Attention, Tiger Moms: High Test Scores May Not Help with College Admissions

January 27, 2011

In his State of the Union on Tuesday, President Barack Obama addressed the need to invest in education and to reform immigration. This call to action could not have come sooner, as well-educated undocumented students, such as Elizabeth Lee, face deportation. The defeat of the DREAM Act in the Senate in December was another setback in the education and immigration reform conversation.

But another kind of conversation is buzzing around the Asian American community. While national attention is focused on giving undocumented students the opportunity to go to college, Asian American students face the peculiar dilemma of being too over-achieving to qualify as a minority, despite making up less than 5 percent of the US population.

Several years ago, my cousins and I were talking about college admissions and I vividly remember my cousin having a mild panic attack when he learned that Asians didn’t qualify under Affirmative Action. “But we’re a minority!” he said. “I was counting on this! Oh noooo, now I’m never going to get into college!”

Not to worry; our Chinese Tiger Mothers psychologically abused us and made sure that we all got into college just fine. (If my parents are reading this: I’m just kidding! Haha! Please don’t burn my stuffed animals!) Most of us have since graduated, but the admissions debate still rages on.

Originally titled “Too Asian?” this Maclean's article discusses worries in Canada that US efforts to limit enrollment of Asian students in top universities may result in a mass Asian migration to attend Canadian schools. According to the article, now titled a tamer “The Enrollment Controversy,” the term ‘too Asian’ is “being used in some US academic circles to describe a phenomenon that’s become such a cause for concern to university admissions officers and high school guidance counselors that several elite universities ... have faced scandals in recent years over limiting Asian applicants and keeping the numbers of white students artificially high.”

Other fun tidbits from the article:

  • At the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual meeting in 2006, Rachel Cederberg, an Asian American who once worked as an admissions official at Colorado College, described fellow admissions officers complaining of “yet another Asian student who wants to major in math and science and who plays the violin.”

  • A Boston Globe article in February, “Do colleges redline Asian-Americans?” concluded there’s likely an “Asian ceiling” at elite US universities.

  • In 1996, California passed Proposition 209 forbidding affirmative action in the state’s public dealings. Student population at public universities quickly became 40 percent Asian, even though Asians make up only 13 percent of state residents.

  • In Princeton University sociologist Thomas Espenshade’s book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal (2009), he surveyed 10 elite US universities and found that Asian applicants needed an extra 140 points on their SAT scores to be on equal footing with white applicants.

  • And, for our conspiracy theorists: “US studies suggest Ivy League schools have taken the issue of Asian academic prowess so seriously that they’ve operated with secret quotas for decades to maintain their WASP credentials.”

Whoa. Someone restrain Amy Chua from making her daughters do extra math sets to compete for the dwindling number of college spots! (I know. That was a cheap shot. Couldn’t resist.)

But while Chua touts this sort of academic rigor as a positive, Maclean's suggests that this kind of mindset can be a detriment to not only Asian students, but students of other colors and stripes as well. In Canada, there is a trend of white students avoiding some top-tier universities because the schools are seen as being too Asian; that is to say, too focused on studying and class work. By contrast, the white students want a school experience based around social interaction and athletics -- and, apparently, that’s not what Asians do.

It’s not to say that there is overt racism at play. This sort of de facto segregation is a result of Canada’s meritocratic admissions process, which relies entirely on transcripts. And while many Asian students do come from a strict, academically-focused upbringing, this kind of racial association (Asian students with studying; white students with partying) to pick a college severely limits any person’s scope of the real world.

The President would like for more Americans to be college-educated so that our country can lead the charge of innovation. But the contradiction between a purely merit-based admissions system and Affirmative Action leave Asian Americans in a tight spot because it seems that they do too well in school to be rewarded in any way. Is it so undesirable for children of Asian immigrants to be successful in academia that they must be reigned back? Current practices seem to treat Asian achievement as a problem and respond by holding them to a higher standard their white counterparts. The prevailing stereotype that all Asian students are cut from the same math-and-violin cloth is a dangerous fallacy, for admissions folks and parents alike. In an odd way, the schools are reinforcing what many Asian students hear at home: that their best is not good enough. Is this how we should begin the road to a better-educated America? By rigging the playing field so that it's harder for legitimately great players of one race to win?

So, new questions are added to the fray. Should colleges accept students based on merit only, at the risk of becoming seen as an ‘Asian’ school? Or should they create diversity by maintaining a ceiling on how many students of each race they can admit, at the risk of displacing qualified applicants? What other types of education and immigration reform need to take place so that Americans can, as President Obama puts it, “do big things?”




As a college consultant, I am concerned that too many Asian students are not getting a fair deal in college admissions.  I have seen this with some of the students I work with and it is definitely a cause for alarm.  I have been told that many colleges feel that Asian students only bring academics to the mix and don't offer enough other qualities that schools are looking for in a well rounded freshmen class.  I think this is a subject that needs further discussion so that the college admissions playing field is a level one and fair to everyone.   College Direction Denver, Colorado                               
I'm pretty sure most colleges that have a diverse set of offerings only have so many spots for violin-playing math majors, no matter their race. I think there's two things going on here. I have plenty of Asian friends with diverse interests who had no trouble getting into elite colleges.
The mommy blogosphere went absolutely nuts over the Chua article (and yes, that's my crowd, 'cause I'm just that cool) so it's nice to read an article by someone my age about it - and, you know, one that includes actual facts and is really well written!

Victoria, thanks for the post! I just wanted to note that we have an upcoming feature story about this issue (you can read the story's pitch here: by Lin Yang. The story will be out in April. Stay tuned! 

Can we not forget that most Asian-American students need scholarships in order to attend the universities of their choice? I was a charity student myself. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But I do think it's disgusting the way Asian parents force-feed their children like pigs, then present them to the nation's most prestigious universities screaming, "TAKE THEM! TAKE THEM! YOU HAVE TO TAKE MY CHILDREN!" There's a certain amount of humility and "knowing your place-ness" that you would expect of Asian-Americans, given cultural stereotypes, but isn't really present here. I was always told by my high school guidance counselor and college reps that colleges looked for students who were "well-rounded." I don't think there's anything wrong with colleges choosing to accept only the few AA students who actually seem well-rounded, as opposed to the many who show up waving sheafs of grades and SAT scores as if they've got the golden ticket.