Admissions Officers Are a Little Bit Racist Just Like Everyone Else

Admissions Officers, Biases in Admissions, Implicit Biases in Admissions
Admissions officers have implicit biases at Yale just as they do at Harvard and Penn and Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, Princeton, and every school near and far (photo credit: Namkota).

As we have long argued on the pages of our college admissions blog and in the press, the vast majority of admissions officers at our nation’s elite colleges do not intentionally discriminate against Asian American applicants. No, the vast majority of admissions officers discriminate against Asian American applicants unknowingly when making rapid-fire decisions as they evaluate a single file in just a few short minutes. Noted psychologist Robert Cialdini had a term for this kind of information-processing: “click-whirr” decision-making. Malcolm Gladwell has made a living off the subject — from Blink to his latest tour de force, Talking to Strangers.

Implicit Biases Impact Admissions Decisions

But we’ve been writing about implicit stereotypes in highly selective college admissions for ages. Our readers have heard our thoughts. Let’s hear what the judge who heard the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University case had to say about implicit biases in her landmark decision. As Judge Allison Burroughs wrote in her decision, “It is true that Asian American applicants continue to face both positive and negative stereotypes, such as perceptions that they are timid, hard-working, and are inclined towards medicine and science…It is also true that Asian Americans have significantly higher median incomes (perhaps indicative of the strong work ethic in many Asian American communities) and are more likely to hold science, technology, engineering, and mathematics occupations than the United States population more broadly. Therefore, in reviewing applicant files and comments made by admissions officers, the Court is sensitive to the challenge of differentiating among discriminatory comments that evidence actual stereotyping, animus, or racism and comments about a particular applicant that may incidentally reference a stereotypical characteristic, like ‘hard working,’ but which may also reflect an actual strength or weakness of that particular applicant.”

About That Term ‘Hard-Worker’ in Admissions

And if any of our readers happen to be wondering how the term “hard-worker” can be perceived negatively, as an implicit bias in highly selective college admissions, well, just realize that hard work isn’t valued by admissions officers at our nation’s elite colleges. Now don’t go and ask an admissions officer if they value a hard work ethic in applicants. Of course they’ll say they do! Who wouldn’t? But the fact is, admissions officers champion students for whom learning comes easily — not students who have to work hard to do well. So when a teacher writes in a letter of recommendation about how a student did all this extra credit to excel in her course and how this demonstrated the drive of the student? You bet that kind of line isn’t serving the student’s case for admission…even if the teacher was only trying to help!

The fact is that Asian Americans face implicit biases in highly selective college admissions — just as Judge Burroughs alludes in her decision. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can help admissions officers realize that we are all a little bit racist. Because heightened awareness might be the best hope to counteract these implicit biases in admissions.


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