College Application Essay Diversity

Editor's Note:  Since this article was re-posted several days ago, we have learned that our description of Yale's Common Application form is not accurate: it does not contain the "diversity" question attributed to it in our original piece.  Instead, as pointed out to us by Jeffrey Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, the question is actually one among several options used in a supplementary scholarship application which select schools sometimes administer to low income applicants.  It is not, however, part of Yale's regular undergraduate Common Application form.  NAS regrets the error, and we are grateful to Dean Brenzel for bringing it to our attention.

"Diversity" admissions essay questions teach students, before they even arrive on campus, how to bow to an anti-intellectual idol. The essay question at Berkeley, described below, is the same one in use today.

To renew conversation on ongoing themes in higher education, NAS occasionally re-posts one or two of the best and most popular articles from the same month a year ago. This article was originally posted here.

Many colleges and universities require applicants for undergraduate admissions to write an essay describing the ways in which they’ll bring “diversity” to their hoped-for alma mater. This procedure isn’t especially new. The diversiphiles first launched the tactic in the early 1990s.  But required diversity essays have been getting renewed attention recently as they spread to graduate programs. In that light, we recently decided to examine the practice a bit more systematically.

We surveyed the application criteria at 20 of the most selective schools in the annual rankings of U.S. News & World Report. Many of those included in this small sample no longer maintain individualized applications, but use the Common Application Online (CAO) instead. The CAO doesn’t have a required diversity essay, but provides a diversity question as an option. Some of the colleges that use the CAO, however, make the question de rigueur. The CAO at Yale, for example, asks prospective students:

A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

That’s virtually identical with what you can expect to find at dozens of other institutions, where “diversity” is cultivated with tedious uniformity.

Let’s weigh this question. The first sentence simply asserts that the “range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences” adds to the “educational mix.” Few people would doubt that, and the sentence is no doubt written to command bland assent.  But if we force it to stand up for inspection, it displays a remarkable intellectual slovenliness. When we go to college, we do indeed benefit from encountering people with views and experiences other than our own. But that encounter depends on something else:  a shared commitment to the broader purposes of education.  The enlivening “mix” that Yale would like to foster requires students, at some level, to put aside differences at least long enough to consider one another’s views.

The “diversity” doctrine doesn’t necessarily prevent that deeper sharing from taking place, but it does cut against it and urges students instead to huddle inside their pre-chosen identities. The Yale CAO question is the first of a long series of subtle steps that teach students to lead with their particularities and to cultivate a kind of group vanity. The second sentence in the assignment (“Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.”) is a masterpiece of question-begging. What of the student who has slowly and painfully worked his way out of psychological isolation or social alienation to achieve a sense of identification with the larger community? Such a person would seem to have no acceptable answer to the task of explaining “the importance of diversity” to his own life. Would the Yale admissions office look favorably on the student who answered, “I have found ‘diversity’ to be a cudgel by which self-appointed elites attempt to enforce their preferences over others. Diversity to me has been the experience of having my individuality denied, suppressed, and demeaned. It is a word that summarizes a smarmy form of oppression that congratulates itself on its high-mindedness even as it enforces narrow-minded conformity.”

No, any student really seeking admission to Yale wouldn’t say such a thing. But chances are very good that a great many students harbor insights very much like that. They know their ethnic or racial categorization, their socio-economic status, and other such characteristics matter far more to admissions offices than their actual thoughts about who they are.    

These “diversity” essay questions are never innocent. They are a tool to keep college applicants aligned with the dominant ideology on campus, which continues to favor group categorizations over both individuality and the broader claims of shared community.

A recent poster at our blog alerted us to the spread of the diversity essay to graduate program admissions as well.  As destructive as these essays are at the undergraduate level, their seepage into graduate study is even more alarming. Surely graduate study should be about learning to participate fully in a discipline. The appearance of the diversity essay on this shore suggests that the ideology of group difference is making a bid to trump even that.

At the University of California, Berkeley – and irrespective of the specific program you’d like to pursue – all applicants to graduate programs must provide a Personal History Statement, according to the following criteria: 

Please describe how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Please include information on how you have overcome barriers to access opportunities in higher education, evidence of how you have come to understand the barriers faced by others, evidence of your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, evidence of your research focusing on underserved populations or related issues of inequality, or evidence of your leadership among such groups.

Note that if you want to be a graduate student at Berkeley, it’s not nearly enough that you personally add to the “diversity” of the graduate student body. You must also demonstrate that you have been out dynamiting social barriers to liberate others. You need a story about what you have done so far “to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities and individuals from other groups.”   

Would Berkeley really reject a brilliant astrophysics student or a promising philosopher who replied, “Sorry. Not my thing. I have focused on my studies and advancing the frontiers of knowledge and inquiry in my field, not on social reform. In any case, I would have thought that ‘advancing equitable access’ isn’t relevant to my application."

Chances are that, as with the undergraduate applying to Yale, no one would be foolish enough to say this. We learn to go through the motions, appease the bureaucratic bullies that need to be appeased, and make up the stories necessary to pass gates like this. Most people accommodate.  But that’s not to say that these rhetorical choke points have no effect. They teach the would-be student to whom and to what to bow. They enunciate the doctrines towards which the privately dissenting must be hypocritical and that the rest learn to accept as the piety of the age.  

The Berkeley graduate application amounts to a requirement that the applicant prove his record as a pro-diversity activist if he want to get in.  It’s a silly idea, and it is profoundly at odds with intellectual freedom, freedom of conscience, and the real purposes of education.  Because of that, it is a requirement that probably won’t stand forever. “Diversity essays” are a First Amendment case waiting to happen.

Image: "Numbered notes" by Denise Chan // CC BY-SA

College application questions convey institutions’ commitment to diversity and challenge potential students to think about the same 

More and more colleges and universities are asking potential students to begin thinking about diversity and inclusion before they are even enrolled.

College admission questions asking high school and transfer students to describe how they will contribute to the diversity of a campus are appearing more frequently on applications. At some universities, however, such questions have been a staple of the admission process for years — and, at others, even decades.

The University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, for instance, has included such a question since the late 1990s. Students applying for the fall 1999 freshman class were asked to “discuss the most applicable aspects of their background or experience that would enrich the diversity of [the] campus community,” explains Paul Seegert, director of admissions for UW.

The question was one of five topics students were asked to address in their personal essays. As the application was reviewed and updated over the years, the university decided to make the diversity question mandatory.

Located in Orange, Calif., Chapman University’s application has included a diversity-related question for the past two years. “Previous questions generated predictable responses that related to a student’s social activities — information we gathered in other parts of the application,” says Frank Key, assistant director of undergraduate admission for the university. “Now, we receive information that is reflective of the student’s experience and is unique to them.”

Applicants to Chapman are prompted to respond to two questions that are tied to campus initiatives that support the university’s commitment to diversity, Key points out. “We think it is important to let applicants know the school values diversity, and we think it is important to allow them to talk about their identity and their differences.”

North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh has asked applicants to complete a diversity-related short-answer question for 12 years, but it is designed to do more than just elicit information from applicants, says Thomas Griffin, associate vice provost and director of undergraduate admissions. “It is a two-way communication; it is important that we tell applicants that we value diversity of experience and perspective, and it is important to learn how students believe they can add to, or benefit from, a diverse community,” he says.

Evaluating the responses to diversity-related questions is subjective and doesn’t focus on right or wrong answers, Griffin says. “There are a variety of answers, but as we read them, we look to see if the applicant provides insight into [his or her] thought process, or if the answer is thoughtful.”

For example, applicants may attempt to demonstrate how they would benefit from a diverse campus or the diversity they would bring to campus, such as identifying as a woman interested in engineering or a person from the West Coast. “Another example is an applicant who describes himself as a white male growing up in Raleigh who would benefit from getting to meet and become friends with a diverse group of classmates,” he adds.

Seegert admits that academic performance in high school drives most acceptance decisions, but because UW uses a holistic admissions review process, he says the personal character and unique experiences expressed by students in their responses enhance the university’s overall assessment.

Byron Lewis, interim dean of admissions at Southern Methodist University (SMU), agrees. “These short answers also show us if SMU is a good fit for the student and how the student might contribute through interactions with diverse students or involvement in clubs, organizations, and community activities.”

Although SMU has included a question about applicants’ ability to contribute to or benefit from a diverse campus community for four years, the real value is in the candid, more transparent responses that a short-answer question elicits, according to Wes Waggoner, associate vice president for enrollment management at the university. “We want to know why students are choosing SMU, and a question that highlights our commitment to diversity pairs well with that overarching question.”

At NCSU, Griffin has noticed a change in applicant answers over the years. “There is less emphasis on discussion of race or ethnic background to illustrate diversity and more on the diverse perspectives people with different backgrounds bring to our community,” he says. “Students have a broader understanding of what diversity means. For example, they might describe their experiences as a liberal Democrat in a Republican stronghold or as a gay person who has come out to his or her family.”

He also recalls reading an application from a student who described her contribution to campus diversity as a Jewish West Coast resident — both underrepresented groups at NCSU.

At UW, the differences in applicants’ responses reflect a changing applicant pool, Seegert says.
“We receive more out-of-state and international applications than we did several years ago, which means students naturally have different experiences,” he says. “We are also seeing more applicants describing themselves as first-generation college students who represent first- or second-generation immigrants, which is a reflection of more diverse high schools and a greater emphasis on pursuing a college education.”

The combination of campus initiatives to attract and support a diverse population, along with the message conveyed by the application question, is having an effect on freshman class profiles. “At UW, almost 30 percent of the 2016-2017 class represents first-generation college students, and a little more than 14 percent of students are from underrepresented groups that include African American, American Indian, Hispanic and Latino, and Hawaiian or Pacific Islander,” says Seegert.

At Chapman, the diversity question, along with university initiatives, has resulted in a 4 percent increase in students of color in the 2015-2016 freshman class, according to Key. “The question, the information it elicits, and ongoing initiatives at Chapman tie together to make the school more accessible to a diverse population,” he says. “The question alone will not attract students from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.”

SMU is also experiencing a spike in applications from underrepresented groups. According to Waggoner, 26.7 percent of the fall 2016 entering class is from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds — a near record for the university. However, like Key, he doesn’t overestimate the impact of the application question.

“We’ve certainly seen an increase in applicants and admitted students since the introduction of the question, but other recruitment initiatives between 2010 and 2014 had a larger impact,” he says. “Still, the question about diversity is an important tool in helping SMU understand a student’s story and in sharing the university’s own commitment to diversity.”●

Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.

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