Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Building upon the legacy of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

You're More Than Just A Number: Affirmative Action and College Admissions

Friday, June 15th 2018

By Nicole Ochi, Supervising Attorney

In the coming months, millions of rising high school seniors will be visiting college campuses and hustling to get a head start on their application materials, just as I did twenty years ago.

I was once a bewildered 17-year-old, contemplating my college options the summer before my senior year of high school. My parents were extremely supportive, but neither had attended a four-year university and my public high school had limited counseling resources. All I knew was that I wanted to stay in California, but not too close to my hometown of Sacramento. Left largely to my own devices, I scoured the U.S. News & World Report that my aunt had given me and created a short list of five California schools that I wanted to visit.

That summer, I road-tripped with my parents and best friend to visit the five colleges on my shortlist: Stanford, Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, UC San Diego, and Pomona College. The school that I liked the most was Pomona College, but my SAT scores were not very competitive, so I applied Early Decision and spent weeks sitting in front of my old Tandy computer drafting and redrafting my personal statement. Fortunately, the admissions officers at Pomona College looked past my mediocre test scores and admitted me with a generous financial aid package.

Today, the college admissions process is exponentially more competitive, stressful, and expensive than it was for me. For many Asian American families embarking on this journey, there is a concern that the deck is stacked against them, that their children must work harder than anyone else to stand out. While this may be true (although no evidence to date has confirmed this), it is unfortunate and damaging that so many families are led to believe that affirmative action or race-conscious admissions policies cause bias against Asian Americans. This belief is not supported by any reliable research and it is damaging because it incentivizes Asian American students to hide their race, which is a core part of their identity and could actually help them (especially low-income Asian American applicants) to get into their schools of choice. The widespread misconceptions about affirmative action are also damaging because they pit communities of color against each other for a small slice of the pie when we should be uniting to fight collectively for the whole pie.

Given my mediocre test scores, minimal Advanced Placement classes, and unimpressive extracurricular activities, I believe that the one thing that helped me to stand out was my personal statement, in which I wrote about growing up in the shadows of the Japanese American internment and Chinese railroad workers. One could say that I did not deserve my spot at Pomona College, but I think that depends on how you define merit. I did reasonably well at Pomona and received the President’s Prize for my thesis. Since then, I have run a job center for homeless adults, coordinated the development of affordable housing, clerked for the 9th Circuit, represented hundreds of low-wage, immigrant workers, and fought for the educational, housing, and voting rights of low-income people of color throughout California. I wasn’t the best student and I’m not the best lawyer or social justice advocate, but If you measure merit by how one uses their education to contribute to society, then I don’t think Pomona would say that it wasted a spot on me.

This summer, as families embark on the college application journey and as the media covers the competing arguments about affirmative action in the Harvard case, we encourage you to join us on social media as we kick-off a summer-long conversation about affirmative action and race using #MoreThanANumber. We will share resources to help you separate fact from fiction and eliminate unnecessary and damaging concerns about the consideration of race in the admissions process.


Advancing Justice-LA's helplines prioritize assistance to low-income persons in the following areas of law: family, immigration, public benefits, employement, housing, and civil rights. 

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Our mission is to advocate for civil rights, provide legal services and education, and build coalitions to positively influence and impact Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders and to create a more equitable and harmonious society.