As an applicant, students are urged to find a school that is most in line with their personality. Even introverted, or uncomfortable, students have to spill their most personal stories to strangers in the series of required short essays. All of this, for what? The “holistic” measure by which schools judge applicants. In exchange for your candor (‘here are my parents’ tax returns, my transcript, an essay about my deepest secret, and some letters from my teachers about what I’m really like’), many colleges promise to evaluate you as a human being. Consider what’s being promised.
There are two serious problems with this portrayal of college admissions. The first is that it is dishonest—and arrogant in the extreme—for admissions offices to claim that they are entitled to pass judgment on the character of each of the tens of thousands of 17- and 18-year-olds whose applications they read each year. These admissions officers have at their disposal a transcript, test scores, a list of extracurricular activities and a few personal essays. On the basis of this information, colleges can make some inferences about an applicant’s academic ability. They cannot possibly rate the quality of applicants’ personalities, or their ambition. Second, it is unhealthy for anxious high school students applying to college to be under the impression that they are facing a type of comprehensive judgment—not just of their academic and extracurricular performance but of their quality as human beings and their value to their communities. Students who are accepted are effectively told that they are not only academically superior, but morally superior, to the applicants who were rejected. And students who don’t get in may feel they were rejected because of some personal deficiency.
From colleges’ perspective, “holistic” is just shorthand for, we make the decisions we make, and don’t have to spell out each one. It’s a way for schools to discreetly take various sensitive factors—“overrepresented” minorities, or students whose families might donate a gym—into account. Of course admissions committees don’t know each applicant personally. But they’ve settled on this language, I suspect, because it’s a succinct way to express the truth, which is that the process is subjective but not arbitrary.
As an Asian American applicant, I am invisible. It doesn’t matter whether I have a 1600 SAT or a 4.5 GPA, when they see my Asian name, or my race checked off as “Asian,” I am automatically sorted into the bottomless drawer of “oh-god-another-Asian-what’ll-we-do-with-all-of-them.” They don’t see (or care) that I swim 6 days a week, do research in a lab on weekends, or that I like painting and singing and reading books. They don’t read the essays I agonized over, the essays that made my mom cry reading them because they described the struggles we’ve faced upon immigrating to America. They glance- sparingly- at my portfolio, 15 carefully chosen pieces to represent who I am. Because don’t they want to see my “personality?” Affirmative action is designed to help underprivileged minorities, but Asians are time and time again conveniently exempt. “Diversity!” I offer as much diversity as a grain of rice. If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, African American, anything. Senator Elizabeth Warren, I salute you and your 1/32 Cherokee heritage.
When I was applying to colleges, my mother urged me to refrain from answering the race question, even though my name suggested affiliation. It’s sad that this is what elite-college admissions have come to: a soul-deadening process that encourages students to distort their identities solely for the sake of getting in. But the rampant racism to which these pointers allude, if real, is even sadder. Brilliant, accomplished, and well-rounded Asian students are consigned to gaming a system that’s rigged against them. Either that, or they have to prove themselves extra brilliant, extra accomplished, and extra well-rounded to ensure they’re on equal footing with non-Asian applicants. The premise is that affirmative action enables colleges and universities to discriminate against Asian applicants simply because there are so many of them on campus already.
In using holistic admissions, colleges are trying to build a class of students with varied interests and backgrounds, which can mean quotas for the number of admitted people who want to go into engineering, for example, or the number who come from California. This practice amounts to a dangerous, underhanded form of “social engineering.” In fact, holistic admissions were actually the brainchild of the then-Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell as a means of reducing the number of Jewish people on campus in the early 1900s.
Some people say the holistic admissions policy effectively means fewer Asians on campus—because, say, they generally pursue fields like engineering and computer science and physics at higher rates than other students— but this is a stereotypical assumption. Quite frankly, I just don’t believe that the 15,000 Asians applying to Harvard every year are all little computer geeks who have nothing going for them except their numbers. Why, then, should a perfectly eligible Asian student be denied admission to a top school just because s/he expresses interest in a particularly popular major? Americans wonder why education is declining and why our country is dying- well, because Asians, again and again, are essentially being penalized for hard work.