The Ivy Coach Daily

April 20, 2023

Ethnic Background Subcategories on The Common Application

Originally Published on November 20, 2017: Common App Ethnicity Options

The Asian American Coalition for Education has historically filed complaints with the United States Department of Education to probe the admissions practices at certain Ivy League schools, including Brown University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, and Yale University.

In these complaints, the AACE has asserted that these universities discriminate in their admissions practices against Asian American applicants. And while we at Ivy Coach wholeheartedly agree with their overall assertion that Asian Americans deserve better in Ivy League admissions, we differ with the AACE on their strategy to see to the end of such Asian American discrimination.

In fact, in 2017, the AACE voiced a new gripe — on this occasion, not with Ivy League schools but with The Common Application. So what issue did the AACE have with the most prominent application platform, and has this problem been addressed in the years that have followed?

AACE Argues Too Many Asian Subcategories on The Common Application

In 2017, the AACE wrote a letter to Common App. Executive Director Jenny Rickard that called for the company to cease subdividing Asian American college applicants into ten categories.

At the time, Harry Trustman reported for The Daily Pennsylvanian in a piece on the AACE’s claim that the college application discriminates against Asian American applicants, “Currently, in the optional, self-reported demographics section of the Common App, students who indicate that they identify as Asian are asked to choose from 10 different subcategories based on national origin, such as China, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. These subcategories are the most specific of their kind on the Common App.”

Trustman continued, “In comparison, white applicants are asked to choose from three subcategories: Europe, Middle East, or Other. Black applicants are asked to select an option from U.S./African American, Africa, Caribbean, or Other.”

Ivy Coach Stands with the AACE on Common App. Ethnicity Options

And while it may come as a surprise to our readers, we at Ivy Coach agree with this particular assertion of the AACE (don’t get us started on the AACE lawyer’s comments on his daughter not getting into the University of Pennsylvania despite boasting better grades than a Caucasian applicant — it’s not just about grades!).

Asian American applicants should not be asked to subcategorize their origin more or less than other applicants. In their letter to Ms. Rickard, they wrote, “There is no more difference between two people originally from Thailand and China, respectively, than two people originally from Ireland and Slovakia.” We don’t disagree. But instead of reducing the number of subcategories for Asian American applicants, we would implore The Common App. to increase the subcategories for other groups, including Caucasian applicants.

The Common Application Has Not Complied with AACE’s Demands

But have the demands of the AACE been met by The Common App. in the years since they sent in their strongly worded letter? Fast forward to 2023, and the answer is a definitive no.

Asian Subcategories Rise on 2022-2023 Common Application

On the 2022-2023 Common App., there were, in fact, 14 subcategories for Asian applicants — up from 10 five years ago. The latest subcategories include Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Vietnam, Other East Asia, Other South Asia, and Other Southeast Asia.

Applicants of Other Races Continue to Be Asked to Complete Fewer Subcategories

In addition to the increased subcategories for Asian applicants on this year’s Common App., students of other races continue to be asked to complete fewer subcategories.

In comparison, on the 2022-2023 Common App., white applicants are presented with three subcategories: Europe, Middle East, and Other.

Black or African American applicants are presented with four subcategories: U.S./African American, Africa, Caribbean, and Other.

Native American or Pacific Islanders are also presented with four subcategories: Guam, Hawaii, Samoa, and Other Pacific Islands (excluding Philippines).

Latino/a/x applicants are presented with seven subcategories: Central America, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South America, Spain, and Other.

All College Applicants Should Be Asked To Subdivide Their Ethnic Backgrounds Equally

While the AACE didn’t raise this point, the specifics of a college applicant’s family origin within Asia can sometimes help rather than hurt an applicant’s case for admission. For instance, a student applying from Thailand often enjoys an advantage over a student applying from highly-represented China.

It would thus be a disservice to Asian American applicants to reduce or eliminate the subcategories. And while we disagree with the AACE’s assertion that The Common App. featuring so many subcategories of Asian American applicants violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, we agree with the spirit of their argument. No matter their ethnicity, every college applicant should be asked to subdivide their background equally.

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