Harvard gets it. “Likability” is a critical success factor.

Although US justice department criticises Harvard over ‘racial bias’: “SFFA claims Harvard … consistently ranked Asian-American applicants lowest on personal traits such as likeability.”

Likeability is a legitimate and important predictor of a person’s ability to contribute and lead.

A likable person can be more approachable, friendly, likely to smile and place a smile back on your face, plant and grow trust, and make a meaningful connection. Likeability can be a manifestation of confidence, hope, and openness.

To clarify, I am not defending Harvard. On the contrary, I have seen Harvard graduates who are pompous and non-representative of the kind of brilliance the Harvard brand aspires. Clearly, Harvard fell far short in selecting “likable” candidates in those cases. To be fair, I also know brilliant Harvard graduates whose humility and humanity are benchmarks for all.

Likeability is the result of many good things.

If Harvard did reject the Asian-American candidates for being the poorest in its likeability scale, it likely sold itself and the candidates short. Asian Americans face the most intense pressure from their family and community to excel academically. Putting off gratification from socialization activities in favor of academic excellence, they focus on achievement in their early life. They are critiqued and measured relentlessly. Parents cut them no slack, and their hyper-competitive communities don’t let them forget their rankings. Culturally, family and even community approval is of primary importance, and the thought of letting them down is close to unbearable. This is a heavy and serious cultural burden that many who rank high on the likability scale do not bear.

The college applications and interviews can be exactly as Harvard rates them, poorest on the likeability scale. But Harvard’s reading may be completely false when it comes to predicting life success and leadership capabilities for Asian Americans. Like tasting a wine before it is time or taking a snapshot at an early mile marker in a marathon, when the Asian Americans are still tuning their rhythms. They are socially awkward, shy, and self-deprecating. Bold confidence is still a few years away when they have done something of worth. This is a cultural value. College internships, community volunteering, and even winning contests are not valued in Asian-American homes. These are simple enabling steps not worthy of brewing confidence so early in life for a lifetime of success at ages seventeen and eighteen.

The heads of global companies in tech (Google, Microsoft, SanDisk, Adobe), consumer goods (PepsiCo, Reckitt Benckiser PLC, Diageo, Harman International), and finance (Master Card, Deutsche Bank) all have Asian roots. While Harvard might pick people whom it can place at the top by Harvard entitlement, the Asian-Americans are mostly invited to the top jobs by earning their right to lead. Giving likability a high weight is likely a mismatch between the Harvard culture and Asian-American ethics.


Raj Rawat

Co-Author: Find Your Everest before someone chooses it for you

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