Accessibility links

Why Do Asian American Students Excel in School?

Asian Americans make up 4% of the U.S. population, but represent 20% of the students now attending America's elite Ivy League schools. They are not more intelligent or gifted than non-Asian students. The reason they outperform their peers in the classroom has everything to do with how they are raised.

Soo Kim Abboud is a surgeon and an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Her sister Jane is an attorney. They were born in the United States to parents who had emigrated from Korea with little money in their pockets but big dreams of a better life in their hearts. From the very beginning, Jane Kim says, her parents realized the importance of education for their daughters, and they made it their top priority. "When we were younger, I mean in elementary and middle school, our parents were very involved," she says.

So involved, she recalls, that they gladly assumed the role of teacher after the school day ended. "The thing that both my sister and I were amazed at was that every time we had a question, every time we asked them to help us with a difficult concept at school or with a project, they never acted as if it was a burden, they always were quick to help us," she says. "There were times when our parents didn't really understand the concepts. They would actually try to re-learn the concepts and re-teach themselves. They just made themselves available all the time."

While their classmates were talking on the phone with friends, having sleepovers and going to the mall, the Kim sisters were different. "I was in the 5th grade and I had a curfew in terms of the time I can spend on the phone," Jane says. "We had much more strict upbringing than others. We didn't go out on weekdays. We didn't go out as much as our colleagues and friends. I think we knew that early on," Soo recalls.

But it wasn't until many years later that the girls realized how much their parents' approach to child-rearing had contributed to their success. Soo Kim Abboud says they also realized they were not alone. "I think that's more prevalent in the Asian cultures than others. There is a great statistic that I like to share," Soo says. "When 15-year-old teenagers were asked whether they expect to graduate from college, 58% of white teenagers expected to graduate from college. Eighty-five percent of Korean and Japanese teenagers expected to graduate from college, and 95% of Indian teenagers expected to graduate from college. I think this shows there is a tremendous emphasis and prioritization of education in these Asian families. That's something to be proud of. We aren't saying we are any smarter, it's just the emphasis on education that makes a difference."

Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim compiled their observations in a new book, Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers and How You Can Too. In it, they explain what Asian parents cultivate in their kids that helps them maximize their chances of success in school. And they highlight the differences between Asian and American families in raising their children.

"In American families, I think, most of them stress effort," Jane says. "We always hear that saying, 'As long as you try, it's O.K.' In Asian families, they really believe in that principle, but they also stress the achievement. They want you to put your best foot forward, but they also want you to do achieve. Asian parents take the time out to really get involved and know what their child is doing in the classroom. They are very aware of what's going on. Asian parents are generally very practical people. They are the first to tell you that money really matters, that if you can't pay your bills, it's difficult to be happy."

While many American parents encourage their kids to have as many extra-curricular activities as they can handle, Jane Kim says Asian parents usually don't do that. "I think Asian families, many of them, make sure that the number one priority is education," Jane says. "So they tend to limit a handful of extra curricular activities. Both Soo and I played piano. We also played tennis, and they are great for taking your mind from your studies and being able to mingle with other students. But I think if you have so many, it's going to detract and you're not necessarily going to do a great job in all of them."

Soo Kim Abboud says she considers herself fortunate that she was raised in an Asian family. Being raised here in the United States, she says, was another advantage.

"I think the American culture is wonderful," Soo says. "It promotes creativity, independence and emotional development. I think the key here is to get the best of the American culture. You also have to embrace and keep what's made the Asian cultures so special: the discipline, the ability to delay gratification and emphasis on education. I think the two of those together is probably the best combination you can have."

However, Asian parents also make mistakes. And that's what the sisters focus on in the last chapter of their book.

"Asian parents sometimes pressure too much to force their kids in one direction," Jane says. "But I think the key here is that Asian parents can learn something from non-Asian parents about expressing that their child's happiness does mean as much as any educational achievement," Soo adds. "The thing that I recommend would be just to keep an open dialogue with your child, to talk with them about what their wishes are, what their expectations are," Jane suggests.

Soo and Jane Kim say they hope their book will inspire parents everywhere to be more involved in their kids' educational life, encourage them to dream and help them work hard until those dreams come true.