The Effect of Harvard Admissions on East Asian-American Identity

Why did I feel like my college education needed to come at the cost of my racial identity?

(If you just want to read my paper, scroll to the bottom of the article.)

As part of Harvard’s freshman expository writing requirement, took an Expos 20 course titled “Jewish Identity in American Culture,” although I can’t say I lotteried into it intentionally. I had simply copied down the instructors with the highest ratings and signed up for the class numbers associated with them — so you can imagine my surprise when I, a Chinese-American who knew zero practicing Jews, received an email congratulating me on my assignment to “Jewish Identity in American Culture.”

My strategy turned out well: Expos 20 may be notoriously brutal both in terms of rigor and workload, but it was easily the most eye-opening, interesting class I have taken at Harvard. I loved the class dynamic and found it very interesting to listen to Jewish students discuss Jewish identity. I can’t say that I’ve converted to Judaism after the class, and I still don’t know what matzo is, but I do think my understanding of my own cultural identity has improved from seeing other students interact with theirs. The writing instruction also transformed the way I think about making arguments and coming up with interesting ideas. I’m even flirting with the idea of an English secondary.

For the research paper, I wanted to tackle my Asian-Americanness through the perspective of the better-documented Jewish-American experience. One of the greatest incongruences I felt from my cultural identity was sparked by applying to Harvard. Growing up, college advice was essentially, “Be as un-Asian as possible,” and picking between high school activities often involved consideration of how stereotypically “Asian” they would seem on my college application. My parents fussed over the fact that I remained emotionally invested in mathematics with not much to show for it, and begged me to write my Harvard supplement about my athletic leadership instead.

Regardless of whether or not Harvard admissions actually does discriminate against Asians (which will be determined in court, and not by me), I find it problematic that the college applications process encourages Asian-American students to devalue activities on the basis that other Asian-Americans value them.

I’m not the only one with this perception — in the Princeton Review’s Cracking College Admissions, Asian-American applicants are advised:

  • “Get involved in activities other than math club, chess club, and computer club”
  • “Write about something unrelated to your ethnic background”
  • “Don’t say you want to be a doctor, and don’t say you want to major in math or the sciences”
  • “The more you sound like this person, the more likely admissions officers will be to treat you as part of the “Asian invasion” and reject your application, or at the very least make you compete against other Asian applicants with similar characteristics, rather than against the applicant pool as a whole”

See it for yourself here: a publisher with millions of book sales and readers telling Asian-Americans to, well, be less Asian-American. Public and Asian-American-specific perceptions of college admissions are shaping how Asian-Americans define and view their cultural identity. In the hurry to quantify diversity and disagree with Harvard’s selection values, it seems like we’ve skipped over important questions. What are the consequences of college admissions and valuing diversity? How has Harvard upheld its own values? And for me:

Why did I feel like my college education needed to come at the cost of my racial identity?

A parallel that begs to be drawn is to 1920’s Harvard under President Lowell, which introduced holistic admissions specifically to cut down the Jewish proportion of admits (the “Jewish Invasion”) from 25% to 15%. Incoming and attending Jews were ranked J1, J2, J3 based on how Jewish they appeared, until the late 1940’s when the Harvard admissions began to receive criticism for discrimination against Jews. Although Harvard maintained that it had never discriminated against Jews, the admissions office began a retreat into self-censorship. Claiming that everyone “must be super careful now,” internal discourse in 1949 warns against categorizing students by potentially incriminating descriptors such race, nationality, or religion. Now — as any college applicant can tell you — admissions criteria is vague as ever.

The similarities between the 1920’s Jewish experience and the modern East Asian-American experience in Harvard admissions leads to my paper, which argues:

When the diversity-producing Harvard admissions model interacts with the convergent East-Asian American success frame, we expect to see cultural dissociation among “non Asians”, and unnatural homogeneity among the “best Asians”. The possibility of cultural erosion is an unexpected product of the Harvard admissions system; just as Harvard admissions rewarded the less Jewish in the 1920’s, models of Harvard admissions seem to reward East-Asian Americans who downplay their racial identity.

In developing this argument, the paper:

  • Provides archival evidence and secondary sources demonstrating Harvard’s history of discrimination against Jews
  • Develops a model of the student body Harvard currently wants, using archival evidence (Paul Buck’s “Balance in the College” and information on the official admissions website
  • Summarizes a known model of East Asian-American identity using the “success frame,” which is the surprisingly homogenous definition of success among East Asian-Americans
  • Provides a counterargument to the claim that Buck’s system maintains positive intellectual diversity in the Harvard student body
  • Explains why the current admissions system is problematic

Have I baited you enough? Read the paper here!