After Harvard affirmative action decision, Asian American students rethink college applications

Some Asian Americans are wondering how race might affect their chances of admission at Harvard and other highly selective schools across the country.
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Students walk near the Widener Library in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass on Aug. 13, 2019.Charles Krupa / AP file

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By Chris Fuchs

Applying to college, Syed Fatmi needed to go for the best of the best.

“And to me, that’s Harvard,” the high school senior from Houston declared.

Fatmi, 18, said he’s got the numbers — a near-perfect GPA, and SAT and ACT scores to match. But crafting his personal statement as he applied Early Action to the Ivy League school presented a challenge.

A Pakistani immigrant who came to America around the age of 6, Fatmi initially planned to write about his Asian American identity, which he said is very important to him.

But a lawsuit that accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian American applicants changed his mind.

“We just thought it might be a little too controversial,” Fatmi, who should receive a decision from Harvard by mid-December, said.

As students applying early to college finalize their applications ahead of looming November deadlines, some Asian Americans are wondering how race might affect their chances of admission this year at Harvard, as well as other highly selective schools across the country.

It’s a question that comes after a federal judge ruled this fall that Harvard does not discriminate against Asian American applicants. That case, which could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, has led some high school seniors to rethink how they package themselves, whether through their personal statements or their recommendation letters.

But others like Victor Shi, who plans to apply regular decision to Harvard, said the ruling hasn’t really changed how he completed his college application.

“Given the stereotype that Asians perform well and they get high test scores, I think that that obviously puts Asian Americans in a more competitive spot,” Shi, 17, of Buffalo Grove, Illinois, said. “But I think, again, it’s also making the other parts of your application stand out.”

Those parts include the personal statement, supplemental essays, and teacher and guidance counselor recommendations.

Harvard admissions officers use such documents to help assign applicants a personal rating, an assessment of how they’d contribute to the college community based on their personal qualities, according to court documents.

Integrity, leadership ability and self-confidence are some of the attributes that might be considered.

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In addition to the personal rating, applicants are scored on academics, extracurriculars and athletics. They also receive an overall rating, and at least three “school support ratings” are assigned as well, reflecting the strength of each recommendation.

The college has said race is just one of many factors taken into account in evaluating a student’s application.

Judge Allison D. Burroughs wrote in her Sept. 30 opinion that Asian American applicants on average received “slightly weaker” personal ratings than did those of other races. She said teacher and guidance counselor recommendations appeared to account for part of the personal rating disparity between Asian American and white applicants.

Harvard has denied the intentional discrimination allegations lodged against it in the lawsuit by Students for Fair Admissions, a group led by conservative activist Edward Blum.

Blum, who has fought against affirmative action, said they will appeal.

Brian Taylor, managing director of Ivy Coach, a college admissions consulting firm, said he believes Asian American applicants are discriminated against — though not because of race.

“They’re discriminated against on the profile they present the college,” he said.

“When people are presenting the same profile over and over and over again, it makes people uninteresting and less personable,” Taylor explained.

Fatmi, a senior at Alief Kerr High School and a national debater, is hoping to stand out with his personal statement.

Having scrapped his first essay on identity, he said he wrote specifically about how after his father suffered a stroke, he was expected to step up as “the man of the house” even though his older sister was capable — the gender dynamics coming as a result of living in a traditional Pakistani home.

For recommendations, Fatmi said he chose teachers who could showcase his leadership skills and personality, as opposed to ones who would talk only about him being a straight-A student.

He also has an interview scheduled with Harvard.

Asked what he hopes to convey, Fatmi responded, “That I’m not just what a paper says about an Asian American applicant. I think that’s my biggest thing. Because, again, the paper says numbers.”

Shi, a senior at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, said he believes identifying as an Asian or Chinese American in his college application could help him. He said politics, one of his passions, is not a path typically pursued by Asian or Chinese Americans, compared to other races.

An intern for Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Illinois, Shi said his personal essay discusses how being called a “snowflake Democrat” while canvassing for votes for the congressman one summer before beginning high school had empowered him to realize that he should strive to make a difference, no matter how big or small.

Shi said that although a high GPA and standardized test scores are important for highly selective schools like Harvard, “the chance for Asian Americans to stand out is definitely through the other parts of the application.”

He said he asked for recommendations from teachers who’ve known him for the past four years.

“I look for a teacher who can speak to my ability in the classroom and highlight some of the characteristics that are often overlooked as Asian Americans,” Shi said.

Both Fatmi and Shi are applying to colleges other than Harvard, among them Ivy Leagues and highly selective schools.

Taylor, of Ivy Coach, said no matter whether Harvard won or lost the lawsuit, his advice for completing the college application is the same — make yourself interesting.

“It’s not like Asian Americans are less personable than are people of any other race,” he said. “That’s ridiculous.”

If a college counselor gives students or their parents a form to fill out to help with their recommendation, Taylor advised against just listing achievements such as getting straight A’s or excelling in math leagues.

“If you’re going to make the argument against Asian American discrimination, don’t present a profile that makes you a stereotype,” he said.