Asian-American kids who want to enter elite colleges are getting coaches to teach them how to be "less Asian"
Jeff Yang: Instead of spending that money, how about if the parents encourage their kids to be more creative?
Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He is the co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” and editor of the graphic novel anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Asian-American kids, desperate to gain admission to elite colleges, are now getting coaches to teach them how to be “less Asian.” Put another way, these coaches are supposed to teach young Asian-Americans how to get out of the stereotypes that we know them by.
You know how the caricature goes: We’re STEM-brained but inarticulate. Industrious but uninspired. Capable but lacking in creativity. We’re robots who can only copy and clone and grub and grind.
It’s a perception that’s regularly used against both Asian-Americans and Asians in Asia. Just last week, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina calling China a nation of people who can “take a test” but who are “not terribly imaginative,” applying a broad-based insult to a population of over 1 billion.
And yet, as much as we may publicly bristle at the notion that Asians are “boring academic robots,” it’s tough to cast this image off when loud segments of our community are doing their best to reinforce it.
Case in point: The Asian-American groups that gathered a few weeks ago to file a complaint with the Department of Education, charging that Asians who get higher grades and better test scores are being shortchanged by admissions officers at Harvard College following the standard practice of “holistic review.”
Holistic review gives colleges a means to analyze qualified students — even the complainants don’t suggest that candidates who make it as far as the review process are anything less than academically outstanding — to assemble incoming classes that are diverse in interest, opinion, experience and, yes, culture, race and ethnicity.
The Asian-American organizations behind this complaint are, of course, laser-focused on the last of these to the exclusion of all the other factors. But in the course of slamming holistic review as part of a racially discriminatory conspiracy against Asian applicants, they’re also supporting the notion that we can’t compete when measured on metrics other than grades and test results.
That’s because these advocates have chosen to focus on SAT scores as their primary evidence that colleges do not embrace “meritocracy.” But the fact is, unlike in Asian countries like China, Korea or Japan, American colleges do not use the results of a single national exam as the sole metric for college placement, and for good reason. Doing so is a recipe for cranking out students who are focused on “learning to the test” and who don’t have the time or bandwidth to pursue their own personal pastimes and obsessions — the kinds of things that tend to enrich character, expand horizons and make you a more interesting person.
Asian parents certainly have their children’s best interest at heart. But in many cases, their educational perspective has been shaped by exams and numerical placements, from growing up in societies where standardized test results and the colleges that they place you in define your entire life. It’s not surprising that, for them, merit equals test results, and softer traits — like passion, imagination and originality — seem less worthy of inclusion in the process of judging an applicant’s qualifications for college admission.
And yet, those quirks are what catch admissions officers’ eyes. When faced with a sea of applicants whose test scores are all in the 99th percentile and who have demonstrated spectacular academic success throughout their educational careers, you don’t stand out by scoring 2400 instead of 2228 (the median SAT score for Harvard’s entering class last year) or by having perfect grades in high school (as did 54% of Harvard freshmen). Everyone’s a high achiever, but the lucky individuals admitted to the class of 2018 were the ones who had unique and compelling stories to tell.
The notion that kids might thrive by being different doesn’t come naturally to Asian immigrant parents, raised as they were in more rigid academic cultures. That’s why a growing number are turning to consulting companies like Top Tier, Ivy Coach and ThinkTank Learning for advice on how to help their kids to look not just smart, but special, by highlighting their more idiosyncratic pursuits and interests. The cost? As much as hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
It’s ironic. Asian-American parents who’ve pushed their children to conform to two-dimensional templates are now paying big money for programs designed to release them from their tiger cages and unleash their hidden iconoclasts.
Here’s a thought: Why not save that money — and the outrage and effort being expended on campaigns for test-centric meritocracy — and encourage the dreams and passions of your kids instead?