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How to Navigate the New Supplemental Essay Prompts Post-Affirmative Action

It has been three weeks since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action could no longer be used in college admissions. Based on the decision, though, students can still write an essay about their race as long as it is "concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability."

In the short time since the ruling was announced, some colleges have gone one step further when it comes to capturing a student's background by implementing a supplemental essay prompt that directly addresses this.

University of Virginia has only one required supplemental essay for most applicants this year. And it's a new one that is clearly a response to the SCOTUS ruling: 

What about your background, perspective, or experience will serve as a source of strength for you or those around you at UVA?

Wake Forest University added a new supplemental essay prompt which also provides a space for students to write about their backgrounds. Wake Forest's prompt has the newly popularized term "lived experience" in it which is a way to avoid using the "race" term but also gives students freedom to write about much more than just race:

Choose one of Dr. Angelou’s powerful quotes. How does this quote relate to your lived experience or reflect how you plan to contribute to the Wake Forest community?

Other colleges, like Sarah Lawrence College, are offering a choice for students who want to write about their background. Sarah Lawrence has three prompts to choose from this year on its supplement and one prompt references the SCOTUS decision directly: 

Drawing upon examples from your life, a quality of your character, and/or a unique ability you possess, describe how you believe your goals for a college education might be impacted, influenced, or affected by the Court's decision.

It is clear that colleges are using supplemental essays as a "catch all" way to capture diversity. If the colleges can't see race boxes, they want to ensure they see race and other forms of diversity in the application. But it can be very confusing for students to know what to do, where to mention their backgrounds, and how to approach the main college essay and supplemental essays.

Given how much colleges are focusing on a student's background, here is how to approach essays if you want to celebrate your race, ethnicity, background, or other differentiator in your college application.

  1. For a student who writes about their race (or another form of diversity) in the main college essay:
    To avoid "hammering" repetitive themes, students should choose another aspect of their life if a college has a supplemental essay regarding background. In fact, this is a chance to show range and creativity. Diversity is not just about race. It can be about diversity of thought, geography, physical differences, socioeconomic background, religion, the family one comes from, and more. Even the type of roof over one's head or the neighborhood they live in says a lot about a student. By writing the supplemental essay about something besides their racial background, the student can layer even more information about themselves in their application.
  2. For an underrepresented student (racially, geographically, socioeconomically, etc.) who doesn't write about their background in the main college essay:
    It will be absolutely essential for the student to bring up their underrepresented background in one of these supplemental essays. In some cases, this would be the only way a college would know about a student's unique background. And because not all colleges will have a supplemental essay or one related to a student's background, it will be important for the student to indicate their background somewhere else in the application if possible. For example, a student who comes from a Hispanic background and receives the National Hispanic Recognition award from the College Board should list this under the "Honors" section of an application.
  3. For a majority student who feels like they have nothing to write about for a supplemental essay about their background or lived experience:
    Every single student has something unique to share about their background. The student has to be willing to spend time reflecting first before they claim they have nothing to write about. It could be their parents' marriage, a sibling with a disability, the town they come from, the school they attend, the native language of their ancestors they so desperately want to learn, their height, their style, their humor, their silence, their voice. This is a chance to show colleges and themselves that there is more to them than meets the eye.

READ MORE: How Saying “I Am” Can Change College Admissions

Colleges can no longer use race boxes as a way to quantify diversity. But the SCOTUS ruling leaves a lot of room for students and even colleges to qualify diversity in different ways. As colleges continue to announce their supplemental essay prompts for the coming year, it is clear that diversity is still a top priority in college admissions. Yet diversity is interpreted in different ways, by different folks. It will be up to students to celebrate whatever makes them different in their applications in order for colleges to celebrate them.