A Defense of Harvard's "Racist" Admissions

Daniel Dassow, Executive Editor

Many top colleges are beginning to care more about the personality of an applicant than extracurriculars or test scores; I have had universities ask for my favorite word, what I look for in a roommate, and a list of every book I have read in the past year.


These questions are probing for character, not accomplishments.  Am I the kind of person who reads? Is my choice of favorite word honest or impressive? Do I care more about the religion of my roommate or the volume at which he plays indie rock music? My top choice did not even require that I send them my ACT or SAT score.

This development is at its root highly individualistic and American, and has become a point of great controversy. Many parents and students feel that college applications are a way to show academic aptitude and not personal quirks or unique worldviews. But it is essential to understand that in the admissions process, character is linked with personality and personality is linked with individuality. What makes the applicant different from all the others?

The argument has reached a climax with the investigation into Harvard University’s admissions process. The university has been accused of rating students’ character in a seemingly racist way. Asian-American students are outperforming other demographics in extracurriculars and test scores, but are consistently rated lower on personal character; but America has historically been seen as a meritocracy. Don’t we earn things in this country?

Though Harvard may be incorrectly conflating character with individuality, the radical and wonderful answer from their admissions board is simple. Yes, we do earn our place in America, and we do so by setting ourselves apart. The art of setting oneself apart is the art of having a unique personality and a story to tell. It has nothing to do with race, gender, or socioeconomic status.


I will be one of many white, male, upper middle-class applicants to every college on my list. But I also do debate and I am a sixth child who occasionally writes articles about athletics for the school newspaper. I have a book collection and when I was eight years old, I owned a tarantula named Ivana. Being on an improv team has made me a political moderate.

I have been conditioned to develop a distinct worldview and I have a story to tell. If I am accepted to a selective college, it will be because of these personal attributes and not my community service experience.

The case now pending against Harvard is a difficult one, because the college has come to care deeply about personality and individualism, and to view academic promise as merely a preliminary qualification. Once applicants have shown commitment to service and scholastic rigor, they must set about showing what they alone can add to the university if they have any hope of gaining admittance.

The Harvard admissions process is essentially American because it favors those who have been taught to stand out and who grew up in an environment that valued the individual. Is the process racist if it denies students who have striven for excellence in uniformity?


Asian-American students who are admitted to Ivy League schools are not those who simply achieve high test scores or extracurricular excellence. Like all other admitted students, they must demonstrate a unique perspective and an experience that sets them apart.


But the pursuit of individualism is rarely encouraged in traditional Asian societies, and though Asian-American students are raised in a nation that rewards singularity, many come from families that strive towards excellence, rather than singularity, of activity and experience. In Asian societies, the individual in society functions as one part in a well-run apparatus, as opposed to the American view of the individual as his or her own apparatus altogether.

It may seem odd to associate individualism with a certain group of people because anyone can set themself apart regardless of their race or ethnic background. But when two cultures view the role of the individual in society as differently as the United States and China or Korea, there are bound to be discrepancies.

So Asian-American students are given the same task that black, latino, and white students are given: show what makes you different. It is worth confronting why this may be a harder question for students of traditional Asian background to answer.

In America, individualism is a virtue, and there is no inherent problem with this. We should not sacrifice our national history and shared beliefs because the ideology in practice gets branded as “racist.”

But what we must do is reckon with the fact that an admissions process based on individuality favors students raised in American philosophy, and try to remedy the unfortunate racial corollaries that may result.

Protestors take to the streets to express anger at Harvard's so-called "Asian quota." (PBS)