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A Message From our Founder Re: Affirmative Action and The College Essay

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Ever since the Supreme Court ruled to overturn affirmative action, students around the globe have been wondering how the decision will affect their chances of acceptance to American colleges and universities. Most critically, students of color have been grappling with how they can attempt to get a fair shake in an inherently biased admissions system now that the most overt attempt to level the playing field and account for centuries of systemic racism, inequity and injustice has been invalidated.


Many have turned to the admissions essay, strategizing ways to use this valuable space to incorporate information about their backgrounds and related struggles that can be legitimately considered by admissions committees. After all, Justice Roberts wrote in his decision:  

“Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”

As an admissions essay expert and consultant, I took this to mean that colleges are permitted to consider race-related circumstances given that a student writes about them as related to their individual struggles, triumphs and related strengths. A loophole of sorts. But advising minoritized students to use the personal statement—the 650-word space that people typically think of as “the college essay”—as a place to detail race-related challenges is not so straightforward. 

The personal statement has long been one of the only areas of the application in which a student can express themselves creatively, authentically, and in their own voice. It has also gained importance in the wake of test optionality, taking on extra weight for students who are submitting fewer data points for admissions to consider. Tempting students of color to use the largest available space they have available for personal expression to detail the struggles of their backgrounds may put them at a major disadvantage. This is a valid choice for those whose stories, instincts and definitions of self naturally lead them to that place; but this calculation isn’t one white students have to make. White students often have the privilege to write about what lights them up, not what holds them down. In placing the burden of proving the struggles of an entire race on seventeen-year-olds, we are not just asking the impossible (the submission of a masterclass in equity, justice and race relations), we are also robbing these students of the opportunity to talk about their passions, their humanity, their everything else.

That’s not to say minoritized students shouldn’t use the personal statement to talk about their background and challenges– just that they shouldn’t have to.

Thankfully, individual colleges and universities have risen to the occasion through the strategic creation of this years’ school-specific supplemental essay prompts. These schools know there are many benefits to having diversified student bodies. According to the American Council on Education, diversity on college and university campuses leads to better educations for all through enrichment of the educational experience, promotion of personal growth, strengthening of communities and so much more.

So when Sarah Lawrence released their prompt options, one of which directly quotes the Roberts decision as a nod to the unfairness of the ruling, and explicitly directing students to comment on that injustice, I literally whooped with joy. Earlier this month, when the 2023-24 Common Application platform went live, it was confirmed that many other colleges are adapting their supplemental assignments to this critical moment, with some institutions–that haven’t changed their supplemental essay prompt in years–adding or adjusting their queries in what feels like a pointed attempt at combatting the Supreme Court’s ruling. 

A few examples of brand-new prompts from the 2023-24 admissions cycle:

Sarah Lawrence:
In the syllabus of a 2023 majority decision of the Supreme Court written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the author notes: “Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.” Drawing upon examples from your life, a quality of your character, and/or a unique ability you possess, describe how you believe your goals for a college education might be impacted, influenced, or affected by the Court’s decision. (250-500 words)
Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?* (200 words) 
In around 250 words, please answer the following question: What about your individual background, perspective, or experience will serve as a source of strength for you or those around you at UVA? Feel free to write about any past experience or part of your background that has shaped your perspective and will be a source of strength, including but not limited to those related to your community, upbringing, educational environment, race, gender, or other aspects of your background that are important to you.*
In college/university, students are often challenged in ways that they could not predict or anticipate. It is important to us, therefore, to understand an applicant’s ability to navigate through adversity. Please describe a barrier or obstacle you have faced and discuss the personal qualities, skills or insights you have developed as a result. (150 words or fewer)
Wake Forest:
Dr. Maya Angelou, renowned author, poet, civil-rights activist, and former Wake Forest University Reynolds Professor of American Studies, inspired others to celebrate their identities and to honor each person’s dignity. Choose one of Dr. Angelou’s powerful quotes. How does this quote relate to your lived experience or reflect how you plan to contribute to the Wake Forest community? (limit 300 words)
“It’s not easy being green…” was the frequent refrain of Kermit the Frog. How has difference been a part of your life, and how have you embraced it as part of your identity and outlook?

To be clear, no essay, no matter how well-written and affecting, can fully compensate for what we have lost with the dissolution of affirmative action. Indicating that “a benefit for a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination,” effectively undermines the fact that institutional racism and embedded societal structures have kept minoritized populations at a disadvantage since this country’s founding. There is simply no way for students to fully account for their racial or ethnic struggles, which are bound to be endemic and intergenerational. And once again, students of color are being asked to do more work to achieve the same results as their white counterparts.

Still, the fact that colleges are building spaces for these issues to be addressed, specifically, is heartening. What this says to me, to all of us, is that students of color are wanted. Students of color are needed. They are valuable additions to any college community. We cannot take these students for granted, and if they’re going to overcome considerable hurdles on the way to the educations we all covet, we need to give them the tools for a fairer fight.

About Stacey Brook

Stacey Brook is an accomplished writer and admissions expert who has spent the last decade helping students conceptualize, edit and refine their college essays.

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