An alumnus reflects on interviewing Asian-American applicants to Harvard

Harvard university (Photo:

As a reporter in China and a parent in California, I often encountered extraordinary talent and energy in young people who traced their lineage to Asia. What I couldn’t understand during my 20 years as an alumni interviewer for Harvard University was why my college and other selective schools seemed to shrug off their accomplishments when they applied for admission.

I had little data then to back up my concerns, but an analysis of more than 160,000 student records recently filed in a discrimination lawsuit against Harvard suggests anti-Asian bias may have been involved.

I could be wrong. Harvard uses alumni to try to interview every applicant. We often become advocates for the impressive young people we meet. We take it personally when Harvard says no.

Still, I saw many Asian Americans with 4.0 grade-point averages, high SAT scores and musical talent dismissed as too much alike, not special enough for Harvard. Some people seemed to think that playing the violin was a culturally induced habit like my love of milkshakes, and required no persistence or skill.

In the 1980s I was asked to do all the Harvard interviews at South Pasadena High School, not far from my home. The school had many Asian-American students who I thought were worthy candidates but didn’t get in.

One confessed to me that he and a friend had started an underground newspaper at the school because the official paper was too dull. He had not mentioned this on his application. He thought an establishment institution like Harvard would frown on such behavior.

I was excited. Here was an Asian-American applicant who had the high grades and test scores, but instead of playing the violin, he was writing attacks on the school administration, some of them quite clever. He was a rebel! I emphasized this in my report and gave him very high marks in the extracurricular and personal categories, but Harvard still didn’t take him.

Admissions officers at selective colleges can never please everyone. They want to find room for low-income, black and Hispanic applicants who have been overlooked in the past.

Asian enrollment at Harvard is far above the Asian percentage of the population, but there are more qualified applicants of every category than the school can admit. You can tell from who gets in and who doesn’t that it is mostly a crapshoot, perhaps with some bias mixed in.

The most interesting statistic I saw in the analysis compiled by the Asian American plaintiffs – and sharply criticized by Harvard – was that alumni interviewers like me gave Asian Americans personal ratings comparable to those for whites. But the professional admissions officers at Harvard gave them the worst personal scores of any ethnic group.

My advice to spurned candidates in my 2003 book “Harvard Schmarvard” was to realize that being rejected by the Ivies wasn’t going to change their lives. A major study showed that applicants with character traits such as humor, charm and patience would make just as much money 20 years later whether they went to ultra-selective universities or not.

In 1987 my wife, Linda Mathews, wrote for the Los Angeles Times magazine about a disappointed Asian-American applicant, the best piece I have ever read on that subject. Yat-pang Au was rejected by the University of California at Berkeley despite a straight-A average, high SAT scores, prizes from a county science fair and acclaim from his teachers.

But here, 31 years later, is the rest of the story: Au transferred from community college to Berkeley and graduated in the same electrical engineering/computer double major that had rejected him. He is now the chief executive and founder of Veritas Investments, the largest landlord in San Francisco.

The federal courts may or may not straighten this out. Whatever they do will not make the admissions system any easier on its young participants. But given the kind of people those students are, no matter how infuriating the process, they are unlikely to lose sight of their dreams.

(Jay Mathews is an education columnist for The Washington Post, his employer for nearly 50 years. He created the annual America’s Most Challenging High Schools rankings of high schools and has written nine books.)