The Ivy Coach Daily

May 11, 2024

Asian American Violinists in College Admissions: Dare to Be Different

Talented Asian Applicants, Talented Asian Americans, Talented College Applicants
All college applicants should endeavor to present unique profiles (photo credit: David Emmerman).

Previously Published on December 6, 2017:

Over the last 30 years of the New York City Marathon, a Kenyan man has won the men’s open division 15 times, and a Kenyan woman has won the women’s open division 15 times. Over this same time frame of the Boston Marathon, a Kenyan man has won 18 times, while a Kenyan woman has won 16 times. 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 a few years back for Slate by Aaron Mak, “The Price of Admission,” Mak discusses certain activities that many Asian Americans who apply to our nation’s most selective universities happen to be involved in — like violin.

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.

Yet, just as we suggested, it’s no coincidence that so many great distance runners hail from Kenya, and it’s no coincidence so many great violinists are Asian American. In our experience, many Asian American moms and dads (emphasizing 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 undoubtedly read about Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Ms. Chua, of course, is not alone — Asian American moms strongly encouraging their children to play musical instruments is a thing.

As pop psychology 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 in Asian culture originating from days spent working in the rice paddies. Gladwell’s overarching point, of course, 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 it, because parents and grandparents reinforced it.

And, for so many of these students, violin playing will not help their case for admission to elite universities (as much as their parents might hope). Instead, it will hurt their case for college admission. After all, it makes their profiles challenging to distinguish from other Asian American applicants.

In his piece for Slate, Mr. 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, Mr. Mak. Every applicant, irrespective of their race, should not make something that doesn’t differentiate them a focus of their applications.

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. We call it beating an unfair system at an unfair game — fairly and ethically — so Asian American applicants won’t face unjust discrimination in the admissions process.

America’s highly selective colleges seek singularly talented students to contribute to their campuses. It’s as though, Mr. Mak, 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 not to be proud of who they are and where they come from, including and especially after the June 2023 fall of Affirmative Action. And finally, Mr. Mak, as you so acknowledge, it’s a system you, a Yale University senior who hid your race in the college admissions process (you shouldn’t have!), will forever benefit from.

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