After Supreme Court ruling, college applicants still write about race
The court’s rejection of affirmative action in admissions does not mean race is off-limits for students
November 27, 2023
Walking the streets of England as a Latina teenager, Estefany Cepeda Fana recalled getting “weird looks” around town and even hearing someone call her the n-word. But Cepeda resolved to embrace her multiracial identity as a native of the Dominican Republic.
That experience in a study-abroad program became material for her college essay. “I quickly realized that being Dominican was what made me special and I shouldn’t hide that,” the 18-year-old from Paterson, N.J., wrote for the Common Application. “I washed my hair and let my curls shine. … I knew I belonged because I worked hard to get there.”
Cepeda’s essay is one of many this fall that show an enduring — albeit limited — role for race in college admissions despite the landmark ruling from the Supreme Court in June that rejected affirmative action at selective schools. Even as the court majority struck down programs that had allowed race to be a factor in selection of an incoming class, the ruling acknowledged that applicants may continue to write about how race affected their lives “through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”
With that green light, counselors and colleges are encouraging applicants more than ever to explore their racial and ethnic identities and their views on diversity. How these essays influence the decisions selective colleges make in coming weeks and months could become another flash point in the volatile debate over the pursuit of racial diversity in higher education. Schools also face the threat of lawsuits from affirmative action opponents eager to widen the impact of the court ruling.
Cepeda, who is applying to highly competitive colleges, told The Washington Post that she moved to the United States at age 8, not knowing any English, and that she is now a U.S. citizen. Her instinct, she said, is to be “more of a private person.” But her school counselor urged her to get personal in the application. Erica Mickens, Cepeda’s counselor at College Achieve Public Schools in Paterson, said she worried the court ruling could create new barriers for worthy Black and Latino students. “I want students to know the importance of this essay,” Mickens said. “They’re all phenomenal. I don’t want them to be afraid to share who they are.”
The role of admission essays, from a few dozen words to 650, has long been a subject of fascination and (often misinformed) speculation. Typically, colleges and universities scour these writing samples to learn more about applicants than they could otherwise glean from transcripts, test scores, recommendations and extracurricular résumés. Essays can be especially helpful for ultracompetitive schools with a seemingly endless supply of applicants who have stellar grades and scores.
In years past, many selective schools would consider an applicant’s race — pulled directly from demographic questionnaires — alongside academic credentials and other factors in a “holistic” review. Advocates said this racial preference was meant to give a slight “tip” on occasion to the chances of applicants from underrepresented groups who were, regardless, highly qualified. Critics said it too often discriminated against those who were White or Asian American.
Now the racial and ethnic profile of an applicant does not automatically appear in the application files an admission officer will read. That is a major change to comply with the court ruling that struck down race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Still, race might pop up in a student’s activity list. Or a teacher’s or counselor’s recommendation. Or a student’s essay. “What if an applicant wrote an essay about how integral their racial identity was to them as a source of pride, and the cultural attributes of the racial heritage were very important?”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked in October 2022 during oral arguments in the case. “Would that be okay?” An attorney for Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiff opposed to affirmative action, told Barrett that culture, tradition and heritage would not be off-limits for universities to consider. The attorney, Cameron T. Norris, said the plaintiff objected to consideration of “race itself.” Barrett joined the six-justice majority opinion that sided with the plaintiff. The ruling, from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., said colleges must treat an applicant “based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.” The ruling also warned colleges not to attempt to “establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”
Generations of applicants have written about race. In 2017, a New Jersey student who was admitted to Stanford University tweeted that one of his application essays consisted of nothing more than “#BlackLivesMatter” repeated 100 times. This year, in response to the ruling, numerous colleges are asking questions that appear designed to draw applicants out on diversity and identity. Harvard asks for up to 200 words on this question: “Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?”
Dartmouth College offers this prompt for up to 250 words: ” ‘It’s not easy being green …’ was the frequent refrain of Kermit the Frog. How has difference been a part of your life, and how have you embraced it as part of your identity and outlook?” Dartmouth’s dean of admissions and financial aid, Lee Coffin, said the ruling’s impact should not be overstated. Essays and other elements of the application will get the same degree of consideration they always have, Coffin said. “The door remains open to holistic review, and to the storytelling of identity when it’s part of a student’s lived experience,” Coffin said in an August podcast episode.
College admission shops across America emphasize that they will comply with the ruling. But they can’t — and won’t — ignore what applicants write. “As a practical matter, one can’t imagine an alternative in which colleges were somehow required to black out any discussion of race,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, who was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case. “That would be so extreme.” To comply with the ruling and avoid potential litigation, Kahlenberg said, admission officers must focus on individual experiences in an evenhanded way. If the officers are impressed by a student’s story of overcoming racial discrimination, he said, they should also be impressed by stories of overcoming poverty or other disadvantages. Kahlenberg said it is legally risky for colleges to rely too much on essays to pursue diversity. A safer strategy, he argues, is to also invest more in recruiting and financial aid. “I don’t think they should forget that litigation is also expensive,” he said.
Ethan Sawyer, a counselor known online as the College Essay Guy, said he tells students that colleges still want to enroll a diverse class. “The short answer is, yes, you can write about race,” he said in September at a convention of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Baltimore. But the topic is fraught. “How do I do it in a way that matters and feels authentic?” they ask Sawyer. His reply, echoing the court opinion: Tie the essay to the strength of character and unique qualities you would bring to a campus.
Ryan Baldwin, 17, a high school senior in Ellicott City, Md., who identifies as Nigerian American, wrote about the experience of moving from a majority-Black school to one that was not. Baldwin said he enjoys calculus and is on the school math team. “As an ‘academically inclined kid,’ ” he wrote, “people don’t pay much notice to you; as supposedly ‘the only academically inclined BLACK kid,’ the surprise in people’s eyes is very obvious.” Baldwin wrote of “feeling the sting of countless eyes when I walk through my school’s sea of racial majorities.” Sometimes, he wrote, “I want to hide my own skin.” Baldwin also wrote that these feelings spurred him to get involved in his school’s Black Student Union and other groups. “My background as an African-American has motivated me to help others find a space where they can fit in without judgment or scrutiny,” he wrote. “I have always wanted to help others feel welcomed.”
Many students mention their race glancingly, or not at all. Sawyer said it is vital not to push them to write about topics they want to avoid. “Who am I as a White dude to tell students they need to write about their race?” he said.
Scott Albert Johnson, a college admission counselor in Jackson, Miss., said he advises students to think through why they want to write about their identity. “Shoehorning your race into the essay, that’s not likely to be productive,” he said. “I would never advise a student to discuss race or any other aspect of their experience in a way that feels inauthentic or is designed to outsmart the process.”
One Chinese American student from New England, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions for her applications, said she steered away from racial identity. “To speak honestly, there’s a lot of stereotypes associated with people from China,” she told The Post. “That was something I wanted to try to avoid. I didn’t want that to be the only factor that defined me. I have a lot of other interests, a lot of other passions.”
A student from California, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the application process, said she identifies as biracial, with Jamaican and French Canadian heritage. In her applications she worried about whether and how to discuss race in various prompts. “It’s shaped who I am, without a doubt, but it’s not the only thing about me,” she said. She wrote her Common App essay about her identity and its influence on her academic interests — and then scrapped it. Then she wrote on a completely different topic, but it didn’t sound right. She went back to her original essay. “It was so stressful,” she recalled. “I sobbed at least a couple times, writing and rewriting and rewriting. I was reading my essays too many times. They were becoming incoherent.” But she said she was happy with the result, an essay that explores being biracial and finding inspiration in great works from authors of color such as Toni Morrison. “I became aware of how important these books were more than ever before,” she wrote. “I wanted to make sure the horrors of the past wouldn’t be shrugged off with indifference, no matter how upsetting this history may be.”