Newly barred from considering race in admission decisions, Harvard University and other selective universities have revamped the essay portion of their application process to allow applicants to show how culture, experiences, and community have influenced their identities, world views, and ambitions.
Because the Supreme Court left the door open for prospective students to talk about how race has affected their life experiences through essay questions and interviews, colleges are tweaking what they ask students to better understand how each applicant got to where they are. The new essay prompts were crafted by college administrators as part of their new efforts to achieve diversity goals within the bounds of the Supreme Court prohibitions.
Harvard replaced an optional essay prompt on its supplemental application with a required set of five short questions that include: what they would want a roommate to know about them and how they hope to use a Harvard education. The questions also ask students to reflect on an intellectual experience, as well as about extracurricular activities, employment experience, travel, or family responsibilities.
The supplemental application accompanies the Common Application, which went live Aug. 1 and will be first used by the class of 2028.
“This shift impacts everyone, not just Black and brown students,” said Tiffany Blessing, a counselor with the college counseling service IvyWise.
The changes follow the Supreme Court’s decision in June ending the use of race-based affirmative action in college admissions. The ruling, in two cases involving Harvard and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, did not end so-called holistic admissions policies, in which colleges consider such factors as applicants’ life experiences and the challenges they’ve overcome.
Selective colleges had been preparing for months for the court to end race-based preferences in the admissions process. That preparation, aimed at maintaining diverse student populations, included revisiting essay questions, said Rob Bielby, managing director at the higher education practice of consulting firm Huron.
“Many institutions are working on crafting essays that allow students to speak to the role that [their backgrounds played in their lives,]” Bielby said. “Whether it be racial and ethnic diversity, whether it be coming from a rural background, whether it be growing up in an urban center, being an immigrant, bringing that to the fore and letting that be a core component of how they evaluate a student’s criteria.”
Dozens of schools across the country have unveiled new essay prompts in recent weeks. Tufts University added a new short answer prompt to its application in June, which asks students to write about “a way that you contributed to building a collaborative or inclusive community.” Likewise, Stanford University added an essay question asking about life experiences, interests, and character that would allow applicants to make a “distinctive contribution as an undergraduate.”
Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania is now asking applicants to write about how they would use a superpower to eradicate “a social inequity overnight.”
The University of Massachusetts Amherst will now ask students to reflect on a community or group that has defined or shaped their world and how being a product of that community would enrich the campus. Ed Blaguszewski, a spokesperson for the university, said the new essay prompt is a direct result of the Supreme Court ruling.
“We believe the responses by students to this new prompt can certainly broaden the scope of information we have as it relates to the holistic review process that UMass Amherst has been using very effectively in admissions for about the past 10 years,” Blaguszewski said.
Likewise, Babson College in Wellesley now asks students to “share something about your background, lived experiences, or viewpoint(s) that speaks to how you will contribute to and learn from Babson’s collaborative community.”
Blessing, the counselor with IvyWise, is following the changes to college applications and said she is advising students to remember that most colleges value diversity and they want to know how applicants interact with people of different backgrounds and perspectives.
“You have to understand what note your voice plays in this chorus,” Blessing said. “You have a voice to add. Who am I? What’s my voice? What do I value and how do I feel when I encounter someone who doesn’t feel that way? That’s a lesson that all students can participate in, no matter their background.”
The updated applications, which add nuanced questions, could take some colleges more time to assess. Small colleges with ample resources have the advantage of being able to spend more time evaluating individual applications and reading carefully through essay questions than large universities. But, it’s likely many schools will need to add employees to their admissions offices because of the additional time involved in reviewing each application, higher education experts said.
Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., recently said in an interview that carefully crafted essay questions will help colleges see how students took “advantage of the opportunities that were presented to them in their context.”
“We’re going to have to do that in a nuanced way. … We hope the result will be that we still have a diverse student body.”
Law firms and advocacy groups, meanwhile, are monitoring how colleges are adapting to the post-affirmative action landscape. Sarah Hinger, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, said that she will be “keeping an eye” on colleges to make sure that they are taking additional steps to prioritize diversity.
“What we’re looking to see is that those schools are taking serious efforts to make sure that they can continue to promote diversity on campus and be welcoming and open to students of all races,” Hinger said. “We’ll be looking to see more, not less, action from institutions now.”