5 Things Asian Parents Get Wrong About the College Admissions Process

Tiger ParentsLove it or hate it, the concept of the “Tiger Mother” – or of any “Tiger Parent” in general – has elements that ring true for many families, both Asian and otherwise.

Not every parent is like Amy Chua, the author who popularized the term in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. But, it is true that many parents have very high, and very specific, expectations for their children.

What happens when you combine these high expectations with an incomplete understanding of the college admissions process?

You get well-meaning parents who pursue strategies that are counterproductive to their goal of admissions to the top schools in the country.

Over the past 12 years, Kevin and I have worked with thousands of families – about half of whom are of Chinese, Indian, or Korean ethnicity, and who span a wide range of experiences from recent immigrants, to longtime citizens, to those who live in Asia while their children study here in the US.

Throughout our work with such families, we find ourselves answering the same questions over and over again. This has enabled us to identify several common misconceptions that parents hold about the college admissions process.

Below, we address those misconceptions and provide tips for overcoming them, based on the insights we’ve developed over the years – through both our personal and professional experiences.

While this article largely references our experiences with Asian families, the advice presented here is applicable to everybody.

The Admissions Process is Not as Secretive as You Think

Tip #1 – The admissions process is not as secretive as everybody thinks

Universities have to be careful with how much information they divulge about their judgment process.

Give away too much information and people (i.e. high-priced admissions consultants) will undoubtedly try to game the system, placing less affluent applicants at more of a disadvantage. Don’t reveal enough, and the schools are criticized for not being transparent.

It’s also easy to get caught up in the marketing hype of admissions consultancies that claim to “reveal the secrets” or “pull back the curtain” of the admissions process.

The reality is that a lot of this information is out in the public. The range of available resources includes multiple books by former admissions officers, behind-the-scenes accounts by journalists, interviews with current admissions officers, and so on.

The caveat is that you have to tease out the good info from the mountain of bad info. And, take advice from current admissions officers with a grain of salt, since one of their many responsibilities is to get as many people as possible to apply to their schools.

Reputable ArticlesIn general, books written by reputable authors are safe bets. Be more discerning when it comes to online resources, especially online forums where fellow parents or students provide advice.

How would you figure out whether an author is reputable? Take a few seconds to Google the author name and publisher.

How would you tell if an online article you saw on WeChat is credible? Click through to see which publication published the article. If it’s not a nationally known publication then does it at least get linked to by big names like The Washington Post?

Our in-depth guide What College Admissions Officers Look For is highly rated by college counselors and is a good place for you to start your research process.

Standardized Test Scores Are Just One Part of the Equation

Tip #2 – Standardized test scores are just one part of the equation

We are often asked questions like, “My child scored a 1580 after three tries. How can I get him to perfect 1600?

On the one hand, yes, SAT and ACT scores are very important. After all:

  • You want to score at least within the median range for the schools you are applying to in order to be competitive.
  • In terms of time spent vs. impact, test prep arguably provides the greatest ROI out of all the application components.

Plus, we are well aware that:

  • A controversial 2009 study suggests Asian students must score 140 points more than otherwise similar white applicants in order to have the same chances of admission.
  • Families in some Asian countries are used to the tradition of a single exam (e.g. the gaokao in China) as the main factor in determining a student’s college choices and future job prospects.
  • So, it’s understandable why many Asian parents place outsized importance on standardized tests.

However, the more selective institutions practice “holistic admissions.” This means that in addition to academic achievements, schools also consider extracurricular distinction and character/personal qualities in the admissions process. We refer to these three components – academics, extracurriculars, and character/personal qualities – as the “3 Pillars of Successful Applicants.”

3 Pillars of Successful Applicants

Focus too much on the academic pillar, and your student might be among the many valedictorians or perfect standardized-test scorers that admissions officers reject.

If you’re looking for a way to distinguish yourself, try identifying your strengths and interests. Then, think about how you might use those strengths and interests to help others.

We encourage you to read Harvard Graduate School of Education’s 2016 report called “Turning the Tide.

The report shares a vision of college admissions that emphasizes not just individual achievement, but also concern for others and the common good. It is endorsed by over 80 college admissions officers and other key stakeholders.

Improve Your Reading Comprehension and Writing Skills

Tip #3 – Improve your reading comprehension and writing skills

Technological innovation is changing the world around us and there has been an increasing focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education.

In 2011, economics, politics, and history were the most popular majors at Princeton.

Guess what the most popular major at Princeton is now? Computer Science. This is pretty amazing.

With all this going on, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of writing and reading comprehension skills.

Communication is a super powerThe ability to communicate clearly and effectively is a superpower that will never go out of style and will improve performance in all of your other classes as well.

Whether or not there is actual race-based discrimination in college admissions offices, there is no denying the existence of the stereotype that Asian students are good at math and science, to the detriment of other disciplines.

If you happen to fall within that stereotype, you’ll want to work hard at also developing your verbal skills.

This goes beyond simply improving your college admissions chances. These are skills that will improve your general success in life.

Taking a coding class after school? Great. But don’t forget to pick up a book and read something. What should you read? Fiction, nonfiction, short stories, poetry, newspaper articles…anything! Moreover, don’t read just for pleasure, read for comprehension as well.

If you’re having trouble or want to improve faster, get some outside help from a teacher or tutor. There are techniques that anyone can learn to improve their reading comprehension and writing skills.

There is No Magic Formula for Guaranteed Admissions

Tip #4 – There is no magic formula for guaranteed admissions

“What do I have to do to get my child into Harvard?”  That’s the question so many of our clients ask.

There are definitely things one can do to increase chances of admissions to Harvard and other ultra-selective colleges.

However, more often than not, this question is asked in a way that implies there is a magic formula or pre-determined set of achievements one can accomplish that will guarantee admissions.

In addition, this mindset sometimes leads to an over-engineered high school career and forced activities that are counterproductive.

No Magic FormulaThere is no guarantee.

There is no magic formula.


Perfect test scores and valedictorian status are not guarantees. Being first trumpet or star quarterback is not a guarantee. A combination of all of these is not even a guarantee (although very compelling).

Why not? Don’t schools assign numerical ratings to applications?

Yes and no. While many colleges assign numerical ratings to your application in an effort to add some quantitative rigor and to quickly sort record numbers of applications, the admissions reading and judgment process is still a messy and emotional process.

For example, Princeton assigns academic and non-academic ratings on a 5-point scale. The application is read several times by individual readers and then discussed in a group during committee.

Your scores are simply used as a starting point, not as the final say, in these (sometimes heated) discussions.

Another explanation has to do with “Institutional Priorities.” These are strategic needs that a school has underscored, and which may change over time, as the school considers how to build its incoming class.

Examples of institutional priorities are:

  1. Legacies – children of alumni
  2. Faculty – children of faculty members
  3. Development – children of big-money donors
  4. VIPs – children of famous people and well-connected/influential people
  5. Exceptional Talent – superstar athletes, artists, musicians
  6. Diversity – ethnic/cultural, socioeconomic (especially first-generation students), geographic (both domestically, and internationally)
  7. Departmental/Programmatic Needs – for example, female computer scientists

Each school has different sets of priorities, but if you happen to have one of these “tags” or “hooks,” your chance of admission to that particular school increases.

Institutional priorities are just one example of the many X-factors in the admissions process that are out of your control.

Focus on the things that are in your control. Work hard, develop your passions, and try to distinguish yourself academically and extracurricularly. Just as important, maintain good moral/personal qualities – you don’t want to be like these guys.

Try Not to Overemphasize Rankings & Ivy League Schools

Tip #5 – Try not to overemphasize rankings & Ivy League schools

A mother contacted us for advice one day. Her daughter was accepted to Berkeley and several other really great colleges, but got rejected from Princeton. So, the daughter took a gap year and re-applied to Princeton. She got rejected again. The mother was contemplating having her daughter take another gap year and re-apply to Princeton for a third time…

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to attend a top-ranked school. Everyone values different things.

However, the danger lies in focusing single-mindedly on these rankings.

If your only goal is to have your child attend the highest-ranked school possible, then that’s fine.

However, I would argue that for most parents, the larger goal is to ensure that your child becomes an independent and successful adult.

The confusion we’ve seen is that many parents equate an Ivy League education or school prestige with guaranteed success later in life.

Ivy League Education Does Not Equal Success

Jeff Bezos is not successful because he went to Princeton. Bill Gates is not successful because he went to Harvard (and dropped out). They are successful people who just happened to go to those great colleges.

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, and one of the richest men in the world, got rejected 10 times by Harvard. He’s doing just fine.

Economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale have done research into the payoff of attending more-selective colleges. In one study, they conclude:

Quarterly Journal of EconomicsStudents who were accepted into highly selective colleges, but who chose instead to attend less selective colleges, earned the same amount of money as those who attended the highly selective colleges.

The college is not what makes you successful. It is YOU that makes you successful.

This is a very subtle but very important difference that should inform your college admissions strategy.

So what are top colleges looking for?

Top colleges select students who demonstrate qualities that lead to future success.

Said in another way…

DiamondTop schools pre-select students, through highly selective admissions, who demonstrate the potential to achieve greatness. Selective schools don’t find rocks and turn them into diamonds. They polish diamonds into shinier diamonds.

The most successful applicants demonstrate achievement and distinction in all areas of their life. For high school students, these areas are academics, extracurriculars, and character/personal qualities (our “3 Pillars”).

So what should your strategy be?

Even though we encourage parents to consider the bigger picture, let’s say that your ultimate and only goal is acceptance to the highest-ranked colleges.

What should your strategy be?

Try to forget about gaming college admissions and focus on personal development and growth. That means figuring out:

  • How can you be the best version of yourself, in all aspects of your life?
  • How will you make an impact, contribute to the community, and help others?

This is what colleges are actually looking for (and is easier said than done).

By focusing on developing characteristics that will make you successful, you will not only lay a foundation for long-term success, you will also maximize your chances of college admissions success at the top schools.

You can have your cake and eat it too.

Next Steps

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At PrepMaven, our mission is not only to help your child get into a great college but also to put them on the right track for long-term personal and professional success.

Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg Wong and Kevin Wong

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They were engineering majors at Princeton and had successful careers in strategy consulting and finance. They now apply their data and research-backed problem solving skills to the college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.