Application Essay Gains Importance Following Affirmative Action Ruling

For universities striving to maintain diversity following the Supreme Court's verdict on affirmative action, the application essay may become the saving grace.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Updated on September 29, 2023
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  • The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action noted students can use essays to address race.
  • College officials remain unclear about the extent to which race can be considered in holistic admissions decisions.
  • Race should be discussed within the context of character formation.
  • An authentic presentation of self might dissuade students from relying on AI tools such as ChatGPT when composing essays.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling on affirmative action, colleges must remain race-neutral when making admissions decisions.

But in its majority decision, the court left the race door ajar ever so slightly, allowing students to discuss race as one defining factor in their lives. That caveat thrust the application essay onto center stage beginning this fall.

Yet these waters remain somewhat murky for students and universities alike as everyone tries to adjust to new realities in the selective admissions game.

Addressing Race in Application Essays

In the court's 6-3 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts suggested students might use college application essays to address their racial identity.

"At the same time, 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," Roberts wrote.

A later clarification, however, rendered this loophole somewhat confusing. Roberts insisted that "universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today."

In other words, the essay cannot become a proxy for the racial "checkbox" universities use to identify race in the strictest sense, but it can help provide an opportunity for students to address "challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned."

Walking that tightrope may prove tricky for students and admissions officers alike. At a recent affirmative action summit for university leaders hosted by the Department of Education, "uncertainty" and "frustration" characterized the mood.

Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department, told university officials in attendance that admissions officers can continue to consider race as one aspect of an applicant's narrative.

"Students of color do not have to ignore their lived experiences," Clarke said, "and neither do colleges and universities when considering their applications."

In an email to The New York Times, Shannon Gundy, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland, said universities must "work together to develop useful essay prompts, educate counselors and students about how best to approach the college essay and provide information to colleges that may be reluctant (or even risk averse) about how to craft questions that are more meaningful."

Some institutions already are forging ahead with the understanding that college essays can be fertile ground for students to cast their life experiences in the context of race, offering admissions offices one advantage in their quest to maintain diversity while theoretically remaining race-neutral.

Harvard, for one, while pledging to comply with the court's decision, noted the exception that "colleges and universities may consider in admissions decisions 'an applicant's discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.'"

Sarah Lawrence College is taking a more direct tack. Referencing the court's ruling, the college asks students applying this fall to draw upon "examples from your life, a quality of your character, and/or a unique ability you possess" and "describe how you believe your goals for a college education might be impacted, influenced, or affected by the Court's decision."

Sarah Lawrence chose to include this question to give its students "space to address a challenging topic in society," Falguni Smith, the college's director of communications, told BestColleges in an email, adding that "the current national conversations around race are of the utmost importance to us."

Jayson Weingarten, an independent college admissions counselor with Ivy Coach and a former University of Pennsylvania admissions officer, believes many more colleges will board this bandwagon.

"Schools are going to move quickly to readjust their applications, maybe adding or changing questions," Weingarten told BestColleges. … "You're going to see a lot more diversity questions for sure."

At the Education Department summit, Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), said he expects the Common App to include new "creatively worded" essay options when the 2024-2025 application debuts Aug. 1.

Race as a Defining Aspect of Character

During her remarks at the affirmative action summit, Clarke referenced personal values such as "grit" and "perseverance," attributes that reflect one's character. That term — character — is how Justice Roberts himself framed the discussion of race when addressing the application essay as an important vehicle for conveying a student's lived experiences.

The concept of "character" in college admissions is nothing new, although it hasn't always had positive connotations. A century ago, Harvard emphasized character in its admissions formula to limit the burgeoning number of Jewish students on its campus.

Today, the consideration of "character" doesn't involve such pernicious motives. And as the reliance on quantitative measures such as the SAT and ACT has given way to more holistic assessments of applicants, the emphasis on character has become increasingly important.

"Almost every institution is looking more carefully at character," Eric Greenberg, president of Greenberg Educational Group, said in 2019.

An organization called the Character Collaborative, formed in 2016, encourages admissions offices to "recognize and assess character in admission and signal its importance."

"There's a growing body of research that shows beyond any doubt that over the long run, aspects of character are stronger predictors of success in college, in work, and in life than the typical measures we've used, such as standardized test scores," David Holmes, the Collaborative's executive director, told BestColleges.

For college applicants wishing to address race in application essays, the challenge is to contextualize race within the formation of character, not necessarily singling out race as the primary factor on which someone should be evaluated.

The Diminished — or Enhanced — Role of AI in Essays

That task, one might assume, requires a personal, authentic expression of self, a reflection on an individual's unique set of experiences that combined to form one's identity. As such, the reliance on artificial intelligence (AI) tools such as ChatGPT might prove counterproductive, resulting in a generic presentation based on the collective experiences of others.

Writing in The Atlantic, Matteo Wong posits an alternative theory. In his piece titled "The Supreme Court Killed the College-Admissions Essay," Wong contends that "high schoolers trying to navigate the nebulous admissions process may feel pressure to write as plainly as possible about how their race and experiences of racism make them better applicants."

To satisfy admissions offices, students will reduce their experiences to "easily understood types," offering "tired platitudes about race." Students will become trapped in "unoriginal, barren, and even debasing scripts that humans and machines alike have prewritten about their identities.""The pressure to sell one's race and race-based adversity to colleges," Wong wrote, "will compel students to write like chatbots."

Weingarten isn't buying it and believes students won't fall prey to such temptations.

"ChatGPT is great at writing mediocre essays," he said, adding that the highly selective colleges his clients target are "used to seeing something a little bit better than what ChatGPT and other tools are able to produce."

He also takes umbrage at the suggestion that admissions officers can't appreciate nuance when making informed decisions about applicants.

"Part of my dismay about this entire conversation is that it doesn't give admissions officers credit for the humanity they bring to the process," Weingarten said.

And while Weingarten, like everyone else, waits to see how the application essay evolves along with the rest of the college admissions process, he does know the discussion of race remains top of mind for many students.

"With every family I've spoken to, this has come up either explicitly or implicitly," he said, "and it's certainly part of how we're talking to students and working with them."