Writing About Race in College Admissions Essays

Yesterday’s New York Times article entitled “After Affirmative Action Ban, They Rewrote College Essays With a Key Theme: Race” highlighted how students from across the country wrote their college essays this season and how they addressed their race. You can read it here. On the heels of the Supreme Court decision to end race-conscious admission last June, there has been a buzz in higher education about how this could or should be handled. Should students – especially Black and LatinX – share their racial identity in their essays? While the jury is still out about the aggregate data from this year’s admission cycle, I am a big believer that race, culture, or religion should never be muted.

Much of any teenager’s lived experience is rooted in school, activities, and at home. Since the first two are usually evident on most applications, I have always encouraged students to allude to something that makes them different and memorable that may help them to “stand out.” Numbers and resumes never tell the complete story – especially for students applying to competitive schools where most candidates, by the numbers, will all be “qualified.” So that leaves the essay as a foundational part of understanding who a student is, what’s important to them, and what they may bring to a college campus community.

Tim Fields and I recently released the 2nd edition of our book, The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions: A Conversation About Education, Parenting, and Race, partially because so much has changed since our first book was released in September 2022. Beyond just the SCOTUS decision, ChatGPT and other forms of AI are quickly becoming tools to democratize the essay writing process. A student’s ability to use AI as a companion in the brainstorming process is not a bad thing, either is emphasizing race or culture. We want students to share who they are with an authentic voice. Our 2nd edition offers insights on how students should approach this and why.

Here is an excerpt:

“In recent years, there has been increased attention on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in college admissions. Many colleges and universities value diversity, despite the SCOTUS decision, and actively seek to create a diverse student body. This includes students from different racial, geographic, and ethnic backgrounds. However, there are active legal changes happening in college admissions as we speak, and how the essay is used to imply race may be critical. In this context, discussing your racial identity in a college admissions essay could be relevant and meaningful. If you choose to write about this, it’s important to approach the topic thoughtfully and with sensitivity.”

Some of the best essays I’ve ever read as a former admissions officer, school counselor, or independent college admissions consultant have been about students’ cultural traditions, and those students are often not Black. Years ago, a girl intelligently questioned why she and her mother had to sit separately from her brothers and father at their synagogue during a Jewish holiday. An Indian student wrote about the multiple generations of her family living under one roof and how she learned to accept and even embrace familial responsibilities. Both of these essays signaled elements of religion and race, and yes, I do think it helped them in their admission processes.

The issue is complicated. I empathize with how the student below feels:

In her initial essay, Triniti Parker, a 16-year-old who aims to be the first doctor in her family, recalled her late grandmother, who was one of the first Black female bus drivers for the Chicago Transit Authority.

But after the Supreme Court’s decision, a college adviser told her to make clear references to her race, saying it should not “get lost in translation.” So Triniti adjusted a description of her and her grandmother’s physical features to allude to the color of their skin.

The new details made her pause. “It felt like I was abiding by somebody else’s rules,” she said. Triniti added, “Now it feels like people of color have to say something, or if we don’t, we are going to get looked over.”

Critics of affirmative action say they are worried about essays becoming a loophole for colleges to consider an applicant’s race. “My concern is that the system will be gamed,” said William A. Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell University who founded the nonprofit Equal Projection Project. “Gamed” sounds like gaining an unfair advantage, and that statement alone is fraught with discriminatory implications. As “legacy” (when a student who is a child of an alumnus receives preferential treatment in the admissions process ) is also a form of affirmative action, there are fewer calls for change. “Gaming” was never the purpose of affirmative action. It was and still needs to be about leveling the playing field.

As an educator, I want students to write honestly about their lived experiences and strategically consider the climate of college admissions. It is our collective responsibility – students, parents, and educators – to learn more about the shifts that are happening and assist each other. Hopefully, we can have conversations that lead to actions that support students’ voices and, ultimately, their college choices.

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