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Articles / Applying to College / Should Chinese Ivy Applicant Skip Ethnicity Question?

May 14, 2009

Should Chinese Ivy Applicant Skip Ethnicity Question?

Question: I'm Chinese but my name doesn't make it totally obvious. (My last name is Lee. I don't want to write my real first name here, but it's a common American name and similar to "Frank." ) So my full name, sort of like "Frank Lee," could really be many ethnicities. I've heard that there is prejudice against Asians in the admissions process so I am planning to leave the optional ethnicity question blank. But I do feel a little weird about trying to hide my background, which I'm actually proud of. (My parents came to this country newly married and with nearly nothing and now will pay for my college education themselves.) I'm applying to Ivies and other highly selective schools. Do you think that skipping this question is a smart idea?

This could be a slightly slippery slope. Even if your name doesn't proclaim your Chinese background, there may be other aspects of your application that will. For instance, if your parents attended a Chinese university or your résumé mentions Chinese language or cultural activities, then you may "out" yourself as Asian anyway. It's possible, too, that an interview write-up or teacher reference might note in passing that you are Chinese.


If this does happen, and you've omitted the ethnicity question, it's certainly not a big deal. However, it may send a subliminal message to admission officials that you are trying to game the system or to simply deny who you are. Again, it's not a deal-breaker but it's not to your advantage either.

I do agree with you, however, that Asians can be the victims of prejudice in admissions offices, especially at some of the sought-after schools. Most admission folks will not openly agree, but I stand by my opinion nonetheless. Sometimes this "prejudice" isn't based on anti-Asian feelings per se but is the result of so many Asian applications seeming very similar on paper ... top grades and top test scores, along with participation in a predictable roster of extracurriculars (orchestra, math club, chess club, Science Olympiad, tennis team, etc.). So admission committees may be most likely to say yes to those Asian applicants who are pursuing more atypical paths and who thus are more apt to stand out in a crowd. The upshot is that super students with stellar "numbers" and flawless résumés are turned away in droves and appear to be the victims of anti-Asian bias.

So I do understand your reservations about answering the ethnicity question on your applications. Certainly, no candidate who is uncomfortable responding to this question (for any reason) should feel compelled to do so. However, in your case, I would suggest that you reconsider. Not only is there an outside chance that, by ignoring it, you might actually be hurting--not helping--your admission odds, but also I suspect that, in the long run, you'll be happier with yourself if you proudly proclaim your Chinese heritage.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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