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Is Harvard Actually Discriminating Against Asian Applicants?

In the next few months, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. The plaintiffs are arguing that the university unfairly discriminated against Asian Americans in its admissions process, in part by giving them lower personal ratings. Since the case was first filed in 2014, Asian Americans, who largely support affirmative-action policies, have been torn. At a time when #RepresentationMatters has been a rallying call for Asian Americans, the idea that race-conscious admissions could be struck down because of our community has been painful for many. At the same time, many Asian Americans have this nagging feeling that Harvard did something wrong.

I understand those feelings. As a Korean American woman, I know what it’s like to feel lumped together, dismissed, and seen as interchangeable. But as a researcher, I am also attuned to the powerful role of cognitive bias — the quick, unconscious ways our brains can make us jump to conclusions without deeply weighing the evidence. Many Asian Americans already felt that the deck was stacked against them prior to the Harvard case. So when during oral arguments before the Supreme Court, the SFFA attorney Cameron Norris said that “Asians should be getting into Harvard more than whites, but they don’t because Harvard gives them significantly lower personal ratings,” it reinforced the suspicions among many Asian Americans that despite all of their accomplishments, they will always be stereotyped and typecast.

Norris’s allegations were alarming, but are they the whole story? First, it is critical to understand that the personal rating is more than just how nice Harvard thinks applicants are. According to Harvard, the personal rating is “based on all parts of the application, including essays, letters of recommendation, and interview reports.” It considers potential contributions to the campus community and “to society as a whole after graduation.” The personal rating probably should have been called “the other stuff” rating, in that it was meant to capture features of the student not captured through the academic, extracurricular, and athletic ratings.

Norris’s claim that “Harvard ranks Asians less likable, confident, and kind” is based more on speculation than data. Yes, it reflects stereotypes that many Asian Americans experience, but the question at hand is not whether society thinks that Asians are less likeable (which, sadly, is true), but whether Harvard specifically and systematically rated them as such.

Let’s sift through the facts. Yes, Harvard had a scale related to certain traits like concern for others, confidence, and integrity. Yet, critically, that scale does not make up the entire personal rating — it is one of numerous pieces of information used to shape the personal rating. The personal rating is not a personality score. Also overlooked is the fact that Harvard never provided any data for how students actually rated on the trait scale of characteristics like kindness. Contrary to Norris’s claims, we have no way of knowing for sure whether Harvard ranked Asian American students as disproportionately less likeable or confident.


The available data tell us that Asian Americans got into Harvard less not because they were less kind or confident, but because they were less likely to be legacies or recruited athletes. Asian American admit rates are actually slightly higher than admit rates for white students when you compare only students who are not legacies, athletes, on a special Dean’s List, or children of faculty and staff. Again, these dynamics may be unfair, but they are very different from the claim of intentional discrimination made by SFFA.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education