On the Checking of Boxes, and the Need to Chill Out

In the comments to yesterday's post about college admissions, Joseph Yoon quoted my statement that "I'm somewhat sympathetic to claims that Asians have a difficult position in higher education," and shot back with:

I wonder if you will feel more strongly about this in 10 years when your kids are near college. Will you advise them to not check the Asian box if it decreases their chances?

As a general matter, I try to avoid responding to comments when my initial reaction is "Oh, go fuck yourself." But I'll make an exception here, because I think it goes to a more general issue about college admissions.

Now, on some level even talking about college decisions that are more than a decade away feels kind of farcical, given the nearly constant stream of articles about how the higher education landscape is being utterly transformed by technology. But then again I've been seeing those same sorts of articles since I was in college twenty-plus years ago, so I suspect that the radical reshaping of higher education is kind of like commercial fusion power: twenty years off, and expected to remain so for the next twenty years.

But making the assumption that higher education will continue to operate in more or less the same way that it does now, with more or less the same mysterious admissions standards and all that, would I advise SteelyKid (and The Pip, three years later) to not check the "Asian" box on an admissions form, to avoid being caught in some sort of Ivy League quota? The answer is no, for a very simple reason: I don't want my kid to be the sort of person who would lie on an admissions form in the hopes of improving her chances of admission by some infinitesimal amount.

This all goes back to a general problem with the whole higher education system these days, which is the utterly absurd level of significance placed on a fairly arbitrary and surprisingly unimportant decision. In fact, I have a generic set of advice that I give students who show up at the open house events our Admissions office runs, or who email me asking for advice, which is this: Relax. You're going to be fine.

We've created a system in this country where getting into THE RIGHT COLLEGE is perceived as this epic matter of decisive importance for, well, everything. And, really, it's overblown. There's even academic research showing that it doesn't matter that much-- the Dale and Krueger study compared students who attended elite schools to other students with similar academic credentials who got into elite schools but ended up going elsewhere, and found that there wasn't any difference between their incomes twenty years later. Students who have the qualifications to get into Ivy League type institutions have the tools to be successful no matter where they go.

So, in the end, it just doesn't matter that much. If you're a credible applicant to Harvard, or Williams, or even Union, you can do just fine for yourself no matter where you go. At any school in that class, you can find professors who will educate and inspire you, meet friends you'll keep in touch with for decades, make connections that will help you advance in your career. The exact details will be different for different schools, but the end result is the same.

So I just don't think it's worth it to strategize about the checking of demographic boxes on application forms . Or any other kind of boxes, for that matter. I hope that SteelyKid participates in extracurricular activities-- sports, music, science clubs, book clubs, scouting groups, volunteer charity work, whatever-- but not because I think it will boost her college application chances. I want her to do things because she wants to do them, and because they make her happy. If she decides to be a basketball player, say, that'd be awesome, and I'll be right there to drive her to practices and games and even offer to coach. If she wants nothing to do with basketball, though, I'm not going to push her to do something that doesn't make her happy. Instead I'll happily back whatever other interest she may have.

Again, it's kind of farcical to be talking about the future educational prospects of a four-year-old-- at this point, we don't even know that she'll want to go to college. Her most recent stated career ambition is to become a cowboy, and you know what? If she sticks with that, I'll support her as best I can.

Look, I hope she's a great student, and I hope she's able to get into... well, not Harvard, Harvard's full of assholes, but Williams, or Swarthmore, or Stanford. I'd even grudgingly accept amherst. I guess. But I want her to get into those schools because she's a great kid, who does things that she loves to do, and does them well. Not because she consciously and strategically shaped herself (or worse yet, was shaped by me, or by Kate) to fit some sort of profile that maximizes her chances of admission at THE RIGHT COLLEGE.

So when it comes to the checking of demographic boxes, I hope she checks whatever boxes feel appropriate to describe her sense of who she is. She should do what makes her happy, and from there on out, the chips can fall however they happen to fall. Wherever she ends up, I'm confident that she'll have the tools she needs to make a successful life, and I will do everything in my power to help her in that.

The same goes for The Pip, when his turn comes around. I want him to get into the college of his choice because he's an awesome little dude, not because he's become some little simulacrum of the ideal student for wherever. And whatever he decides to do, he'll have my support. Even if he also wants to be a cowboy.

Now, of course, you could point out that I say this from a place of great privilege, and there's some truth to that. Both of our kids have parents with outstanding academic credentials (they'll even have the benefit of legacy status at one of the elite colleges people strain to get into, for whatever that's worth), and good jobs, and we can provide whatever enriching activities they may need outside of the very good public school district where we live. We're very fortunate.

But mostly we're privileged to have two awesome little kids-- I'm regularly blown away by just how awesome they are. We went to a basketball game on campus last night, after day care, and SteelyKid cheerfully and confidently chatted up the people working the concession stand, and two kids roughly her own age, and some players between games, and an older couple who were there to watch their daughter coach the visiting team. She told them about her brother, and things she learned in preschool, and games she plays and songs she sings, and when she was done talking, she skipped off to do something else.

The Pip, for his part, was a little trouper. He was short on sleep and late for his dinner, but he took in a strange, loud, and very active place without any sign of freaking out. He stood calmly in the middle of the lobby for a while, taking it all in, then made a beeline for the court. And up the stairs. And wherever his big sister was running off to. He cried once, for about ten seconds, when he bumped his head on a railing, but carried himself with the baby version of his big sister's cheerful self-confidence.

So, while you can't always tell much from this young an age, I have every reason to hope that my kids will grow up to be awesome high-schoolers, and awesome college students, and adults who will continue to blow me away with whatever they decide to do. Even if they're just the best damn cowboys in the 21st century. And I hope that we will be able to raise them to be proud of who they are, and earn their accomplishments through their own merits, not by putting up a false front and scratching and grubbing to gain some tiny advantage toward some artificial ideal of what they "need" to do to succeed.

While our family situation makes it a little easier to say that-- we have the resources to support them even if they don't go to elite colleges and get high-paying jobs-- I'd like to think it's not dependent on income. In fact, I think it's probably a little insulting to people who are less financially successful to suggest that they need to do those things. Nobody needs to go to an Ivy League school, not that badly.

I don't just want my kids to be materially successful, I want them to be good people. And if that means they don't get into Harvard, well, that's Harvard's loss, not theirs.


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As someone who has been allowed a glimpse into the admissions sausage factory for one elite school (I am a field interviewer for my undergraduate alma mater), let me say, AMEN!

The box-checking thing was definitely around in my high school days. It's probably gotten worse since then--the admit rate for my undergraduate class was about 1 in 3; for this year's freshman class at the same school it was about 1 in 10. As you have previously noted, there is a cottage industry devoted to trying to game this system any way it can be done, and part of that is because admission rates at the most competitive schools are approaching lottery territory. I've heard people say that Harvard could choose a freshman class, shoot all of them, choose another freshman class, shoot all of them, and choose a third freshman class with no significant loss of quality compared to the first. Harvard is not the only university that can make this claim.

At this level, it's better to just be yourself. Have something that you love to do and really are good at, and you will stand out from the crowd of box checkers. It's hardly a sufficient condition for getting in, but it helps. The people in the admissions office are looking for people who stand out. As an interviewer, I am specifically looking for unusual things about you, but if I think you are describing the person you think I want you to be instead of the person you really are, I'm going to say that in my interview report.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 29 Nov 2012 #permalink

@Eric: And if Chad can be believed, those Harvard assholes would shoot a couple of freshman classes just because they could...

Though I do have to wonder, had Kate gone to Harvard for law school instead of Yale, would he still say that?

"So when it comes to the checking of demographic boxes, I hope she checks whatever boxes feel appropriate to describe her sense of who she is."

Hear! hear!

All college gaming is crazy. When my oldest was in middle school, a parent of a fellow student asked me if I was going to enroll her in the local prep school. "Um, no," I said. "Never thought of it." "Well," the parent said, "how else is she going to get into an Ivy League?"

Flummoxed, I told one of my neighbors (with two college aged kids who had gone to the local high school) what had happened. She laughed uproariously. "You know how kids from town get into the Ivy League?" she said. "They work hard."

Both SteelyKid and Pip are way ahead: they have great parents.

If one believes that income inequality is real, increasing and not going away anytime soon, why not work the system as hard as possible to ram your children into the institutions that stand the best chance to get them into the 1%?

@Klug: Because, if you love them, you want them to have the happiest life possible, not ram them into the 1%.

By AliceB (not verified) on 29 Nov 2012 #permalink

In reply to by Klug (not verified)

I would have to be a totally different person to have applied to Harvard, so it's not really a plausible scenario.

By Kate Nepveu (not verified) on 29 Nov 2012 #permalink

If one believes that income inequality is real, increasing and not going away anytime soon, why not work the system as hard as possible to ram your children into the institutions that stand the best chance to get them into the 1%?

Because "materially successful" and "in the 1%" are not the same thing. Hard as it may be to believe, I don't harbor any great ambition to be part of the 1%. I'm pretty happy with my current level of financial success (as a family, we might squeak into the top 10%), because for all its frustrations, I like my job, and wouldn't want to do any of the things that would get me a substantially larger income.

The same goes for my kids. I want them to have comfortable lives, which might come from great wealth, but doesn't necessarily have to. You can be successful, happy, and financially comfortable without going to an Ivy League school and working at Goldman Sachs.

If SteelyKid and/or The Pip decide they want to be a part of the 1%, well, that's great. They can support me in style in my dotage. If they have different goals, well, as I said, I want them to be good people first and foremost, which might be difficult to reconcile with working for Goldman Sachs...

So, I agree that gaming your identity for a possible tiny improvement in long-shot odds when you have plenty of other options is a really bad thing for the soul. But let's not go over-board here. Resume-building is a part of life, for those who want a career, and pretending that one should not pay some attention to that in choosing activities and endeavors is a rather privileged assumption. If one identifies a goal, whatever that goal may be, and one really, honestly wants it, then one might have to do certain things to get there. You shouldn't sell your soul, but you might have to pay your dues and put some things on the resume just because that's what it takes to get where you want to be.

That said, I know a Harvard grad who, in the midst of some unsolicited chest-thumping about how sensitive and diversity-conscious they are, made a few comments that had some "There's too many Asians in science" subtexts. So, yeah, screw Harvard undergrads. (I have friends teaching there, and I like their grad students, so they're cool.)

All I can add is that it takes a very conscious effort to maintain this position when everybody around is going crazy over the college admission thing.

My daughter is a senior in high school. One of the first things we did is rule out the Ivies, because she decided she wanted to stay in the west for college. I supported that, because it was her choice; she's the one going to college, not me. She's applied early decision to a SLAC where I do think she'll be happy, but more importantly, she likes the school. Hopefully, in a few weeks, she'll get in, and we'll be done.

Chad, I wasn't trying to be snide. If I came across as such, I apologize. In fact, we have some things in common. My girls are half Asian/white but the difference is that they have my last name so their ethnicity will be obvious even if they don't check the "box." (And not checking the box is not "lying" in my opinion, just TMI). My oldest is a couple of years from college and if she applies to a top 50 institution apart from Caltech, Berkeley and MIT, she will be discriminated against according to the figures from USNWR. Here, I'm assuming that if the Asian percentage is below 20%, merit is not the primary criteria for admission. It is true that you can go to State U and have a happy and successful life in certain areas like STEM. But if your goals are national government (President, cabinet-level posts, Supreme Court), consulting (McKinsey) or Wall Street, an Ivy degree is almost essential. Maybe those professions aren't the most useful to society that one can put his/her talents to but they are nevertheless options that are closed if you do not go to an elite school. Even if my kids go into STEM fields, they will encounter a glass ceiling sooner or later. That is one reason why many who came from East Asia to go to school here are going back to their original homelands for better career prospects.

We also have hoops in common though us small guys lose our hops earlier than you big guys. Allen Iverson, Kevin Johnson, Nate Archibald, all pretty much done by 30. I'm reduced to passing and shooting 3-pointers. Here Asians also face discrimination though a sort of anti-stereotype threat seems to be in effect. Opponents seem to get more upset/embarrassed if I get the better of them than if I were of any other color. Asians aren't supposed to be good at sports I guess.

In reply to Eric Lund's comment - "The people in the admissions office are looking for people who stand out." -here is a quote from an admissions department evaluator in Daniel Golden's book - "these Asian kids are all alike -- strong scores and grades, science and music, but I can't really tell them apart."

I lived in Princeton for 10 years and remember that the professors had a mild (well, they ARE professors) revolt claiming that not enough "high academic achievers" were being admitted. The university eventually added 200 more slots to the incoming class just for "high achievers." You'd never guess what ethnicities made up most of that group.

Well, there goes my lunch time.....

By Joseph Yoon (not verified) on 29 Nov 2012 #permalink

@Alex: Part of resume building is finding something that you are good at. If you plan to apply to one or more elite universities, by all means join the National Honor Society. But recognize that (almost) every other applicant from a US high school will also be in the National Honor Society. Picture an admissions officer reading applications, picking up the 1742nd application in the pile, and seeing that like the previous 1741 applicants, this one was in the National Honor Society. Yawn. Compare with the 1743rd applicant, who as president of her school's National Honor Society chapter coordinated a project to bring potable drinking water to $REMOTE_VILLAGE in $THIRD_WORLD_COUNTRY. That sounds much more interesting, doesn't it? Or perhaps she's a midfielder who led her high school soccer team to the state championship, or a pianist who performed the $COMPOSER Piano Concerto with the $REGION Symphony Orchestra. Both of these are more interesting than a mere box checker.

Real-world hiring has some similarities: the people doing the hiring are looking for something in your background that says you are one of the best people they could possibly hire for that job.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 29 Nov 2012 #permalink

Joseph Yoon: "It is true that you can go to State U and have a happy and successful life in certain areas like STEM. But if your goals are national government (President, cabinet-level posts, Supreme Court), consulting (McKinsey) or Wall Street, an Ivy degree is almost essential."

Is it possible that Asian-American students are choosing perfectly good STEM schools because they don't want to waste their intellectual talents on hedge-fund management or dysfunctional politics? Perhaps their parents tend to encourage them to enter such "real" fields in the same way that, say, many Jewish mothers traditionally encouraged their kids to become doctors? Is it possible that Asian immigrants' children, like Asians themselves, display hugely lower rates of sociopathy than middle-class white Americans and therefore less interest in gouging their way to the top of the government or Wall Street heap (sociopathic tendencies apparently being almost a job qualification for the Goldman Sachs crowd)? Maybe this is not discrimination by the "elite" schools, but commendable common sense by the young people involved.

Since no one else seems to have, I'll say it:

Why the f--- is there the box for SteelyKid to check in the first place?

Of all the possible things that a University could consider for admissions, race has to be one of the most pointless. To me, admitting (or not admitting) someone because of their race is just one step shy of photoshoping in ethnic diversity.

Sure, give a bonus to someone who grew up poor with an under-performing high school, but did well despite that fact. Sure, penalize all 1742 applicants with the same-old,same-old list of accomplishments. That's fine. Just don't do it because they can check a box stating some of their ancestors came from one region of the globe or the other.


I agree that being too cookie-cutter is not good, and that distinguishing oneself is important. There are different types of advice one can give, of varying degrees of quality. "Don't do something just because of what it will get you" is rather elitist. "Do whatever is the standard to get what you want" is soul-sucking advice, and it will backfire if it makes you cookie-cutter. "Do what you have to do to pay your dues, but try to distinguish yourself in a way that you find interesting" is very good, balanced advice.

Also, my anecdotal observation is that people are more likely to fault an Asian student for being cookie-cutter than a white student. I would be fascinated to do one of those randomized resume comparison studies that one sometimes sees, where people are sent resumes or emails that are identical except for the names, which are chosen to send signals about race and/or ethnicity and/or gender. Sometimes these resumes are sent to hiring managers, sometimes faculty in graduate admissions, and the question asked is whether certain races, ethnicities, or genders get different response rates.

I'd be curious to see if Jenny Fukimoto and Jenny Fuchs got different responses from university officials, even if they were both in the same extracurriculars.

And, of course, I'd like to know if Gene Fujimoto and Gene Fuchs got different responses.

Why the f— is there the box for SteelyKid to check in the first place?

Because Martin Luther King's dream of a society where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, has not yet been realized in this country, and I doubt it will be in my lifetime. Until it is, we need to have some way of collecting data to see how bad the problem is and what we can do to ameliorate it.

In case you didn't notice, we had an election earlier this month in which Americans of recent Asian ancestry (a group that two decades ago tended to favor Republicans) overwhelmingly voted for Obama. I will link to a righteous rant on the subject. Read the whole thing, but here is the key part:

The GOP continually disrespected this self-made man [Obama] and his wife….but, the only people who noticed were Black folks, and we were told we were being ’ too sensitive’, and it was in ’ our imaginations’.
The highest educated populace in this country is the Asian-American community. They value those pieces of paper like nobody’s business.
You don’t think they noticed…
That being President of the Harvard Law Review – is a spectacular achievement…
Until Barack Obama won the Presidency of the Harvard Law Review.
You don’t think the Asian community noticed the disrespect from the Senate towards Dr. Steven Chu- not only a PhD, but a NOBEL LAUREATE?

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 29 Nov 2012 #permalink

Not to be too racist, but the world could use more Asian cowboys.

jane- Asians may be low in sociopathy, and they may go into STEM fields, but there is a high enough concentration of sociopaths in STEM fields I do not think there's any casuality.

Be careful checking those boxes. Didn't Elizabeth Warren lose that Senate race, because she checked the Cherokee box? (Uh, no.)

I won't have any such problems: if my children will go to college it will probably be in a public university where all they need for admission is a high-school degree (Europe, you know).

As a parent, the part of this post that spoke to me was your description of your kids and your dreams for them: my eyes were a bit wet towards the end.

No one has mentioned the possibility (suggested to me by your taking her to a B-ball game) that she might check the box that says "can beat my dad at Basketball, but prefer rugby" while also posting top SAT scores. That detail would override all sorts of quota-mania!

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 03 Dec 2012 #permalink

The only "demographic" which should count in university admissions is the secondary school which the student came from. Some schools have better/worse facilities and staff and this will be reflected in scores. Therefore, raw tests results should be subject to mild variation between schools in college admissions.

- Student A attended a very well known "prep" school, with top class facilities and teaching environments, well behaved pupils; and obtained straight As in relevant subjects.
- Student B attended an overcrowded inner city school, with dilapidated infrastructure, poor staff, disruptive students; and obtained straight Bs in relevant subjects.

Which student is worth a bet on?

By the nature of historical inequalities or cultures in society, students A and B are more or less likely to be members of racial, ethnic, or religious groups(or to be even male or female) . But if you believe in the essential randomness of humanity --I do-- their designated "group" is not what is influencing a difference in their scores(if any), but instead their social and economic circumstances (incl parents) will be the primary influence on their results.

The students are like random "sponges" dropped in different chemical solutions and ranked by much chemical they absorb. When you are ranking the sponge particles which are removed from the solutions, should you take into account the concentrations of the solutions they come out of? Is there a point in checking which manufacturer made the sponges?

"The only “demographic” which should count in university admissions is the secondary school which the student came from. Some schools have better/worse facilities and staff and this will be reflected in scores. Therefore, raw tests results should be subject to mild variation between schools in college admissions.

"- Student A attended a very well known “prep” school, with top class facilities and teaching environments, well behaved pupils; and obtained straight As in relevant subjects.
"- Student B attended an overcrowded inner city school, with dilapidated infrastructure, poor staff, disruptive students; and obtained straight Bs in relevant subjects.

"Which student is worth a bet on?"

I have so much trouble with this. It's easy to say, student A is the better prepared and so is more likely to succeed. And chances are, that's probably correct. But historically, universities have done more than simply admit the students most likely to succeed. They also have missions to provide opportunities. And sometimes that means banking on people who haven't been given the opportunities to succeed early on.

People aren't sponges which absorb solutions which they absorb. They have motivations that will affect how they behave, what they learn, and what they accomplish. Change the setting and motivations change.

By AliceB (not verified) on 06 Dec 2012 #permalink

In reply to by OMF (not verified)

My first inclination was the same as RM's, but Eric Lund stated the sad fact. Checking ethnicity boxes is one way of making sure institutional racism is not perpetuated in education. I don't like it, but I don't like even more that we still have to do it. Maybe one day there will be no need for it, but that day hasn't arrived.