The Psychology Behind Asian American Discrimination in Admissions

Asian American Discrimination in Admissions, Psychology of Asian American Discrimination, Ivy League and Asian American Applicants

Let’s dissect some of the psychology behind Asian American discrimination in college admissions (photo credit: Namtoka).

As the United States Department of Justice prepares to mount a legal challenge to Affirmative Action on the basis that the practice discriminates against Asian American applicants, it seems an opportune time to articulate just how Asian Americans are discriminated against in college admissions — through the lens of social psychology. You see, many admissions officers don’t even realize they’re discriminating against Asian American applicants when reviewing their files and this is because much of these biases are buried deep within the subconscious.

Heuristics for Asian American Applicants

When we were all hunter-gatherers way back when, we had to create mental shortcuts for ourselves in order to survive. If we heard a growl nearby, such a noise would be as good of an indication as any that we should run from an approaching predator. That growl triggered a heuristic to run for our lives. And while we are no longer hunter-gatherers since we now eat kale and farro, those same heuristics from our hunter-gatherer days are still programmed into our brains. We still create mental shortcuts to make sense of our surroundings, to save time. And, yes, these mental shortcuts are at play when college admissions officers review the applications of Asian American applicants.

Think about it. An application is reviewed in just a few short minutes. So in order to make sense of what an admissions officer is reading, they rely on their decades of life experience. And these decades of life experience have been shaped by their perceptions of Asian Americans. As an example, Asian Americans are so often great at math and science. When our students at Ivy Coach apply, they’re often great at math and science too. After all, our nation’s most elite colleges want students who are great at all subjects. But what differentiates many of our students is that their singular focus, their passion, falls outside of math and science. Our students zig when others zag. They are refreshingly breaking the loop of that heuristic. They are challenging everything admissions officers are expecting. They’re surprising them. They’re wowing them.

Admissions Committees and Asian American Candidates

If one admissions officer supports an applicant’s case for admission and one admissions officer opposes that same applicant, then that applicant is likely headed to committee where admissions officers will openly debate together his or her case for admission. Note the difference between this process and the more isolated experience of one or two admissions officers reviewing an applicant’s file all by their lonesome, without debate. At committee, admissions officers must give voice to why they do or don’t support an applicant. And most folks, including admissions officers, don’t wish to present to their peers as racist in any form.

An admissions officer will never say in committee, “This Chinese American applicant is just different than every other Chinese American applicant we’ve come across this year. Sure, he’s got great grades and scores in math and science, but he’s all about the classics. How many Chinese American applicants are all about the classics?” Saying such would be uncouth. Rather, an admissions officer would be more likely to say something like, “This kid just has such a passion for the classics. His counselor writes about it extensively in her recommendation, his essays just scream this is a kid who wants to spend his free time dissecting the works of Dostoyevsky. He’s just…unique.” Note the difference? Of course every admissions officer is thinking how this kid stands out from so many Asian American applicants who focus on math and/or science. But they can’t explicitly state this. Rather, it goes unsaid, beneath the surface.

The Psychology Behind Asian American Discrimination in Admissions in Perspective

Not every admissions officer will admit that colleges discriminate against Asian American applicants. In fact, many admissions officers believe — at least while working in admissions — that they don’t discriminate against Asian American applicants. It’s not that these admissions officers are lying. The fact is that much of the implicit bias against Asian American applicants occurs in the subconscious. Anecdotally, we can tell you that at Ivy Coach, we hire former admissions officers from highly selective colleges. When they first start working with us, they often still toe the line that no such discrimination exists in highly selective college admissions. And then a few weeks pass and they become outspoken about how Asian Americans indeed face significant discrimination in the admissions process.

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