Over the last 20 years, a Kenyan has won the men’s open division of the New York City Marathon eight times. The same is true over the last 20 years in the women’s open division of the New York City Marathon. Since 1997, a Kenyan has won the men’s open division of the Boston Marathon 14 times (and 19 times over 25 years!). In the Boston Marathon women’s open division, 13 victories over the last 20 years belong to Kenyans. To chalk this data up to coincidence is misguided. Some of the world’s greatest distance runners are from Kenya. Plain and simple.
Asian American College Applicants and the Violin
Now you might be wondering, “That’s cool, Ivy Coach, but what does this have to do with college admissions?” Well, in a piece published yesterday on “Slate” by Aaron Mak entitled “The Price of Admission,” Mak discusses certain activities that a number of Asian Americans who apply to our nation’s most selective universities happen to be involved in — like violin playing. In our years of helping students earn admission to the colleges of their dreams, it is our experience that a preponderance of Asian American applicants who first come to us happen to be experienced violinists. Are some good? You bet. Are some great? Absolutely. But just as not every Kenyan is a world class distance runner, not every Asian American is a world class violinist. The world class at their craft — be it distance running or the violin — are always exceptions to the rule, not the rule.
And yet just as we said it is not a coincidence that so many great distance runners hail from Kenya, it is no coincidence that so many great violinists are Asian American. In our experience, many Asian American moms and dads (with an emphasis on moms!) encourage their children to play the violin. They encourage them to practice — and quite successfully we might add. They encourage them to master their instrument. If you haven’t read it, you’ve read about Amy Chua’s “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Amy Chua is not alone. Being a Tiger Mom is a thing. Accept it. A child’s musical prowess is important to many Asian American parents. So many moms push their children to practice.
As the iconic author Malcolm Gladwell asserted in “Outliers: The Story of Success,” you can more or less become a master at a craft after 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. He called it the 10,000 hour rule. In that same book, he argued that one reason Asians tend to be good at math is because of the combination of persistence and hard work instilled into Asian culture originating from days spent working in the rice paddies. We would argue that Gladwell’s point also applies to playing the violin.
Dare to Be Different in College Admissions
Some of the world’s greatest runners hail from Kenya. Some of the world’s greatest violinists have Asian ancestry. But just as all Kenyans aren’t phenomenal runners, not all Asian American students applying to highly selective colleges are great violinists. Many play the violin just because they were told to play the violin, because it was reinforced by parents and grandparents. And this will not in any way help their case for college admission. Rather, it will hurt their case for college admission. It makes their profiles difficult to distinguish from other Asian American applicants.
In his piece for “Slate,” Aaron Mak rhetorically asked what “Asian teens who genuinely love the timbre of a violin” should do when applying to college. It seems he’s lamenting the fact that Asian Americans should have to hide the practice of playing the violin. And we’d argue — get over it, Aaron. Every applicant, irrespective of their race, should not make something that doesn’t differentiate them a focus of their application. Just as Caucasian applicants should not include watching TV as a core activity on their college applications or playing basketball if they’re not getting recruited for basketball, Asian Americans should leave off the violin. And to dub this practice racializing the college admissions practice, well Aaron, call it what you’d like. It’s how the world works.
America’s highly selective colleges seek singularly talented students to contribute to their campuses. It’s as though, Aaron, you’re suggesting Asian Americans might only be good at playing the violin, which of course is far from the truth. Just because we encourage Asian American applicants to focus on other talents doesn’t mean — in any way — we’re encouraging them to not be proud of who they are and where they come from. And, Aaron, as you so acknowledge, it’s a system you, a Yale University senior who hid your race in the college admissions process, will forever benefit from.