For many college admissions officers, the personal essays that students submit are the most resonant part of an application.
While the rigor of applicants’ high school courses and their grades are typically what admissions officers consider first — especially at the most selective institutions — it is often the stories that applicants tell about themselves that linger longest.
In committee deliberations, an admissions officer might display a moving passage from an applicant’s essay on an oversized TV so that every colleague can see it and, ideally, remember it when they bring the student’s candidacy to a vote.
In the wake of the US Supreme Court’s determination on Thursday that race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are unlawful, applicants’ essays — and the details shared in them — will probably take on heightened importance.
Indeed, I believe that the ability of college admissions officers to continue to meet their enduring goals of filling classrooms, dorm rooms, and campus communities with a diverse roster of young people, and to do so within the new guardrails of the law, will rest heavily on the narrative portions of the college application.
Or, to put it another way: The success of the next iteration of affirmative action in college admissions could rise or fall on the degree to which young people maximize their use of their college admissions essays to bring themselves — and their “lived experiences,” as an admissions officer might put it — to full and vivid life. Also taking on additional import: the extent to which counselors and teachers use their reference letters to amplify the portraits that students sketch of themselves, including in their resumes.
Details, stories, and other examples drawn from applicants’ academic and personal experiences have always mattered. But these elements will be more critical than ever, especially with admissions officers no longer permitted to give weight merely to how an applicant checked the so-called race box, indicating whether they identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian American, or white, among other choices.
As the syllabus, or summary, accompanying the court’s decision put it: “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.”
I gaze out at this remade landscape with the perspective of someone who has had a unique vantage point from which to observe highly selective college admissions and its practitioners.
During the 1999-2000 admissions season, I embedded as an observer in the admissions office at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., in my role as a national education correspondent at The New York Times. I later wrote a book about what I saw, heard, and learned during the selection of the class of 2004. In the years since, I’ve interviewed admissions officers at many other institutions and have occasionally sat in on their closed-door deliberations, including at Rice University and Dartmouth College, my alma mater.
While admissions officers have long considered themselves talent scouts for those with exceptional skills, interests, leadership qualities, and extracurricular experiences, they keep an eye out for candidates who may also demonstrate resilience, tenacity, curiosity, empathy, kindness, and the ability to overcome hardship — economic or otherwise.
Admissions officers at selective institutions have always taken these personal qualities into account as they try to imagine an applicant as a roommate or lab partner. But they also consider that context to be relevant as they take the measure of students’ academic transcripts and, when submitted, their standardized test scores. As admissions officers see it, all fall within the broad definition of merit.
And, speaking of relevant context: No court can prohibit a teenager from writing about whether they are the first in their family to apply to college, and what that means to them, or, for that matter, from reflecting on the racial or ethnic backgrounds of their family, and how that informs their identity.
The Common App, which is accepted by more than 1,000 institutions, will still provide applicants with a range of opportunities to discuss the experiences that have shaped them, as well as with a conduit to bring those stories to the attention of admissions officers.
And no channel will be more direct and unfiltered than the Common App essay. In that space, applicants will continue to have up to 650 words to respond to one of seven prompts. It is telling that the Common App, a nonprofit whose board includes senior university admissions officials, didn’t wait for the court’s decision to announce in February that when this year’s application goes live on Aug. 1, the essay prompts will be identical to those offered last year.
The prompts are intentionally broad, while also telegraphing key priorities of the admissions process. Consider, for example, the first prompt: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
Or option 5: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
Or option 7, the most generous of all: “Share an essay on any topic of your choice.”
“Tell your story,” is what Rafael Figueroa, dean of College Guidance at Albuquerque Academy, a private high school in Albuquerque, N.M., said in an interview that he will be advising his high school seniors to do this fall, as he always does. “And if your race and cultural background are an important part of the story you want to tell, be who you are.”
“For some of our students of color,” he quickly added, “that’s not the story they tell, and that’s fine.”
In providing counsel tailored to each applicant’s gifts and talents, and hopes and dreams, Figueroa will draw on his experience as a former admissions officer — including at Wesleyan, where I shadowed him — and as a graduate of UCLA Law School, which could come in handy.
Nonetheless, for Figueroa and the tens of thousands of other college counselors working in the nation’s high schools — to say nothing of students and parents and admissions officers themselves — this fall’s application season promises to be disorienting.
Many institutions are bracing for a dip in applicants for the class of 2028 from Black and Hispanic students, and students from other backgrounds historically underrepresented on their campuses. In her dissent from the majority opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: “The devastating impact of this decision cannot be overstated.”
I agree. But over the longer term, I am optimistic that the court’s decision will not spell the end of broadly diverse student communities. My sense of hope is rooted, in part, in the ways that so many colleges and universities pivoted, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, to make the submission of standardized test scores optional. That was a shift arguably as seismic as the rewriting of admissions protocols and glossaries that will take place in response to the court’s ruling on race, and the heavy workload that will involve.
I also draw solace from the people who choose to serve as admissions officers. Among the threads running through every admissions committee I have observed is a fierce commitment to making postsecondary education accessible to everyone.
I am confident they will figure out ways to continue to attract, admit, and serve a critical mass of students from a range of backgrounds, and to take those applicants’ stories into account, all within the redrawn boundaries of the law.
Jacques Steinberg is the author of “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College” and coauthor, with Eric J. Furda, of “The College Conversation: A Practical Companion for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education.”