“Should I Tell Colleges I’m Asian-American?”…and Other Questions About College Applications

By David Montesano, Admissions Strategist and Founder of College Match

As America’s leading admission strategist, when I speak with parents about admission to “super-reach” colleges like Harvard and Princeton, I am often asked, “should my Asian-American student indicate his or her racial identity as an Asian American on their college applications? Will it hurt their chances of admission to Harvard?” I always say, “Yes, they should indicate their racial identity” and give my students the following advice to help themselves to stand out from even the most crowded and competitive college application pools.

Over the past 20 years, a great majority of my majority-Asian clientele have been admitted to virtually every Ivy League college, Stanford, MIT, and CalTech. In fact, five of my students recently earned admission to Harvard, and from what I can see, racial discrimination has not been much of a factor—three of the five students self-identified as Asian-American on their applications. For my team and me at College Match U.S., we see the applications as an opportunity to express a student’s uniqueness and showcase their impact on community and society as a whole.

Here are five rules every student should follow to showcase their uniqueness in their application.

Rule 1: Consider that Admission to an Ivy is a Long Shot and Protect the Downside

We all know that undergraduate admission to Harvard or Princeton is, statistically speaking, a long shot. Let’s look at the numbers: in the US each year roughly 2.2 million high school leavers apply to 4 year colleges. Of this group, the top 20% or about 440,000 represent the most hard-charging students in America. Most of these 440,000 top students do not get into Harvard, Princeton, or Cornell. From my 20 years of experience helping students gain admission to Ivies, it is the top 10% of the 440,000–about 40,000 top students from across the US of all races and economic classes, who have a clear chance of their application landing them in Harvard Yard. Still, it is great to shoot for the stars! To protect the downside, make sure that you fall in love with some great colleges where the admit rates are between 10% and 25% or even closer to 40%. This will relieve some of the pressure in case the long shot doesn’t pan out.

Rule 2: Develop a Strategy to Help You Stand Out from the Pack

That corny advice that high school graduation speakers often give about finding your true calling and passion and listening to your unique voice can help high school students create the type of uniqueness that places like Harvard crave. In my experience having coached hundreds of students over the past 20 years, creating uniqueness is often more simple and fundamental: it is about peeling away the layers of external influence to identify the student’s life goal and the unique qualities, or points of difference, to discover what makes them tick. By expressing a goal such as, “Making an impact on society by making health care more accessible” a student can plot out steps to achieve this goal, while in high school. This type of self-actualization is what colleges are looking for. There are some great resources to help. For example, my book Brand U: 4 Steps to the College of Your Dreams offers exercises to help your student create a “vision” along with actionable steps to reach their respective life goals.

Rule 3: Link to a Higher Purpose to Identify and Create Evidence of Your Uniqueness

How does a student find something unique about themselves—compared with the 2.2 million other high school students that year? Students can start by identifying what makes them different and then link their out-of-class activities to this uniqueness. For example, if you say you help protect the environment, doing an experiment that tests chemical compound transport in groundwater would be a great way to prove this passion—especially if the student creates an experiment and enters it in a science fair and wins a prize. Third party validation for skills, abilities, and passions is almost mandatory from an admission perspective because potential and promise is tough for admissions officers to interpret and score–they trust reputable third-parties such as science fairs to demonstrate ability at the regional, state, or national levels.

Rule 4: Look Beyond the Ivy League to Consider a Fuller Range of Options

What if the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford were just the tip of the iceberg and that there were hundreds of Little Ivies and Little MIT’s out there to choose from? As an early evangelist of Loren Pope’s theories about Little Ivies, in my practice I have guided hundreds of families toward the right colleges–schools that match their values and provide students with the skills and experiences to achieve their life’s goals. College choice guru Loren Pope, showcases a range of “colleges that change lives”.  In “Looking Beyond the Ivy League”, Pope, demonstrates just how much Little Ivies can do in terms of preparing students for graduate schools and careers. I have found that these Little Ivies exist in virtually every part of the country from Whitman in Washington State to Rollins to St Lawrence near the Canadian border in Upstate New York and everywhere in between.

Side Note: New Ivies Crop Up

The rise of an increased number of elite colleges can now be measured in terms of both the quality and quantity of applicants. For example, universities and liberal arts colleges on the West Coast now feature more prominently in the admission picture and often overlap increasingly with Ivy League applications. A great example of a “West Coast Ivy League” college is Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Reed has produced the second-highest number of Rhodes scholars for any liberal arts college—31—as well as over 50 Fulbright Scholars, over 60 Watson Fellows, and two MacArthur (“Genius”) Award winners. A very high proportion of Reed graduates go on to earn Ph.D.s, particularly in the sciences, history, political science, and philosophy. Reed is third in percentage of its graduates who go on to earn Ph.D.s in all disciplines, after Caltech and Harvey Mudd; Reed is highest in sending students to graduate programs in biology. “West Coast Ivy League” colleges also include: Caltech, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Occidental, Pomona, Reed , Scripps, Stanford, USC, and Whitman College.

Rule 5: Check “Asian-American” Proudly on Your Applications!  

My response  to parents and students that ask, “should I divulge my Asian heritage” is a resounding and empathetic “YES!” The data has spoken – race is part of identity—identity is a strength not a weakness for admission and regardless of identity and race everyone has to defy stereotyping. Digging deep to identify what makes you unique is what elite colleges crave. To get in, you’ve got to give them what they want–uniqueness and some demonstration that you’ve taken steps toward actualizing your life’s goal.

David Montesano has more than 20 years of experience as a nationally recognized college admissions strategist. More information about the Montesano Method can be found in his popular college admission guide, Brand U, available here.

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