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How To Write Diversity Supplemental Essays When You Feel Like You Don’t Have a Story to Tell

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The diversity-focused supplemental essay has been gaining traction on college applications for years. These prompts allow admissions to get a sense of a student’s background, culture, and values. They often provide meaningful context for a student’s resume, transcript, and other application materials. And, as of the 2023 Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action, they serve as a crucial opportunity for students of color to discuss the impact and value of their experiences as minorities.

With the above-mentioned Supreme Court ruling came an extra avalanche of diversity essays meant to compensate for a missing tool that aimed to level the playing field. We here at CEA have celebrated the preponderance of opportunities to address race, gender, and other identity-oriented details on the application. We have also found that these prompts can be flummoxing, particularly to students who feel like they don’t have an obvious diversity story to tell. 

So what do you do with a diversity prompt when you don’t feel “diverse”?

1) Truly consider why these prompts are important.

I know this may not seem like an important step in the process, but I believe it’s crucial in providing a reflective, sensitive response. Colleges are aiming to enroll a class with varied backgrounds, experiences, and belief systems. The confluence of a wide range of perspectives in an educational environment is what makes for deep inquiry, valuable debate, and enlightened progress. For too long, privilege has begotten privilege—and, let’s be real, it still does. But an active attempt to level the playing field and value perspectives that have been historically devalued elevates the education process and society as a whole. So even if this question is frustrating at first (and even if it feels like it is meant to elevate the voice of someone else), consider how this process will actually benefit you and your peers as part of any incoming class. Think about how many challenges marginalized students have to face that are larger and more daunting than a 250-word admissions essay. Take this perspective with you to school. Be part of the solution. 

2) Read the prompts carefully. 

Think of interpretations of the word “diversity.”

Admissions is not trying to stump you. They are well aware that people who do not come from what would be considered traditionally diverse backgrounds will be applying to their institutions (and a lot of them!), which is why many of the prompts are written with an open window for interpretation. Consider this prompt from the University of Virginia:

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. (250 words)

With prompts that feel complex to unpack at first, I always suggest students break down their options. Here, a student can write about background, perspective, OR experience. The background, perspective, or experience you choose can be related to any of the following: community, upbringing, educational environment, race, gender, or other aspects of your background. It doesn’t get more open-ended than that. Finally, the prompt indicates they want you to showcase how what you choose to write about has served and will continue to serve as a source of strength (which I believe is a direct nod to the Justice Roberts loophole I discuss in this post).

Here are some examples of things a student might write about that don’t hinge on race, gender, or what students would describe as obvious components of “diversity” (though those can certainly be elements in these essays, if applicable):

  • Perspective + upbringing + strength = a student who grew up with a single mom talks about how they were forced to mature at an early age and under the supervision of a strong female role model. This has generated independence, resourcefulness, and respect for others.
  • Experience + background + strength = a student works as a hostess at a restaurant, which introduces her to a wide range of patrons and team members, improving her communication skills and embedding the value of hard work and collaboration.
  • Perspective + community + strength = connecting with an online community of Magic the Gathering players brings a student out of their shell, allows them to embrace their authentic interests—inspiring them to build an in-person meeting at their school—and ultimately develops leadership and interpersonal skills.

Let’s take a look at another prompt, this time from Swarthmore:

What aspects of your self-identity or personal background are most significant to you? Reflecting on the elements of your home, school, or other communities that have shaped your life, explain how you have grown in your ability to navigate differences when engaging with others, or demonstrated your ability to collaborate in communities other than your own.  (250 words)

This prompt asks students to identify aspects of their self-identity or personal background, but again, those can be interpreted widely: 

  • Maybe a student is a natural teacher and their patience has enabled them to make special connections with students in the special-education program they volunteer for. 
  • Perhaps the hostess from the restaurant in the UVA answer above learned about world cuisine during staff meals before her shift, exchanging recipes and stories with the cooks about favorite dishes made by their grandmothers. 
  • Has your experience in the drama club required you to inhabit someone else’s circumstances in a way that activated empathy and inspired you to action? Has injustice in the world sparked you to join a protest, watch the news with your parents every night, or build a coalition in your community? 

This question shifts some of the focus from your origins and identity to how that background informs your behavior, which presents a great opportunity to talk about the ways in which encounters from your everyday life inspire you to be more considerate of and engaged with others.

This does bring us to my next and last tip:

3) Avoid saviorism and exaggeration.

As with pretty much every application essay, the key to a successful response is authenticity. I hope I don’t have to remind people to be honest, but I’ll just say it: don’t lie about your background. It’s wrong, and if admissions finds out you’re not really 15% Native American, there will be consequences (and rightfully so). Also, don’t try to make meaning where there is none. Your dad might be Irish, but if that background hasn’t infiltrated your own life or impacted you in a meaningful way, that might not be fodder for a resonant essay. 

Finally, be extremely careful about how you frame your experiences with other cultures, especially if you are coming from a place of privilege. Ask yourself the question: am I making myself the hero of this story when I shouldn’t be? You may have participated in a school walk-out related to the murder of George Floyd, but why did you do it? What did you learn? What did you not know that maybe you wish you had known earlier? Humility is powerful when writing about interactions with the culture of others, and the desire to absorb and really listen is key. If you’re presenting yourself as an ally, be a true ally. Recognize the ways in which privilege has protected you and acknowledge that; as much as you have learned, there is always more to know.

As always, if you’d like to work one-on-one with an Advisor from our team or submit a draft for an expert’s review, we’re here to help!

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