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.
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)
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.