade. According to the Pew Research Center, Asians are among the highest-income, best-educated, and fastest-growing groups in the nation.

At Princeton, 21 percent of the Class of 2018 is Asian American; Harvard’s is 20 percent. But the point raised by the lawsuits is that there are even more qualified Asian students who want to get into such selective schools. Asians make up about 5 percent of the US population.

“I think the successful Asian population has reached a tipping point,” says Elliot Place, who runs 1on1 Educational Consulting in Hingham. Just like high-achieving students of all ethnicities, Asians “have learned how to master the SAT, and they’ve mastered math and science. I think they’re frustrated that this doesn’t show up in their acceptance letters.”

The question now being asked by parents and students — and even attorneys: Is it discrimination or diversity that is bedeviling them?

The recent complaint by more than 60 Asian organizations against the Ivies called for an investigation and an end to racial quotas or balancing. The groups say that they are facing the kind of quotas that limited the number of Jews in the nation’s best schools through the middle of the 20th century.

In a 2014 lawsuit against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the nonprofit Students For Fair Admission allege that both schools discriminate against Asian applicants in favor of less qualified African-American and Latino students. The suit cited a 2009 Princeton University study of seven top colleges that concluded an Asian applicant needed an average 1460 SAT score to be admitted, while whites with similar academic qualifications needed 1320, Hispanics 1190, and blacks 1010.

Harvard’s general counsel, Robert Iuliano, defended the school’s admissions policy. “As the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized, a class that is diverse on multiple dimensions, including on race, transforms the educational experience of students from every background and prepares our graduates for an increasingly pluralistic world,” he said.

And not all Asian Americans support the legal actions. Some groups released statements supporting affirmative action. “Neither of us believes that any racial or ethnic group should be subjected to quotas,” said Karen Narasaki and Michael Yaki, who serve on the US Commission on Civil Rights. “Nor do we believe that test scores alone entitle anyone to admission at Harvard. Students are more than test scores and grades.”

Julie J. Park is an education professor at the University of Maryland and author of the book, “When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education.” Despite a 1520 SAT score and many extracurriculars, she was rejected by Harvard and ended up at Vanderbilt on a full-tuition, “affirmative-action-based scholarship.”

She says that she understood the rejection: “Harvard did not necessarily need more students like me. Vanderbilt did.”

While she understands parent and student frustrations over rejections, Park says she doesn’t believe that they understand the numbers. “I’m not sure that people really get that so many students of all races get rejected,” she says.

Last year, Harvard had 37,305 applicants for 1,990 seats for the Class of 2019; Stanford chose 2,144 out of 42,487 applicants.

At Newton North High School, whose student body is 12 percent Asian, college and career counselor Brad MacGowan says he hasn’t heard complaints from Asian-American students about being singled out. “I don’t see a victim mentality around that,” he says. “The students looking at colleges here are doing really well and they realize it’s competitive for everybody.”

At Milton Academy, Rod Skinner agrees that the pressure is not exclusive to Asian students. “It’s playing itself out across all kinds of high-achieving pools of kids,” says Skinner, director of college counseling. “It all comes down to, how do you make yourself distinctive? What else do you have, basically?”

Joey Kim of Chicago was one of those accepted at Harvard. His parents and sister came to his graduation last week. Kim, 23, had also been accepted into other elite schools, including Yale.

Yes, he had top SATs and a stellar GPA, was first violinist in his high school orchestra — and had come here from Korea at age 8 with not a word of English. What set him apart from other Asian-American applicants?

“I fell in love with theater in high school, and did a lot of drama productions, and speech,” he says.

Does he feel there’s an Asian disadvantage at select colleges? “It’s hard for me to say because I came in on the right side of that,” he says. “I’m personally caught in between the tension of having a diverse campus here, which I witnessed and is a good thing, but at the same time I feel for those kids who are caught in the nerve-wracking position of achieving but not getting in.”

His sister is one of them. Jessica, 18, applied to 10 top schools and got into 5. “I didn’t get into Yale and Harvard, and was wait-listed at Princeton,” she says. She’ll attend the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

While pleased with her acceptance, she notes classmates from other ethnic groups with qualifications similar to hers got into schools that rejected her. “For the most part, I think it [being Asian] hurt me,” she says.