College Admissions and Asian Students

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About a year ago today, my college counselor told me I would have fun with the college admissions process, but that on the other hand, I needed to think ahead and be ready to market myself towards my chosen colleges. College admissions was a game to be played, simply because the basis of judgement for rejected and accepted students could be so blurry. It was made very clear that my race could be played against me simply because there were too many Asian students applying to these schools, and “too little to distinguish us from one another,” i.e. the stereotypical interest in math, piano, and chess. We’re easily profiled if we’re not careful. This, however, is not to say Asian students aren’t already plenty represented in top universities, and the goal of affirmative action is to balance out regardless. 

Are college admissions more harsh on people of Asian descent? Right now, it’s getting more and more difficult for Asians to get into top colleges looking at score statistics. On average for the new 1600-point SATs, they need to score around 140 points higher than white students in order to be considered on the same playing field (270 higher than Latino students, and 450 than black students) (

However, the Asian American community has not complained about this situation seriously in regards to equality until the past two years. Families combat the statistics year after year by pushing their children harder, which only alters the admissions scene every year, making things harder for others as well as themselves.

I was surprised to encounter this myself so strongly from some family friends, when they began asking me which AP science classes I’d taken. I, myself, have never been the best science student, and you certainly need not be one in order to get into a good university. One mother in particular stressed to her son (Sophomore) that top colleges were looking for people with extra talents (in my case, that happened to be music and art). In my case, the single best piece of advice I could give the sophomore was “show the college that you know what they expect of you as a student.”

It is understandable that colleges adapt a new idea of diversity that extends beyond race. It is about each individual’s history and family culture, and how each student uses it in their life.

Why should you care? The issue right now is the unpredictability of admissions as standards are raised higher and higher. This not only impacts Asian students but also non-Asian students who must raise their own standards at lightning rate as well, in order to accommodate what can be concluded as a cultural phenomenon that many US students may not be used to. It’s clear that the sheer number of competitive students applying to these universities is detrimental to the chances of other students being admitted and especially makes for fierce competition among “safety” schools.

Game Matrix:

The college admissions process is more suitable for a game matrix because it’s not transparent (In this case, one player doesn’t know what the other will do). Students usually have some idea on how they should present themselves, but never what the college might be looking for in terms of demographics until they look at statistics of the college after decisions come out.

A – Score-focused, Non-Affirmative (Where the focus of an application is the score)
B – Racial -focused affirmative action (where the application focuses on more individual aspects), and selective against model minority
C – Socio-economic focused affirmative action, not necessarily selective against model minority. Student’s candidacy is compared with the opportunities they had as a reflection of their family background.


College Strategy vs. “model minority” students

(In our case, students who are

well-represented in top colleges)

A. Student presents race (4,2) (2,5) (4,5)
B. Student doesn’t present race (4,2) (3,4) (3, 4)

Payoff Assignment:

MM = Model Minority

  1. (4,2) Non-Affirmative action based purely on scores shows no variance in outcome for a student presenting race or not. It doesn’t help the college gather a diverse body of students, but depending on the university, this may actually be a good outcome to be a campus only geared towards academic excellence. For most US universities, however, that’s not the case. A well-scoring MM student can rest assured (with certainty) that they can get into the college they want, however, this also takes away the possibility of a student who doesn’t score well a holistic review of their candidacy. Not all good students are good test takers.
  2. (2,5) and (3,4), at the moment with the number of MM students represented in college, presenting one’s race is detrimental when applying to a college whose strategy is to fulfill a racial quota in order to diversify their campus. Not presenting race makes the application process quite difficult (especially by hiding your background, which is why in both College strategies B and C, it’s the same payoff for the student if they hide their ethnicity). On the college side, if a student chooses strategy B, their quota will be harder to fulfill.
  3. (4,5) and (3,4) Both C and B strategies for colleges are forms of diversifying the campus. If a student chooses B when college chooses C, the quota would be harder to fulfill. If an MM student chooses strategy A, then the process won’t be selective against them for a feature they have no control over, but rather what they’ve made of the opportunities they had (hereby increasing their chances of getting in and how much they can reveal about themselves), while still giving the college a way to diversify.


For colleges, A is dominated by B and C, meaning they should never base purely off of score as an indicator of good qualification (Unless a specialty school). There is no dominance for MM students.

Movement Diagram:

Nash Equilibrium

is the saddle point at (3,4). It doesn’t seem like the best case scenario for students, however, which heavily discredits its status as a Nash Equilibrium, and it certainly doesn’t help the college figure out their demographics if no one reveals their race (See Pareto Optimal). The other saddle point seems to make more sense, where colleges judge by socioeconomic status for affirmative action rather than racial.

If we don’t consider the third column (which is currently a recommended and advocated method by many, though not confirmed if institutionalized by colleges yet), it would seem that if both parties plays their best outcome, neither wind up in a good position.

Pareto Optimal:


The pareto optimal comes out to the (5,4) shared between a college using affirmative action based on socioeconomic status and a MM student revealing their background. Circled in green is the other nash equilibrium.

Game Tree:

This game can be theoretically modeled with a game tree, but it’ll be messier than the matrix because each final outcome follows a different combination of student types. How a college reacts when they see each student depends on what they’re looking for, which is based on what students they’ve already admitted in the previous round. Therefore, in every “layer” of the tree, a different student will be playing against the college.

Playing this game is about recruiting an equal group of students for type A, B, and C (mimicking college student grouping/profiling), or, depending on the college, recruiting a specific number of student who fit type A, B, and C. Students can choose which type they can market themselves to be (Often, Asian students can fall into a category easily in the eyes of college admissions officers).

Triangles represent the continuation of the game starting from the top, and keep going until enough students are accepted to the college. In the last set of games each individual outcome concerns itself with a different combination of students. The one with highest payoff for the college and student is the path that results in equal number of students admitted of type A, B, and C.

Let’s look at a case study: 

Henry Isao Watanabe

Marcela Marie Castillo 

Dorri Olivia Johnson


Which student would you admit? (Please comment why)

Created with Survey Maker


There are a lot more factors contributing to a college’s selection including the demographic of students they’ve already admitted, which is reflected through a game tree.

It’s crucial for some students to reveal their ethnicity in order to present themselves as holistically as possible to colleges, and it’s very possible for students to be able to use it to their advantage.

Extending interviews to all students is a good way to ensure that a college knows their applicants the best before they make final decisions and allows students to further expand on anything they couldn’t in the application. It helps prevent racially categorizing people, While colleges would never deny someone solely for their race, it’s used similarly as another small device of an application to compare it to. When there are two students left, for example, it’s more likely for a college to choose the student with an interview.

It may be difficult for a college to provide enough qualified interviewers who have the time and are willing to commit.

Unfortunately in the realm of policy, there’s not much the audience can do because this is an institutionalized phenomenon, where the participants contribute to an upward curve to survive (high-achieving students strive to perform better and better).

In some ways I would even conclude that this process is inevitable, and maybe even good in the long run. It forces applicants to reconsider the extracurriculars they choose, the interests they explore (and perhaps helps them reconsider the reason they explore them to be more self-fulfilling rather than for the sake of getting into college). It also forces people (especially model-minority families) to reconsider the status of elite colleges and how non-formulaic it is. It’s more important to prepare children to become healthy, motivated individuals rather than teaching them to follow a formula for guaranteed success.

On an Endnote:

An Asian American student’s personal anecdote of an application process in which he hid his ethnicity: 


Resources: (!!!!)

Thank you! 🙂



Share this project
  1. April 28, 2018 by Sarah P

    Hi! Awesome project. I thought that your idea was a really great one and I think it is very important that you went into a topic that was relevant to you. I thought that the game theory project was cool and something I honestly did not entirely understand, but I thought it made your project seem very professional. Nice statistics and data!

  2. April 28, 2018 by Grace Nichols

    I love this topic! Asian Americans (myself included) know all to well how much more difficult the college admissions process is for us, and I’m glad you’re helping more people see what’s going on and offering up solutions. You also had a really creative use of the interactive element with the case study, well done!

  3. April 29, 2018 by Kimberly Porto

    This project really brings light on something that is so important to so many high school aged students! I am so proud of how well you handled your own college search and so proud of where you be for the next 4 years. Well done!!

  4. April 29, 2018 by Summer

    This was a great project! I don’t know anything about game theory, but you explained your topic in a way that was easy to follow. I really liked the case study college applications you shared. Thanks for sharing – good job!

  5. May 04, 2018 by Ben.Arriola

    I loved how you incorporated game theory into this project! I knew almost nothing about your topic or game theory, so I learned a lot. I just went through the application process, so I know how frustrating it is. Do you believe there is a way for colleges to consider a student’s racial or ethnic background without being unfair to other students? Or do you think it should not be a factor in the admissions process?

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