June 1, 2020
My daughter is finishing her junior year of high school and will be applying to college this fall. We adopted her from China when she was just about to turn one year old. She is now a US citizen and has been raised with our family (my husband is black, I am white and we have a last name that's common in the US). What should my daughter mark on her college applications when she applies? Does she say that she's Asian? Does she say she's mixed race? She has grown up with the experience of being in a mixed-race family but ethnically she is Chinese, even though she has had a very American life. We aren't sure how to put this on her applications.
As family compositions change and a growing number of college-bound students fall under the "Other" racial or ethnic rubric, the "Demographics" question on applications becomes increasingly more confusing and frustrating for many. When "The Dean" rules the world, this question will disappear entirely, and college officials will realize that creating a "diverse" first-year class should extend well beyond skin color or ancestral origins. But in the meantime, you are trying to guide a teenager with an unusual background through a convoluted process. So take heart in knowing that there is no "right" or "wrong" answer to how she approaches this conundrum.
These days, a big buzzword in the admissions universe is "identity" — that is, how students identify themselves rather than how the world might view them. So perhaps your daughter sees herself as "Asian" and "Black" and "White" If so, she can tick all of those boxes. Or she can check off any one that she believes defines her best. And, because this application section is optional, she can choose to ignore it instead. (The Common Application will ask her to acknowledge that she's "completed" it to her satisfaction, even if it's blank, to indicate that she didn't skip it by accident.)
In addition, I suggest that, regardless of which boxes your daughter selects, she then provides more details in the "Additional Information" section of her applications or in an essay. As you've pointed out, "she's grown up with the experience of being in a mixed-race family" and thus she probably has some reflections and anecdotes to share that would interest admission committees. College officials can be eager to enroll students who are effective "bridge-builders" — i.e., those who seem to move fluidly among different racial and ethnic groups. So if your daughter believes she might fit this bill, this is something that her application could include.
You've probably heard that Asian students may face prejudice when seeking acceptance by the most sought-after colleges because there are so many incredibly gifted Asian contenders for too few spots, and because a lot of these candidates share similar academic and extracurricular profiles. If this is indeed true (and, although some admission honchos disagree, "The Dean" is not among them), your daughter will improve her admission odds at her top-choice schools (especially if they're hyper-competitive) by clearly explaining that her life, while perhaps "very American in many ways," has also been an interesting and atypical mosaic.
Best wishes to you as your navigate this befuddling maze in these strange and unsettling times.
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at email@example.com.
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