Can Asians Fake Their Way into Harvard?

The battle over racial preferences in college admissions usually focuses on universities and the courts, but no less important is what occurs among the applicants themselves. Gaining admission, particularly to elite schools, can be likened to a game, and it is hardly surprising that families lacking “diversity” often hire expensive consultants to give junior an edge in this Darwinian struggle. The recent Varsity Blues scandal shows that ambitious parents, all of whom lacked this diversity edge, will even bribe college coaches or hire test-takers to circumvent their offspring’s academics shortcomings.

The latest round of this “game” involves smart Asians who, having heard that elite universities disdain them for being boring geeks, are re-inventing themselves to sway Ivy League admissions officers. They hope that their application, unlike those submitted by their fellow Asian competitors, will be viewed as one that adds diversity to the freshman class.

While today’s applicants trying to game the system are Asian, the reinvention strategy is an old one. When the Ivy League imposed quotas on Eastern European Jews in the 1920s, ambitious families anticipating prejudice Anglicized their surnames. Schools, predictably, fought back by asking applicants if they had recently changed their family name. Conceivably, crafty Jews replaced Lipschitz with Smith, and, for good measure, helped junior mimic the style of polo-playing country-club WASPs.

According to the New York Times, some Asian applicants are hiding their interest in clichéd “Asian” activities such as playing the violin and competing in the chess club. Others refuse to admit their Asian ancestry despite holding Chinese family names. No doubt, the cram academies Asians often use to enhance their academic skills will soon offer workshops on how to appear “well-rounded” or acquaint them with hip-hop music. A few might surgically alter their appearance. Remember the book Black Like Me, in which journalist John Howard Griffin darkened his skin and traveled around a segregated United States while pretending to be black?

[Related: “Affirmative Action at Stanford, Then and Now”]

Will such ploys succeed? Unlikely. College admissions officers can likely sniff out fakery and will be suspicious of a “Hank Jones” who claims to be the son of a hard-scrapple Montana rancher. His near-perfect SAT scores will give him away. Moreover, even if a few Asians succeed in this game, that handful can hardly narrow the gap between top-scoring Asians and lower-scoring blacks. Nor would successful fakery provide cover for elite schools who could then claim that their admissions process is color-blind and devoted to creating a “diverse” incoming class without regard to race. Changing college applications to be less “Asian” is a game with an immense payoff for a few lucky applicants, but it leaves untouched biased college admissions in general.

Nevertheless, this effort to hide stereotypical Asian traits may have broader political repercussions. The reality of having to advance economically by downplaying intellectual accomplishment may be, to use a feminist term, a “click moment” for millions of applicants and their families. In an instant, the belief that upward mobility requires hard work, mastering difficult skills, and prioritizing restraint over sloth is exposed as a lie. For poor Asian immigrants in particular, the American Dream edges closer to a fairy tale comparable to Communist China’s disastrous Great Leap Forward. Diversity is our greatest strength, comrade, so just keep quiet.

This trend also conveys a deeper message about the value of Asian culture. Admissions officers at elite schools are giving the thumbs-down sign when they openly confess that if they used merit exclusively, half the class would be nerdy dullards—a bright, industrious “yellow peril,” to be frank. Perhaps we have seen this movie before: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. So much for the people who created and sustained for millennia one of the most accomplished cultural and technological civilizations in human history. Who knows what these laconic nerds might invent next if they dominated the campus? Better gunpowder? A more powerful quantum computer?

Make no mistake, this is humiliation. Grandparents of the rejected students may tell junior of the days when the Chinese in Shanghai were banned from parks unless they were accompanied by the children of Europeans. After all, it is one thing to lose out to rivals with higher SAT scores, but quite another to be beaten by those opponents who score hundreds of points lower and, at least in some instances, embrace a culture that devalues intellectual accomplishment. Imagine if these same admissions functionaries conceded that if too many blacks enrolled at Harvard or Yale, the campus would soon resemble downtown Detroit?

[Related: “Race Consciousness Hangs by a Thread”]

The rejected applicants might honestly ask what they did wrong. It’s hard to argue that they burden universities financially. They don’t demand extra tutoring, teachers who look like them, more counseling staff, a bloated bureaucracy, and multiple “Asian-only” spaces and events. No school ever had to hire more security to protect itself from swarms of dull, studious undergraduates. It may only be a matter of time before Asians who have been unfairly denied admission wear tee-shirts with a “Rejected While Yellow” graphic.

Most importantly, rejecting exceptionally qualified Asian applicants will expose the university’s bias for what it is—discrimination totally rooted in biology. Everyone can now see that “diversity” is about melanin, and nothing else. It’s irrelevant if Mr. Kevin Wong is bedecked head-to-toe in Brooks Bros., speaks impeccable English, socializes at the ultra-WASP NYC Knickerbocker Club, and has perfect SAT scores; his genes make him a Chinaman, and we all know what happens when he and others like him show up. Oh dear, oh dear. And this would be just as true if he had an English great-grandmother. Today’s colleges embrace what the Germans called the Nürnberger Gesetze, or Nuremberg Laws.

The good news is that a failed effort to go to Harvard is unlikely to end one’s career. Smart people are resourceful, and with one door closed, others will open. The nation abounds with excellent schools to welcome brainy Ivy League rejects, and Harvard’s loss may be Michigan State’s gain. Eventually, the sting of losing out to less qualified “diversity candidates” will subside, and the virtues of “dullness” will assert themselves. Failed efforts to gain admission to Harvard by organizing the Racial Justice Club in high school will now be fondly remembered as youthful foolishness. Like those long-past applicants to Harvard who were “too Jewish” to pass muster for the Ivies, overcoming racial discrimination may well become a badge of honor. An Asian tech mogul with a degree from Michigan State might paraphrase the old Groucho Marx quip about never joining a country club that would admit him due to his Jewish religion: “I would never donate a million dollars to a school [Harvard] that would admit Chinese dullards like me.”


Image: Adobe Stock

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

6 thoughts on “Can Asians Fake Their Way into Harvard?

  1. It’s time for elite universities to stop using diversity as an excuse to continue accepting non-blacks. The Ivies, Stanford, Uchicago need to live up to their own cri de coeur of social justice by becoming 100% black, including the faculty and admin. Use their billions in endowments to advance the social status of blacks in the US.

  2. “Too many Asians” has its problematic parallel with “not enough athletes”.

    If academics and learning are the stated purpose of universities, why do universities have such large preferences for athletic recruits. I ran into a recent Dartmouth College graduate – a lacrosse player – who volunteered he’s “dumb as a post” and was there thanks only to his play.

    It’s easier to compare SAT scores than sports prowess but the facts are athletes get far more advantage than ethnicity in winning a spot. This now older paper captures the the trends. In the 1980’s being black conferred the most advantage. By the 2000’s recruited athletes received the lion’s share of admissions boost.

    https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/tje/files/admission_preferences_espenshade_chung_walling_dec_2004_full.pdf

    These days if there’s a complaint about athletics preferences, is that it more benefits whites and wealthier families. For those Asian kids, they’d better get really good at a valued sport if they want to get into Harvard.

  3. The problem with all of this is the notion that certain schools endow one with a leg up in a career. Graduate from Harvard or Yale? Congratulations, you are now set for a lucrative career.

    But not so fast. While that may be true today, things are slowly changing. In the last few weeks I have read articles about some corporations no longer requiring degrees to get hired. Several federal level judges have claimed they will no longer hire clerks who are Yale law school graduates.

    What can’t go on forever, won’t. You can only lower admission standards for so long before your reputation is tarnished beyond repair.

    1. Hi Patty,

      I’d be pretty interested in reading these articles. Can you link them or otherwise inform me as to where they can be found?

      Thanks!

      (No pressure, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask!)

  4. Comrade Bob, you are spot on. Harvard is overrated. If you are supersmart, and lucky, Stanford will reject you and you will go to Berkeley instead. You want to go to Yale law? Go to Your State U, do honors program, get great grades, smoke LSAT. I have seen it work.

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