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Articles / Applying to College / College Admissions: URMs vs. Asians

College Admissions: URMs vs. Asians

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | March 5, 2015

In case you’re not up on college admissions lingo, the term “URM” stands for Under-Represented Minorities. Of course, when one considers the issue of URM admissions, one usually segues into the highly volatile realm of Affirmative Action (AA).

The College Confidential discussion forum has a huge inventory of threads and highly heated discussions about AA. The content of comments range from deeply detailed court decision analyses to belligerent bigots who get banned by the moderators.

Anyway, I came across an article the other day that provides food for thought about another aspect of college admissions — the alleged discrimination toward Asian applicants. I use the modifier “alleged” because it is possible to cite statistics that tend to counter such discriminatory claims. Many of these claims of Asian discrimination occur at the highest levels of applicant pool competition. That would be, naturally, the Ivy League and the other so-called Top-25 institutions.

I started a thread on the CC forum about this article’s contentions, and it garnered 91 comments before the moderators closed it due to the tone of the comments, which began to stray from the original intent of the article. For what it’s worth, though, I’d like to post some information from it here, for your consideration.


The article is entitled For Asian-Americans, a changing landscape on college admissions, by Frank Shyong. Here is the core of the article, words that can ignite a firestorm of response, as you will see from some of the CC comments I’ll post below.

In a windowless classroom at a tutoring center Arcadia, Calif., parents crammed into child-sized desks search through their pockets and purses for pens as Ann Lee launches a PowerPoint presentation.

Her primer on college admissions begins with the basics: application deadlines, the relative virtues of the SAT versus the ACT and how many Advanced Placement tests to take.

Then she eases into a potentially incendiary topic — one that many counselors have learned they cannot avoid.

“Let’s talk about Asians,” she says.

Lee’s next slide shows three columns of numbers from a Princeton University study that tried to measure how race and ethnicity affect admissions by using SAT scores as a benchmark. It uses the term “bonus” to describe how many extra SAT points an applicant’s race confers. She points to the first column.

African-Americans received a “bonus” of 230 points, Lee says.

She points to the second column.

“Hispanics received a bonus of 185 points.”

The last column draws gasps.

Asian-Americans, Lee says, are penalized by 50 points — in other words, they had to do that much better to win admission.

“Do Asians need higher test scores? Is it harder for Asians to get into college? The answer is yes,” Lee says.

You can see how this presentation of the Princeton study could cause not only blood pressure spikes but also outrage. Now, let’s see what kind of blood pressure some of the CC posters had when they responded to this information.

– As I’ve written many times, Asian SAT scores are likely inflated because of foreign Asian scores and the same Asian top scorers retaking the test multiple times in a phantom race with themselves to reach 2400. However for the sake of argument, let’s say the results are not skewed, so a 240 point difference is 80 points per section, which is how many more questions correct, per section, at the top range of scores, maybe 4-5? A score difference of 4-5 questions (per section) in not a reliable indicator of ability. Again it is not a race to 2400, however I would concede that its a race to 2100-2200, then it’s a race to become an outstanding musician or athlete or playright, then its a race of leadership and proven ingenuity, and then it is a race…. Admissions is a pentathlon, so being a little better (arguably) at one event is not enough.  

– The reason why Asians are “penalized” is because their profiles often look remarkably alike. How many 2400, 4.0, Violin-playing, Mandarin-speaking premeds does one college class need? Not many. Sorry if this comes off as abrasive, but it’s the truth. Too many kids have their real interests squashed by their parents that force them into SAT prep and piano lessons at an absurdly young age, preventing them from cultivating real interests. The sad reality is this hurts them in the college admissions long run.  

– I saw somewhere that Harvard’s applicant pool was 20% Asian. Sure the applicant pool may be more competitive, but it’s right around the percentage of Asians in the class of 2018.  

– So you’re saying that applicants should immediately be put in separate racial buckets and compete against only applicants in that bucket?

So let’s have Olympic games w a 100m dash event for white runners, a 100m dash event for asian runners, and a 100m dash event for black runners.  

– It’s obvious with the stereotype Asians are 2400/4.0 math club, violin, piano, etc. so they are compared against each other. However blacks do not have this stereotype.

No matter how much we want to think this isn’t true. It is a fact Asians are discriminated in the college admissions process.  

– I don’t want to be the one to add fuel to the fire, but a 2009 study done at Princeton showed that the disadvantage was much greater.

“To top the fear, a National Study of College Experience led by Espenshade and Radford (2009) showed that a student who self-identifies as Asian will need 140 SAT points higher than whites, 320 SAT points higher than Hispanics, and 450 SAT points higher than African Americans.”

Source: http://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/asian-american/article-admission.aspx

Mind you, that’s on a 1600 scale …

– I find it sad people are trying to prove Asians are not discriminated against when they blatantly are. Race is a factor and colleges even admit it.

I bet all of you who are saying Asians are treated fairly in the college admissions process are not Asian.  

– Asian Immigrant and American Citizen, father of 4, our Asian household teach our children that they have to score higher than everybody else to get the same opportunities as others. We teach that life isn’t fair so we adjust and adapt as a family. My extended family of cousins and siblings teach the same thing to their kids and to my nephew and nieces.

No Need for Socioeconomic data or studies, we feel it, we see it, and we adjust to it…We as an Asian family do not need a study to read the writing on the wall. We still persevere and we still champion hard work and smart work over these stereotypes.

Now, this country gave us an excellent opportunity to succeed so we do just that…Succeed, end of our story!  

– A month ago, I, an Asian-American, went to see a renowned college counselor. She flat out said to me that elite colleges stereotype Asians as math and comp-sci geeks, etc. and being Asian puts me at a disadvantage in the college admission due to that stereotype.  

– My kids are also Asian, born here in the US, and my oldest now is a high school senior. All are academic honor students. We have been cautioned by college counselors that they will need higher test scores than their white, Hispanic and African-American peers, because racist people will automatically assume that we bought them test prep classes and make them take SATs multiple times to improve their scores. They were also warned not to have dreams in medicine or engineering, and to avoid piano, violin and tennis, because racists will again assume their parents pushed them into those areas. It seems everyone else is allowed to follow their interests and talents, but Asian-American kids can only follow theirs if their natural interests and talents are not in math/science, classical music, tennis, etc. …

– Anecdotally we are friends with an Asian American girl with super impressive stats who was rejected from the elites and I can’t believe it was anything other than racial bias. Her ECs were amazing but alas were right in that stereotype. Perhaps if she sang choir instead of playing violin, or did something like cheerleading… who knows? She worked hard her whole life only to be told sorry, we have enough kids like that. I would love to see a study in which researchers submitted applications that are virtually identical except for name and race just to see what happens. They do employment studies like this all the time, so why not for college?  


I encourage you to read both the article, from which I culled the briefest of excerpts, and the College Confidential thread. I think this is an important topic that deserves serious consideration. As you can see from the comments above, it is also one of those hot-button issues that elicits a variety of opinions, some more objective than others.

What do you think? Let’s here your comment. Post it below.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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