Monday, December 24, 2012

The Tebows of Harvard

Tim Tebow was a great college quarterback. He put up great numbers running the ball and pretty good numbers passing. But no one thought he would be any good in the NFL. The NFL plays by different rules. The option doesn't work in the NFL--defenses are too fast. And without the threat of the run to complement his mediocre ability to throw, Tebow was a well below average in the pros.

I wonder why something so obvious in sports--that "college football" and "NFL football" are not the same--is so hard to understand for Asian-Americans.

Asians do well on standardized tests. They make up an disproportionately percentage of the students admitted to top high schools when admissions are based on test scores alone. But they make up a smaller percentage of the student body at top colleges and an even smaller share of the elite in most professions (finance, academia, consulting) that they tend to enter.

A lot of people assume the obvious explanation is that Asians are discriminated against. Admissions offices set higher standards for Asians--they need higher SAT scores or they have to show more skill with their violin (or piano). Corporations impose a "bamboo ceiling" and refuse to promote them above middle management.

But isn't it obvious that, to some extent, the explanation is that Asians are the Tebows of academics? They have a great skill, studying hard to master things like the law of sines and the quadratic formula because their parents told them to, and it serves them well in dominating standardized tests and the classical music world. But there is no tight link between dominating the SAT and being a good CEO, pioneering researcher, or even being the kind of student Princeton should want to admit.

Working hard to do the things you parents tell you to makes you good at tasks where directed practice is easy: track (you just run . . . a lot), classical music (you practice each song), and the SAT (you do a lot of problems, internalize patterns) esp. the math part (memorize the algorithms). When its less obvious what to practice to master a subject (what do you do to become a good CEO? what do you do to become a creative song writer?), the skill Asians have in abundance, like Tebow's, becomes less of an advantage.

It isn't obvious that racism is the reason that Asians make up 41.3%* of the students scoring 700+ on the SAT math but just 15-20% of the students at top colleges. Maybe it's that there is more to being a good candidate than being good at standardized tests.

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