Why the college essay may never be the same

Why the college essay may never be the same

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Changes have been swift. Harvard University, central to one of the two Students for Fair Admissions cases, axed optional essay prompts and added five 200-word mandatory questions. The first reads that Harvard recognizes the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. It asks applicants to share a life experience that shaped them and will contribute to the university.

“What we’re advising schools to do is to take a look at their university’s vision and mission statement or strategic plan and align their questions with the characteristics that fulfill the individual institution’s vision and mission,” says Jill Orcutt, global lead for consulting at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The association has consulted with schools since the court’s decision. It is telling them to tailor prompts to the characteristics of students they are seeking, whether it be students from diverse communities or low-income and first generation college students.

“For example, we’re talking about lifetime challenges or opportunities that students have had, how do their personal characteristics reflect the institutions?” adds Ms. Orcutt, who worked in college admissions for the University of California, Merced, where affirmative action was banned in the 1990s after voters passed Proposition 209. 

For its part, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst introduced a new supplemental essay question. It urges students to consider that at UMass no two students are alike and talks about how communities or groups shape worlds. Race and ethnicity are characteristics that UMass says shapes an individual’s character and they urge students to pick a community and describe its importance in 100 words. 

“We believe the responses by students to this new prompt can certainly broaden the scope of information we have as it relates to the holistic review process that UMass Amherst has been using very effectively in admissions for about the past 10 years,” writes Ed Blaguszewski, executive director of strategic communications, via email.

Mr. Blaguszewski says that the court’s ruling on affirmative action prompted the university to give applicants an additional opportunity to help the school understand their background. He points out that the court said that, “A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university.”

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Other public universities, meanwhile, have dropped diversity initiatives entirely in the wake of the court ruling. Trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – the institution at the center of the other Supreme Court case – voted July 28 to bar consideration of “race, sex, color, or ethnicity” in both admissions and hiring decisions.

How to prevent “racial gamification”?

It’s one thing to invite students to talk about race in an admissions essay, but how do people coach them to present their best selves? 

Tyler Harper attended graduate school at New York University several years ago. He tutored high school students in Queens who wanted to attend America’s best colleges. He helped them find the right voice via essays and personal statements. It confounded him when Asian students wanted to seem less Asian in their essays, but then he saw that despite great grades and résumés, some got in and some didn’t.

After the Students For Fair Admissions cases, he and other educators – some of whom expressed concern in amicus briefs filed to the Supreme Court – worry about what will happen to other students of color. If precedents hold true, enrollment could drop dramatically. He doesn’t want Black and Latino students to experience the pitfalls of racial gamification in essay writing.

“Many of the Black and Brown students that I tutored, some of them were from upper-class backgrounds, and those students were talented jazz pianists or whatever. But they had the sense that ‘I probably shouldn’t write about jazz piano for my college essay because they want me to show that I’m a disadvantaged minority,’” Dr. Harper, now an assistant professor at Bates University, recalls.

Racial gamification is the idea that some identities can help people get opportunities, or keep them from succeeding, and that they have to position how they present themselves in a certain way. When he tutored Black and Latino students he says students knew that colleges were looking for diversity, but that if they didn’t present it in the right way it could hurt their chances of getting into a top tier school.

“This is bad for minority kids who feel like they can’t talk about jazz piano and instead have to talk about when they got pulled over by the cops,” Dr. Harper says. He adds that it is equally bad for white kids who don’t want to come off as upper class and lean into trauma, about an alcoholic parent or personal struggles with depression and anxiety.

Tell your own story

Freshmen moving into dorms this month at America’s most selective schools were the last class to have the option to check a box on race as part of their admissions process. Some have tips for students in the future. 

“Don’t do it in a disingenuous way,” says Sean Vereen, co-president of Heights Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization that helps Black and Brown students and first generation college students make connections for college and professional careers. They specialize in creating pathways for students of color to matriculate into college, with more than 3,000 students from middle and high schools involved annually.

Dr. Vereen says that the advice to students remains the same: Tell their stories in an original way, whether or not they want to lean in on tough times that they overcame. 

That can look like a high school student having to take care of a sick relative, or a student without many extracurriculars talking about working in a family restaurant 30 hours a week. He says that students are worried because the essay is a big part of the application, but he stresses that it is not the entirety of it. Other things like test scores, grades, and community service also weigh heavily.

But reference to race in an essay does change things, and students will feel it, he says.

“There are things where I think now that this was explicitly stated in this decision, and it’s a big part of the conversation, kids feeling like they’re being pigeonholed into talking about their race in a college essay,” he says. 

“What we’re trying to think about more is this lived experience,” he adds, “versus you spend the whole time telling everybody that you’re this or that.”


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