Although the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-conscious admissions programs last week, it did not eliminate the consideration of race entirely.
“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in his majority opinion.
But Roberts made it clear that race must be connected to an applicant’s individual qualities that make him or her a good match for a college, not a factor on its own.
“A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination,” the chief justice noted. “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 that university.”
Here, Roberts sounds as if he is describing nothing so much as the outlines for archetypal college application essays, those 650-word (or shorter) pieces where high school students do everything possible to put an interesting face to their transcripts and stand out from the pack. Now, if students of color want to have their racial or ethnic background considered, it seems as though they’ll have to use their essays as the forum. It’s already stressing them out.
“Yet again, students of color have to do more than anyone else to prove their value in a society that constantly puts them at a disadvantage,” said Stacey Brook, founder of College Essay Advisors, an application essay consultancy. “White students don’t have to think about their essays this way.”
Brook and other college essay experts who spoke to Diverse about the ruling mostly agreed that it increased the significance of that part of the application.
“Particularly for minority students, the essays will be even more important because they’ll want to convey their story,” said Laurie Lande, founder of Your College Vision.
Allison Karpf, a college essay and application advisor, thought so too.
“The essays become even more important as a place for a student to really let the college know, this is who I am, this is where I come from, and this is what I believe in,” she said.
However, they didn’t expect the advice that they gave about essays — or the essays themselves — to change much.
“Chances are, I would have already recommended that they write about their background, as long as their background has an interesting narrative,” said Lande. “If their story speaks to overcoming disadvantage, that usually makes a compelling story.”
Karpf felt similarly.
“If race matters to them, or inspired them in some way, I think they were going to tell it anyway,” she said.
Of course, for some students from underrepresented backgrounds, their race or ethnicity doesn’t play a big role in their self-conception. Or they might believe that other things about themselves are more important to emphasize. Some experts said that they would encourage these applicants to explore how their background had shaped them.
“A student who doesn’t necessarily think about their race may want to do so more as they think about applying in this landscape,” said Lande.
But ultimately, they agreed that for an essay to succeed, it must be genuine.
“If it wouldn’t occur to you to write about race or ethnicity before the ruling, one shouldn’t necessarily write about it now,” said Jillian Ivy, founder of Ivy College Essay. “I believe that admissions officers will be reading the essays even more closely than before, looking for a heightened level of authenticity…filtering out those students who are just trying to get their cultural background in there at any cost because they now feel that is something they have to do.”
There is also the risk for students that trying to capture how their background has influenced who they are today could lead to essays that are formulaic and cliché. It’s easy to imagine that applicants looking to the chief justice’s examples for guidance could wind up with narratives that flatten the complexity of these issues. In an essay last week in The Atlantic called “The Supreme Court Killed the College-Admissions Essay,” Matteo Wong compared the potential effect to writing done by AIs: “Tired platitudes about race angled to persuade admissions officers will crowd out more individual, creative approaches, the result no better than a machine’s banal aggregation of the web.”
However, essay experts argued that there are ways to avoid these pitfalls.
“A lot of it is about zeroing in on small stories within larger frameworks or hyper-specific details within personal experience,” said Brook.
“Anecdotes really help bring the essay alive,” said Lande. “Every student has a unique story, and even two students facing the same situation will write something different.”
That’s the point that Diverse blogger Emil Guillermo made in his recent blog about the Supreme Court’s decision.
Christopher Hunt, founder of College Essay Mentor, believes that, for some students, a deep exploration of their background could lead to a better essay than they would write otherwise. He thought that it could be helpful to begin not by thinking about one’s race or ethnicity.
“Start by considering your core values, defining qualities, meaningful relationships, and prominent activities. From that, work backwards,” he said. “Ask yourself, how did I get this way? What are examples of this value or this quality coming to life? Was that informed by something in my background?”
Hunt and Brook both thought that schools or the Common Application itself might add an additional supplemental essay topic giving students the chance to write about the influence of their culture.
“I’m hoping that some additional opportunities are provided for students to talk about that without having to sacrifice the 650-word Common Application personal statement,” said Brook.
In the meanwhile, students of color will have to make difficult strategic decisions about whether to include their background in their essay and how to do it.
“It’s more work for minoritized students, as always,” said Brook. “It’s a very frustrating situation.”