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Questions about the future often stir up a dreaded picture, rife with anxiety and fears associated with the uncertain inevitability of life. Regardless of where you are in the moment, it’s ultimately your next step that determines the outcome of your journey. Channelling an existential grandiosity, certain decisions can make or break your life’s map.

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As the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, said, “It isn’t where you came from. It’s where you’re going that counts.” And it especially counts and vexes one if the grand leap of faith transports you to a different landscape, disconnected from your sense of belonging. Students aspiring to make the big move in search of better educational opportunities are always faced with the sense of trepidation attached to these big question marks about finding colleges in a different country that fit their interests. The next point of worry stems from the unfamiliar picture of having to adjust to a place with widely disparate values as your own.

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In order to uncover the answers to perenially running streams of connections tied to university admissions in the United States, especially for Asian students, we spoke to Mr Allen Koh, the founder of the gloriously esteemed US-based educational consulting company Cardinal Education.

Mr Allen Koh last spoke to the Hindustan Times in October 2023. Although not much time has elapsed since then, the ever-changing political and cultural landscape has revealed all kinds of spine-chilling scenarios and enlarged our question bank addressing the flight to US universities.

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In our latest interview with Mr Koh, we covered much ground around issues of classroom diversity in US colleges, the undying pervasive Asian stereotypes, lesser-known pathways leading to the coveted high-profile Ivy route while also slashing out some misconceptions associated with community colleges and more.

Understanding changing trends in US university admissions for Asian students

Diversity in the US College Classrooms

We opened our expansive questionnaire by asking Mr Koh if he’d witnessed any positive shifts in college admission trends for Asian students since we last spoke to him.

“There hasn’t really been any meaningful change in admission rates for Asians, except with respect to the UC system (University of California),” began Mr Koh. He explained that this system encompasses all flagship schools that many Indians covet, including Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego.

Mr Koh added, “These universities have been celebrating their increased diversity,” but “the percentage of Asians has gone down.” Further deciphering the numbers, he informed, “For Caucasians, it’s remained the same, but then for African-Americans and Hispanics, it’s gone up.” Yet the colleges’ “press releases celebrate the increased diversity even though Asians have gone down.”

Connecting the dots with last year’s loss of affirmative action, commonly understood as “race-conscious admissions,” we linked his message to a statement he highlighted during the October interview with us: “Universities do not want to have a class full of just Asian American males.”

Digging deeper into the context and background, Mr Koh explained, “Americans believe that you want to have a diversity of ideas and opinions. That way, we have more competition for what is the best idea.” He then decoded how this need for diverse ideas has been fused with the need for diversity in people.

“If you were to just make merit-based for Computer Science admission, it would be dominated by Asian males and then Asian females of various kinds of Asian ethnicities, and there wouldn’t be very much else – a small minority of all the others. And so, right or wrong, American universities consider this to be undesirable.” According to Cardinal Education’s CEO, this said “undesirability” then leads the American universities “to a unified theory or coherence of theories… to reduce the number of Asians and increase the number of other ethnicities.”

Discussing if the universities were actively pursuing this route to bring down the Asian numbers in the classroom, Mr Koh said, “If you look at the percentage of Asians at the top schools through the 1980s, it was very small. After accusations of racism, the number of Asians started to skyrocket.” On confirming if these trends were restricted to the sciences or pervasive throughout other fields as well, Koh noted that the numbers were reflected “across fields, but the competition and effects of affirmative action policies are felt to the most acutely in the sciences.”

Tapping beyond the stereotypical pursuit of the sciences by Asians, we asked Koh if students actively applied to other courses. He replied, “Asians are a huge group… You have Asians applying to everything, but the more Asians that apply to any particular major, the more competitive it’s going to be and the more impressive the Asians have to be relative to other Asians and even other applicants.”

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He then shared a “good rule of thumb,” decoding a better look at students facing challenges in a particular field. “The higher the anticipated ROI of the degree, the more significant challenges Asians face. If it’s finance or economics or even pre-med, any engineering, mathematics, all of those are much harder for Asians to the point we call it ‘Darwinian.’”

Breaking down the supposed monolithic meld of the ‘Asian/Asian American’ identity

Despite myriads of nationalities and ethnicities being represented by the clustered banner of the “Asian American” identity, a homogenous picture has been birthed to refer to these communities.

Despite myriads of nationalities and ethnicities being represented by the clustered banner of the “Asian American” identity, mainstream media – pop culture and so on – paints a homogenous picture, clustering them all together.

However, Mr Koh stated that US colleges even “try to diversify amongst Asians.” The percentage of Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Indian Americans, and Pakistani Americans—a diverse group—those numbers, plus or minus, generally stay within a band every year. Admissions officers will just deny talking about racial selection, but when you have, plus or minus, the same number of Koreans, Vietnamese or Filipinos every year, it’s just statistically impossible for it to be random.”

Along those lines, we eventually got down to dissecting the pervasive synonymous stereotype that tags along with the homogenisation of communities under the “Asian” identity – the perception of Asian Americans as “hardworking” or “studious” individuals, primarily when the conversation is centred around academics. In an attempt to understand the origins of this stereotype, while going beyond that, we asked Mr Koh how the admissions process weighed out someone who doesn’t particularly fit into this assumption.

Taking into account people with weaker GPAs or test scores, Cardinal Education CEO came clean about those students “not even being in the conversation.” Though he stated that in some minority cases, students could still be “a part of the conversation” despite their weaker test scores, he painted a transparent and hard-to-swallow (for some) picture of Asians.

He continued, “For Asians, there’s zero forgiveness for not having the GPA or the test scores. For every ‘x’ number of Asians that have great numbers, you’re only going to admit a fraction of them. For other minorities… for every ‘y’ number of students that have those numbers, a huge percentage of them will be accepted.”

Later, during our conversation, we inquisitively wondered if the previously mentioned stereotype actually held any sound foundations. We asked Mr Koh if there was a particular community within the “Asian American” meld that was scoring better than others.

He replied, “I’m very confident that it’s Indian or Chinese, who are probably at the very top. If I had to guess, it’s probably the Indians… Indians are amongst the most successful ethnic groups in the United States on a socio-economic and educational… basis. If I had to guess, Indians would have the highest scores, followed by Chinese and then maybe Koreans.

Even among Asians, it’s bifurcated – there are Asians who are doing supremely well and it’s actually harder to distinguish yourself… but there are other Asian groups in the United States who are comparatively doing worse than the average American (for example, Cambodian Americans, Filipino Americans) – their standards are not the same that an Indian American would face.”

Once questioned about what could possibly be fuelling Indian Americans more to gain that extra edge over other Asian counterparts, Mr Allen underlined the prevalence of unimaginable levels of pre-existing competition in India.

“Everything in India is competitive, so people bring that ‘I have to thrive in competitive circumstances’ mindset… even when they immigrate… Culturally, education is tremendously valued, which is not the same for other ethnic groups, especially ones that are not as successful as Indian Americans. Most of those populations might think education is very valuable, but not all… For Indians, Koreans, Chinese – all”

In addition, Mr Koh drew from his personal experiences with Indian clients, and reflected on their “willingness to ‘Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is’: “Every now and then, we get an Asian client who is nowhere near the socioeconomic level of some of our other clients—there’s a greater willingness to actually invest massive amounts of time and money to back up their claims of education being really important.

Also, for Indians, there’s a mindset of accountability, ownership, and not making excuses when it comes to education… India is a very tough society in some ways – large, so competitive, a lot of really smart people – a lot of people (at least the ones I’ve encountered), they really own the fact that they’re responsible for the quality of education they get…Some ethnic groups will blame or cite different factors – like sociological or historical – for why they cannot possibly succeed academically… Indians, not really prone to making excuses about education. Lastly… there’s a cultural value of sacrificing, even depriving yourself – for your own education or your children’s education.”

Supporting his claims about the culturally prevalent Indian “value of sacrificing,” Mr Koh recounted how his consultancy firm works with several widely reputed and recognisable figures in India; even then, occasionally, he comes face to face with a family “spending a significant amount of their savings.”

Having an edge over other students during the admissions process

Despite the harsh reality check, advantageous opportunities open up for aspiring students if “they’re differentiated more in terms of personal interests, hobbies and intellectual interests.” Further elucidating his argument, Mr Koh drew up two antithetical pictures of applicants potentially applying to Computer Science with different motivations.

For the first one, he picked the hypothetical instance of an applicant who verbally situated their inspiration for taking up the course in hopes of wanting to become a “tech CEO one day and make billions of dollars.” On the contrary, he brought in the image of another hypothetical aspirant who dreams of instrumentalising Computer Science “to really help women’s education” or bolstering an educational platform for a marginalised group.

While the former statements would get the person “penalised,” the latter compassionate, philanthropic motivations (“a more differentiated story”) would be deemed a significantly rarer case, which could help boost the aspirant’s chances of getting through even with the same test scores/GPA.

The “mysterious” variables set by US universities for college admissions

As Mr Koh underscored the paramount importance of establishing a more “unique” story in order to be noticed by the admissions officers, we dug in deeper by asking what kind of variables ultimately set apart the students who were finally accepted into colleges and those who weren’t.

This direction of conversation successively revealed other unrevealed facts about the “mysterious” opacity of admissions in US colleges compared to other international institutions.

“Most countries… publicly advertise, very transparently, what exactly you need to achieve to gain admission to… programs you desire at whichever university you’re interested in,” began Mr Koh.

Subsequently, demystifying the American vision, he conversely said, “It’s only in the United States…there are a tremendous number of variables, there’s a lot of opacity about many of these variables,… some hidden variables,… universities will sometimes actively push disinformation or disingenuous spins on the truth in order to champion diversity, yet not garner the ire of people who are… being discriminated against.”

Unravelling the various systems at play across universities, Mr Koh delineated, “Every university has a different system… they’re like fingerprints – similar but different.” Despite the varying command of chain, Mr Allen particularly singled out “Impact” as the word often brought into conversation while weighing out all odds.

In that case, instances wherein one gives back to the community come to the forefront. This is where acts of Community Service become a common deciding factor, judging one’s “impact” and position as the ideal pick.

US college admissions: Comparison, Relativity and emphasis on Impact

On the same page, Mr Koh emphasised that the admissions process is “relative.” Expanding on the idea, he said, “Whatever activities you’re doing to differentiate yourself, they will compare you to everyone else who has something similar. From there, they will stack rank you.”

In simpler words, the process looks at “all the people who did something similar” to ultimately rank them “in terms of their impact, challenges they’ve had to conquer to make that impact – how difficult they were, how much innovation you’ve shown… they want to see what sort of innovation, initiative and critical problem solving (to try to bring new ideas to solving even old problems)… It’s always about comparison.”

Ultimately dissecting how these comparisons are mapped out, Mr Koh highlighted that adjectives like “excellent” are vague. Instead, officials rely more on drawing up a scale, for instance, 1 to 4. Here, 1 defines the applicant’s impact on the local level (one’s town, school, neighbourhood, apartment block), while 2 expands to the provincial level.

On the other hand, 3 goes beyond to establishing one’s impact on the national level. Finally, 4 is international. Koh specified that even though “most people are accomplishing in the 2-3 range, there are more people than you think who are accomplishing in the 4 level—not a lot, but more than you would think.”

Grounding the explanation further, Mr Koh asserted, “You have to be interesting (as an applicant) within your school to then proceed to the next round.”

Whilst Mr Koh was kind enough to meticulously summarise a general reimagination of what happens behind closed doors, he foregrounded that neither of these supposed ratings or comparison standards is revealed to the public, circling back to the prevalent “mysteriousness” around the admissions/acceptance criteria.

Which Universities are more prone to welcoming Asian diversity in the classroom?

Though it was a “hard generalisation to make,” Mr Koh underlined that blue states (ones predominantly supporting the Democratic Party) or elite schools tend to take more Asians than their counterparts. Additionally, public schools that are ”more formulaic” are also more prone to taking Asians.

Reactions to the Elimination of Affirmative Action among Asian Candidates

“Parents are universally against Affirmative Action, once they understand that (it) is not designed to help Asian Americans in the United States, particularly if you’re of Indian, Chinese or Korean descent.

(For) Children, (it) partially depends on their level of ambition. If you have great ambition, you’re going to feel those policies work against you, maybe more than you would applying to a far less competitive university… For a lot of young people, their default politics are a lot more progressive. So… because it is part of a bigger political ideology, they will support affirmative action. It’s complicated.”

Shattering stigma surrounding Community Colleges and how they can bridge the pathway to other top schools down the line

Community colleges aren’t always aspirants’ first choice, and a predominant contentious mindset emerges as soon as they’re mentioned. Mr Koh drew us to a lesser-visited thought process, highlighting the innumerable universities dotting the US landscape. “There are 3,500 universities in the United States… as a college consultant, I try to remind people that there are more universities that exist than, like, the 15 you’ve heard of growing up.”

While he pointed out that Asian Americans “actively consider relatively low-profile colleges,” they aren’t their first priority. Even the process of applying to schools is extensive and requires students to invest hours of their time and write myriads of essays, which led him to raise a significantly realistic question: “Do you really want to spend, like, 30 to 40 hours applying to schools” that you know you don’t really have a shot at?

He added, “If you’re Asian with all Bs… There’s literally no chance you’re ever going to make it to Harvard. It’s actually just 0% probability.” Thereafter, Mr Koh drew our attention to a subject line that he was particularly eager to share with the readers: “America has this great community college system.”

Although he grasped the notion that many people see community college as an afterthought or “basically a derogatory term,” he drew parallels with the United States’ love for underdogs to support his argument. Mr Koh sought to change people’s views on the community college system.

“One-third of all UC Berkeley students are community college transfer students.” Relatably connecting the dots to Indian students, he said that if you’re applying to the University of California, Berkeley, out of high school, “your chances (objectively)… are pretty weak.”

So, then, what is the other way around? “At UVA, they have a guaranteed admissions program. So, the University of Virginia is one of the best public schools in the United States. You need a 3.4 minimum GPA to qualify for guaranteed transfer from community college, which, frankly, is not as hard as a four-year university… UVA is like a UCLA, Berkeley level.”

Another example he drew out of the bucket was the Georgia Institute of Technology, which he claims is especially loved by Indians due to its hold as a top public research university for STEM courses. “Their community college program, 3.3 minimum GPA… That is not hard to achieve in community college.”

The third one was the University of Michigan. “It’s one of the great public universities in the United States. If you go to a Michigan community college, their transfer is a minimum of 2.0.” Even then, Mr Koh highlighted that many families expressed their disdain considering the community college route.

As a response, he would then foreground, that colleges as lesser heard of as the University of California Merced could actually be the remedy one needed. “It’s less than 15 years old, 20 years old… So, generally speaking, universities, the older, the better… UC Merced costs the same as UC Berkeley. So, you could go to community college for a fraction of the price and then transfer to Berkeley.”

Mr Koh emphasized that planning out the community college route and then transferring to a high-profile college would help one fit into the “underdog” narrative and is “absolutely worth considering” despite all kinds of apprehensions associated with the pathway. “If you’re Indian American, you can go to California community college for free for two years, and then you transfer to Berkeley.”

The mental toll of the admissions process: Do people crumble under pressure after achieving the “holy grail,” i.e., admission into an Ivy League?

Mr Koh spotlighted, “The dirty secret about the United States, elite university admissions, is that the hardest thing about elite universities is getting in. Once you’re in, generally speaking, it’s considered not that challenging. I mean, there are some rare exceptions, like Caltech and MIT. They say it’s just brutally difficult once you get there… But for most other majors, ‘difficulty’ is not what is driving people out.”

“There’s some element of you’re just exhausting yourself in high school, and so you enter a college burnt out… There’s always some number of students who show up to elite universities burnt out. The truth of the matter is, I don’t think anybody works harder in the world than elite American university-bound high school students. Because they have to sacrifice so much. Well, I guess there’s the IIT kids. Yeah, I mean, I guess it’s comparable. It’s just a different kind of pain.”

On Extracurricular activities and university admissions

“Our kids who want to go to elite universities, they’re spending 15 to 25 hours a week on their co-curricular activities. This is on top of school and tests. That’s a huge commitment of time. Once they get to an elite university, they’re just kind of used to spending significant time. So I don’t think that’s as big of an adjustment,” said Mr Koh.

What about newbies who don’t come from a sports background, but would like to venture into that space after getting into college?

“At elite universities, what’s interesting is they have students who are world-class in many different things, but also they have a huge number of opportunities. And so, yes, people will go to universities and try sports, try painting, and try all kinds of new activities once they’re there. Because remember what I said. The hardest thing about most universities, elite universities, is getting in. Once you’re there, people can find the time to start or pursue other things.”

Finally, coming to the more recent heart-rending turn of events. The news has been emphasising the dreadful string of Indian student deaths that have seemingly endlessly come into focus since the beginning of the new year, with over ten such attacks targetting the community.

Has that instilled fear in parents (and aspiring students) about sending their children off to achieve the idealised “American Dream”?

“I think this fear is largely in the minds of Indians in India and NRIs… Indian Americans don’t worry about it. They worry about racism leading to a lack of opportunities or tougher standards to get the opportunity. So, with my Indian American clients, we don’t talk about safety.”

“Most of these incidents are happening in urban places that generally have more crime than the average place in the United States. International students may not be as savvy about certain safety things.”

“I think suburban campuses are really safe. And also, here’s the thing: the physical violent crimes, against Indians, they’re generally not perpetrated by anyone affiliated with the universities. That’s why I think this concern… not trivial, but it is a little bit overblown.”

Discussing the surge in racial profiling right after COVID-19 (or even after the 9/11 attacks)

“ I would say that COVID-19 didn’t create anything. All it did was make certain people with backward views less ashamed to express their feelings aloud. People just lost their sense of restraint, not necessarily changed their opinions.

I think successful Asians in America just accept that they will have to work harder. The majority of software engineers, especially at the entry-level, are Asian. If you got rid of all the Asians, these companies would collapse. But then, once you start getting into mid-level, the number of Asians starts to fall off a cliff. And it just gets more and more extreme the higher up the executive ranks you go. Having said that, you know, you see people like Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella.

They’re all running Google and Microsoft… I think Asians just kind of accept they will have to work harder. And there’s a very broad generalization, but I think Asians, almost across ethnic groups… really take self-accountability.

The reality, the unfortunate truth in the United States is that Asian Americans are the only group – Asians and Asian Americans regardless of a country of origin – they’re the only group of people that is socially acceptable to mock without repercussions. I don’t think Asians live in fear of it; they just try to work on what they can control.”

Exploring fears attached to racial discrimination and anxieties about moving abroad

Towards the end, Mr Koh provided some key reminders and safety techniques, encouraging aspirants to pursue higher-education opportunities in the US.

“Every incident is so tragic and sensationalized that it is tattooed into everyone’s memory, but just as an objective number, America is a big country, so… there are some basic safety techniques: Being in groups, especially at night. Don’t take the shortcut through the dark alleyway. Even if it’s the longer route, you want to take the well-lit paths… But if that really is your concern, you’re better off going to a suburban campus because that way, the percentage of university-affiliated people you meet is extremely high to total, and generally speaking, that is just profoundly safer.”

Having meticulously gotten to the bottom of a diverse range of issues and concerns, Mr Koh ultimately took a minute to stress the positives of moving to the US for such opportunities. “America is one of the only places where you can start from absolutely nothing. It’s one of the only places where you could come from an incredibly humble background with no money, no name, and no support. If you apply yourself, even foreigners can live the “American dream,” which is one concept that has helped America be so well-respected.”

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