The Downside of Privilege
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By David Phillips

Whether we like it or not, socioeconomic judgments play a role in admissions. While being authentic is perennially good advice, in the face of admissions systems which may prefer certain types of students over others, beyond factors such as grades and test scores, there will certainly be certain demographics which tend to be preferred over other. This can be a very contentious topic. Several institutions are currently facing lawsuits regarding discrimination in admissions (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/01/us/harvard-justice-department-discrimination.html).

I’ve attended enough UC conferences in which deans proudly display graphs of how their concerted efforts have enrolled students who are the first generation of their family to attend a four-year university, are low-income, and/or who are ethnic minorities underrepresented in the world of higher education. The UCs should absolutely be commended for recruiting up to 40% of students in these groups. After all, this is an excellent mission for a public university, or any university for that matter. However, I work with a vast majority of students who are not socioeconomically disadvantaged in any way that the University of California (nor other schools) recognizes.  

Most of my students have been the sons and daughters of Chinese/Chinese-American and Indian/Indian-American families. Most have had two parents with advanced degrees working in technology, and making a decent living. Their parents have worked hard, often devoting much attention and sparing effort nor expense to providing enriching educational opportunities for their children. They buy homes or rent apartments in the best school districts, serve as shuttles to music, art and/or language lessons, and athletics.

Parents talk, and the pandemonium of parental one-ups man ship becomes a central focus for many families. This tendency to want to keep up with others can dangerous for many reasons.  One danger is the time wasted / opportunity cost of applying to SIMR, COSMOS and other programs which a student may just be flat out unqualified for.

Another danger is the potential mismatch between a student’s summer activities and the colleges and majors to which they plan to apply. Most summer experiences are not strong enough to catch the attention of the Ivy League. Fewer still would be impressive enough for Stanford, which is completely inured to all but the loftiest extracurricular activities. Every self-respecting (Asian and Asian American) student “in the neighborhood” has tried every trick in the book to reach dreamy yet tantalizing Stanford. In my experience, the more diverse and lower SES students from San Francisco and the East Bay always beat the more-privileged masses of the lower Peninsula, Silicon Valley and the South Bay, unless a strong legacy or parent-employment hook is working in the privileged student’s favor.

I imagine that some of the less jaded (and/or more delusional?) readers are already rolling their eyes at my highly-detailed consideration of the minutiae attending admissions strategies for the privileged. And they are correct. But when you have witnessed students whose futures you care about losing out on their dreams – oftentimes dreams for which they are imminently qualified – I simply root for my students, and indeed all students, who must face the complexities and well-intentioned yet inherently-flawed vicissitudes of the US college application processes. The classic affirmative action debate continues to play out, and Asian students are often victims in the name of diversity or “making a class” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/30/opinion/white-students-unfair-advantage-in-admissions.html).

Having said all of this, also believe that “privileged” students and any students who lack creativity and self-awareness, will write bad essays. One mediocre trend in personal essay writing is what I’ll term the “volunteer vacation” essay – any essay about a short-term international experience (usually <2 weeks spent abroad) which the student spends time deriving too many learning experiences from. People. It’s been done. Colleges have repeated and explicitly said that they don’t believe it is possible for student to have such short-term foreign experiences that relate to the student’s essential core, which should be the heart of most any personal statement. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule but I think that it goes without saying that students who make more out of less are more impressive to colleges than students whose opportunities have fallen in their lap yet still bemoan their stellar high schools’ lack of “real world experience.”