Race is a Terrible College App Essay Topic

Feeling Pressure to Write
About Race?
Don’t Do It!


Colleges and universities can no longer use your race as a factor in determining whether to accept you to their schools, since the landmark Supreme Court ruling on June 29th abolished most of Affirmative Action in our country.

Although schools are supposed to be colorblind now, many admissions officers are still on the prowl for minority students who can maintain the diversity on their campuses.

Being Black, Hispanic or Native Indian can still be a huge advantage in getting admitted to your dream school, especially the most competitive ones.

Since you no longer will be asked to check a box about your race, you may want to find other ways to let them know your heritage if you are a minority.

The most obvious place is in your college application essays.

Revealing your Race and Writing about Race are Very Different

That said, I would think twice before writing about the topic of race in general.

There’s a big difference between revealing your individual race in the context of what you have to say in your college app essay and writing about the nature of race or race-related issues as the central topic in your essay.

If you want to let your schools know your race, you can weave in details that will tip them off.

Mention that you were the first Black to join your local birdwatching club.

Or that you often cross the Mexican border in Texas on weekends to visit your grandmother.

Another example would be to talk about how you trained to dance in your first Powwow.

My main message here is that you can allude to your heritage in your essay–if you believe that will give you an advantage–but I don’t think tackling the larger subject of race will help you.

In fact, I think it could hurt.

As I say all over this blog, the main goal of your college application essay to find personal stories to share that will help you stand out from the competition.

The last thing you want is to write about topic that everyone else is using.

And this year, that could very well be the topic of race.


When the Supreme Court ruled to ban schools from using race as an admissions factor, the main Supreme Court Justice who pushed for this had a lot to say about the admissions process and specifically what students could write about in their essays.

And most of what he said was very confusing. (Not to mention, why does he have the authority to tell students what to write about, in these applications or anywhere? The ruling that effectively banned affirmative action is targeting those at colleges and universities who make the acceptance decisions, not the students who are applying.)

Bad Advice from the Top

In a nutshell, Chief Justice John G. Roberts told the court that it would be okay for schools to ask student applicants to discuss how race (ie discrimination) has affected them in their essays. At the same time, he warned schools not to use the essays to glean students’ individual race to use as a factor in their acceptance.

Yes, a very mixed message.

And one that was blasted out all over the national media.

But just because Roberts had a lot to say about race in college essays–saying that you can write about it in a very specific way–doesn’t mean you should write about it.

He was mainly defending his decision; not worrying about your chances of getting into your dream school.

Here’s one of his quotes on this subject: Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion [eg via their college app essay] of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise. … 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. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.

I believe what Roberts didn’t understand is how admissions officers use these essays.

Or the fundamental fact that schools can only control what they ask students to write about (via essay prompts); they have no control over what students actually write.

At a time when many schools have dropped using standardized tests in the admissions process, the college application essay has become one of the last remaining tools admissions officers can use to select one student over the other.

At the most competitive schools, it’s even more important since so many students share almost identical applications filled with stellar grades, extracurricular activities and impressive accomplishments.

An effective college application essay (personal statement for The Common Application and other applications) must help a student stand out from the competition.

If an essay uses an overdone topic or theme (such as race), the college admissions officers can have a hard time using it to differentiate the writer from other students.

There are many topics that have traditionally been over-used, everything from writing about a torn ACL to a dying beloved grandfather.

Savvy college admissions consultants steer students away from these hackneyed topics for good reason.

Now we have the top judicial leader in the land telling students to write about race.


Pick a Topic that Works Best for You!

Chances are there will be multitudinous college application essays on this topic.

For that reason alone, these essays will not do their job for their authors–no matter how brilliantly they share their personal stories of discrimination or insights on the history of race in our country.

Of course, there could be a few that have an original twist or a personal story that jumps out at the reader.

I feel bad for college admissions officers who could be bombarded with essays on race this year, and lose that critical tool in understanding the unique personalities and character of their applicants–so they can pick the ones they feel will be the best pick at their school.

There are a million other topics out there that will help you showcase your individuality and greatness.

Keep your goal in mind while applying for schools at the top of your mind: you want to get accepted.

So unless the way race has impacted you in your life has been your most life-defining issue and you can find a compelling story to share to illuminate it, pick something else!

If you believe your admission chances could be boosted if a target school learns your race, feel free to weave in information about yourself that will clue them in. If you think it could hurt your chances, leave it out.

I assume colleges and universities are scrambling to adjust their applications and even essay prompts. So keep an eye out for any advice they are sending out in upcoming weeks and months, and hopefully you will get more clarification on this issue. (It’s possible schools will now include a new prompt asking students to write about how race affected them–but I doubt those essays will help admissions officers make their admittance decisions.)

In the meantime, don’t panic and keep your eye on the ball, and start brainstorming the perfect topic for YOU!

Good luck!










How to Write about Race in the College App Essay

How to Write about Race

in your College App Essay

Post Affirmative Action


The Supreme Court knocked down Affirmative Action today.

This landmark ruling means colleges and universities will no longer be allowed to use race as a factor in who they admit.

Technically, there will no longer be race-based boxes to check on applications.

Whether you like this or not, the fallout in academia and the college admissions industry will be immediate and confusing.

Without the help of Affirmative Action policies, education officials still pursuing student diversity are expected to start using the college admissions essays as a way to discern students’ racial backgrounds–even though schools are now supposed to be colorblind in their selection process.

My understanding after reading the first round of news articles about the ruling is that it still allows schools to invite applicants to share “how race affected” them in their college application essays.

It’s a massive gray area, however, as to how far they will push these efforts when it comes to interpreting and enforcing the new ruling.

Should You Write About Your Race?

On the other end of the admissions process, students will need to decide if they want to use their college application essays to reveal their racial background, and/or as a platform to discuss “how race affected” them.

To me, this decision mainly depends on whether a student believes their race could help or hurt their admission chances.

And if and how they want to play this high-stakes game.


Photo by Miles Peacock


Up until now, it was generally considered an advantage if a student was Black or Hispanic, since predominantly white colleges and universities pursued more diversified student bodies in recent decades.

Students who were Asian, however, often found their ethnicity worked against them as they often comprised the highest percentage of applicants, and were turned down despite being among the most academically competitive. Especially at the most prestigious schools.

Sadly, many of my Asian students felt pressure to try to downplay their racial and even cultural backgrounds in their essays, even though those were often fascinating and life-defining influences in their lives.

Overall, I believe Asian applicants will benefit from this new “colorblind” mandate, and get the fair shake they deserve from colleges and universities. Especially the Ivies and other highly competitive schools.

It’s a pretty sick system when the message for college-bound students amounts to this: If you are a desired minority, such as Black, Hispanic or Native American, find a way to let your schools know this, using your college app essay if necessary to tip them off. If you are Asian (especially Chinese or Korean), a demographic many schools feel inundated with, keep your heritage on the low down. Of course, if you are white and privileged, especially having Legacy at a school, you are still sitting pretty. (Personally, I hope these glaring inequities are the final cue for colleges and universities to scrap their discriminatory legacy programs. Harvard and Yale, why not start with you?)

That said, if you do want your target schools to know your racial background, how do you write about it in your college application essay?

I assume you can’t get in trouble since it’s the schools that have been banned from using race in their admissions decisions. If you choose to share your race with them, that is not illegal. It’s up to them how they choose to solicit and use that information.

Personally, I don’t think a student should use their race as the main topic of her or his main college app essay. It’s too broad and generic, and would not be effective in setting you apart from other applicants.

However, if you want the school to know your racial background, you can feature that information in the background of your essay, especially if you share a personal story or experience about a quality or activity related to your racial background. (This is based on the advice from a Supreme Court Justice; see below)

Photo by Alexander Gray


There are other ways to more subtly reveal your racial background in your essays, if that’s your goal. Often telling details are naturally woven into your storytelling anyway. For instance, you could mention that your family attended the only all-Black church in your small town. Or that your parents were born and raised in Mexico City. Or share the time your grandmother brought you to your first Pow-wow.

If college admissions officers are actively looking for information about your racial background in these essays, little details like these will deliver the message loud and clear.

How Far Can You Go?

Here’s the best guidance we have so far in how to think about writing about your race in your essay, straight from the Supreme Court Justice most adamantly against affirmative action:

(This is from a story in The New York Times by Stephanie Saul. The link works if you are a subscriber, but it’s behind a paywall.)

In the decision striking down affirmative action policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, “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.”

However, the chief justice also took a shot across the bow at anyone who might be thinking that the essay could be used as a surreptitious means of racial selection.

“Despite the dissent’s assertion to the contrary, universities may not simply establish through the application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today,” he wrote, underscoring, “What cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly.”

Not sure this clarifies things that much. This will be up to the colleges and universities, and their lawyers, to figure out.

Meanwhile, my best advice is to find a college application essay topic that helps you reveal what makes you tick, and share experiences that have defined how you learn and what you most care about. If those are related to your racial background, and/or you want to work in details that reveal your racial background, go for it!

Or just leave it all out, and keep them guessing.

Don’t let all this distract you from your main goal: to write a college application essay about what makes you unique and special.

Whether that involves your skin color or not is up to you.

Good luck!