This blog post series on college admissions arose from a series of articles I wrote for the Korea Daily, a Korean-language newspaper published in California.
When I first started writing my column, my editors and I suspected that the Korean community was sorely lacking reliable and accurate information about the college admissions process. The response we’ve received from our readers has overwhelmingly confirmed our suspicions.
The immigrant community has been laboring under many widespread but harmful misconceptions about the college admissions process in particular, and the U.S. education system as a whole.
In the rest of this college admissions series, I introduce four of the most common mistakes that immigrant parents make:
Over-emphasizing the importance of the standardized test (usually the SAT).
Forcing children to participate in the same activities as everybody else. (Herd mentality)
Allowing students free rein over electronic (gaming, computing, communication) devices.
Remaining unaware of the full range of college options.
Misconception #1: Over-emphasizing the importance of the SAT
Many immigrant parents overestimate the importance of the SAT, believing it to be the most significant factor in the college admissions process. This is very natural, considering the academic culture prevalent in many other countries.
In Korea, for example, the college entrance test is offered just once per year, in November of a student’s senior year. The entire nation acknowledges the importance of this test: the stock market opens later, traffic – including air traffic – is diverted from testing sites and electric companies stand by in case of power failure.¹ This nationwide obsession is so remarkable that it has been featured in many American newspapers.
The Wall Street Journal, for example, profiled one Korean mother who participated in an overnight prayer session at a temple, bowing three thousand times in order to plead for her son’s academic success.²
While it is understandable that parents coming from this test culture will have misperceptions about the U.S. education system, parents must realize that the SAT is not equivalent to the college entrance test in their home country. It is at once a more forgiving and less significant exam.
Unlike other national college entrance exams, the SAT is offered multiple times a year and can be taken during a student’s senior, junior or even sophomore years. The test is also much shorter and less comprehensive than other college entrance exams. And most importantly, it just doesn’t count as much.
GPA is the number one factor determining admission at both public and private colleges.
SATs come in second: a high SAT score alone will not get a student into any competitive college.
Misconception #2: Doing the same activities as everyone else (Herd mentality)
In my interactions with the immigrant community, I have found that many students end up with very similar extracurricular résumés. They engage in the same activities as their peers: playing in an orchestra or band, for example, or participating in church activities.
Part of this is the natural result of being part of a community. Parents tend to share information about their kids, and kids wants to do what their friends are doing. However, part of this uniformity is caused and nurtured by immigrant culture itself.
Many immigrant cultures tend to value homogeneity.
If John’s mother sends John to a speech and debate club, Tony’s mother feels that she should send Tony as well. In fact, many of the families I counsel seem to think that there is some sort of magic template for getting into college and they come to me to find that secret “formula.”
They talk about so-and-so, who got into an Ivy League school by doing A, B, and C, and assume that if their child also does A, B, and C, he or she will also get into an Ivy League school. This kind of mentality breeds a certain kind of student: the student with good grades and a large number of non-distinctive activities.
Most of these students will not get accepted into a top private school. Why?
Because the U.S. education system values diversity and rewards individuality.
American colleges seek out variety in gender, race, social class, life experience, etc. So they strongly prefer students who distinguish themselves from the pack: students with a unique identity, students who can bring something to the college that no other student can.
Misconception #3: Granting free access to informational technology
While the over-use of technology is an issue that concerns all parents of the iGen growing up these days, the problem is particularly acute among children of immigrants. A great number of the students I counsel have absolutely no discipline when it comes to screen time, playing video games, texting their friends, or participating in other time-consuming social media applications.
Parents feel that there is nothing that they can do to solve this problem.
However, this is not true. Initially, as a college counselor, I didn’t think that my job required me to get involved in matters like this. But the problem is too common and widespread for me to pass over without mention.
Too many students suffer academically because of their inability to manage time.
And when a student cannot maintain his or her academic performance because of an addiction to some form of technology, it is the parents’ job to cut off access.
Misconception #4: Remaining unaware of the full array of college options
Although the immigrant community in the U.S. has become better informed and organized over the last few decades, immigrants still remain largely unaware of the vast academic opportunities available to them.
Students tend to apply to the same ten or twelve schools:
The Ivies, MIT, Stanford, UCLA, Berkeley, and USC, thinking that admission into these institutions guarantees long-term success.
Again, this notion can be traced back to realities in home countries, where greater emphasis is placed on college affiliation. Just consider, however, the following piece of information. Among the top twenty-five schools in the U.S., there are many colleges that the average immigrant parent will never have heard of.
Consider other schools in the Top 25.
Schools like Rice, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Emory, and Vanderbilt all rank above UC Berkeley, but Berkeley sits on the top of many an immigrant parent’s college wish-list.³
Students of immigrant families are limiting their options because of a simple lack of information, and in the current ultra-competitive college environment, they are doing themselves a real disservice.
1. Lee, Hakyung Kate. “Cheering crowds greet South Korean students taking make-or-break college entrance exams.” ABC News. 23 Nov 2017.
2. Park, SungHa. “On College-Entrance Exam Day, All of South Korea is Put to the Test.” Wall Street Journal. 12 Nov 2008.
3. “National University Rankings 2019.” U.S. News & World Report. 3 Oct 2018.
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