College Apps: To Check or Not to Check Asian

I unabashedly bring my shrimp flavored crackers and dried seaweed to snack on at school. I sing along to K-pop songs and lend an earbud to a curious peer.

The thought of de-emphasizing my ethnicity, an essential part of my identity, had never crossed my mind–until I started delving into the college application process.

I’m currently a junior, and I’ve filled out much of the Common App, except for the essays. As a student preparing for the dog-eat-dog (a Chinese idiom!) world of college admissions, I have dedicated countless hours to scouring the internet for anything that may aid me in the college admissions process. 10 Tips for Getting into Your Top College Choice. How to Write a Stellar College Application Essay. How I Got Into (insert college name here)! You know, those articles that promise to help you maximize your admission chances.

As an Asian-American college applicant, I am faced with a perplexing decision I had previously never considered:

Should I identify myself as Asian?

Below are Google’s suggestions to complete the keyword search “college asian”:

The first suggestion speaks to the increasing popularity of Korean dramas and the Hallyu Wave–another interesting topic, but not the focus of this article. The second and third suggestions are, frankly, disconcerting: “discrimination” and “quota”.

A subsequent cursory search for the same keywords plus  “affirmative action” reveals great controversy over whether Asian-Americans benefit or are harmed by these policies in college admissions. (In this post, I will not comment on the validity of these arguments.) Delving further into the black hole that is the internet reveals that some elite college admission consultants advise Asian students to “de-emphasize the Asianness” in their applications.

The Boston Globe
The New York Times
The Economist
The LA Times
Wall Street Journal

Identifying my race should be simple…right? My dad is Korean, my mom is Taiwanese, and I was born in America. Those factors make me Asian-American.

Even if I declined to identify my ethnicity,  it would be easy for admission officers to identify me as Asian, especially by my last name. For me, checking that box is more symbolic than anything. Nevertheless, the seemingly mundane action of tapping my computer mouse to check a box on a lit-up screen has genuinely sparked introspection.

I’m from Kentucky–yes, the mystical land of KFC. I live as a drop of yellow in an ocean of white, but I am proud of my culture and ethnicity. When I first started filling out the Common App 4 months from the time I am writing this, my first instinct was to check Asian, and I did. But, after reading all these articles, that small nagging voice inside me can’t help but wonder:

What if identifying myself as Asian really does work against me? What if this is the deal-breaker for my application? Am I better off checking no box at all?

The decision may be even more difficult for those of mixed heritage, as evidenced by this College Confidential thread and many others. They must decide between indicating both or one ethnicity, or perhaps neither.

Call me an idealist, but I believe that the college application process is an opportunity to explore what makes you YOU. Attempting to boil down your experiences from the past four years into one succinct application is no easy feat, but the ultimate goal is to create a picture of the person you are and aspire to be; this picture is for both colleges and yourself.

So maybe Asian discrimination does exist in college admissions. And maybe a college will deny me because they’ve filled their Asian quota. Maybe my ethnicity is a negative for college admissions. But those are maybes.

My ethnicity and cultural heritage have certainly been an asset, and I refuse to treat them as anything but such. For me, the positives greatly outweigh the possible negatives.

I can’t bring myself to uncheck that 10×10 pixel square.

Choosing to identify as Asian on college applications is a personal decision, and this is simply the thought process behind my decision. YALA is neutral on this issue and has provided me a platform to voice my opinion.

This article was also published on The Culture Lens, my blog about cultural exploration and identity. Check it out to read more of my content!

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