Aaron Mak hid his Chinese American heritage when applying to colleges thinking it could hurt his chances of getting into prestigious schools like Yale (which he eventually attended). In a first-person piece for Slate, Mak explores the question: “Had hiding my Chinese American identity, to avoid the prohibitively high bar that Asian applicants allegedly face due to affirmative action, helped me get into Yale?” and explains why that was a decision he’ll always regret:
Looking over my (Yale) admissions file…I was reminded of just how much I’d internalized warnings about the “Asian penalty.” Like many other high school seniors, I carefully manicured my identity to cater to the admissions committee. But that effort also involved erasing it in order to appear white, or at least less Asian. I chose to leave the optional race and ethnicity section of the form blank, a practice common among Asian applicants. I assumed “Mak” isn’t a popularly known Chinese surname in the U.S.; my dad used to jokingly point out that it’s one letter off from the Gaelic surname “Mack.” Maybe an oblivious admissions officer would mistake me for Scottish. (I didn’t tell my father how much I’d hoped our family name would be misread.) I marked my intended major as philosophy, thinking this was one of those impractical fields that most sensible Asian parents would not allow their children to pursue. I had no intention of actually following through. The response boxes under the questions inquiring what postgraduate degree and career I desired were left blank. I wanted a J.D. and planned to become a lawyer, but I felt that admitting such a goal would conform to the stereotype that Asians are particularly obsessed with a narrow range of prestigious professional careers.
In my Ivy League essays, I made sure not to mention anything about my heritage. The personal statement I submitted for the University of California applications about my immigrant grandfather was the most emotionally honest one I wrote that year—I knew the UC system had discontinued race-conscious affirmative action, so the essay wouldn’t hurt me.
But while reviewing my application reminded me of the decisions I’d made, it did not explain Yale’s. The only notes I found from the admissions officers were a series of inscrutable numerical ratings: I apparently scored a 5 out of 9 for my “personality.” I’ll never know if I was able to effectively pull off the façade or if it had even been necessary to whitewash my application in the first place. In 2015, Yale destroyed the records containing admissions officers’ comments on applicants after students discovered the FERPA loophole I was exploiting. (But it seems that most everything else is generally still stored. I received an email in 2016 from Harvard, which rejected me, noting that the court in Blum’s suit had ordered the university to provide data on all applicants from 2009–2015. The legal notice further indicated that “academic, extracurricular, demographic, and other information” from my application will be provided to the plaintiffs.)
I had hoped to find some stray markings during my visit indicating that my effort to pass had worked, but the evidence was elusive. And I was still stumped on how to feel about the broader debate. Was I a hypocrite for supporting affirmative action despite my attempts to dodge it during my own application season? Was I also Blum’s patsy for worrying that the admissions process was unfair to Asians? In the following weeks, I sought out people with firmer points of view, hoping they could convince me one way or another on the matter.
To read the full article, go to Slate: The Price of Admission