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How Saying “I Am” Can Change College Admissions

Many believe that the U.S. Supreme Court will strike down affirmative action this June, thus removing race from consideration in the college admissions process. With many students not reporting standardized test scores and some larger universities not requiring or permitting letters of recommendation, it appears that the college admissions process is being streamlined or stripped of its essence.

Parents want to know how to best support their children in this new era of college admissions. The answer lies within the family and how willing they are to share the secrets, stories, and background that shape the student's identity. 

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It has never been more important than now for young people to fully embrace who they are and celebrate it with every stranger they encounter and every application they submit to a college. They can no longer rely on a checkbox, their school counselor, or even a pivotal teacher, in some cases, to advocate for them. Instead, they must advocate for themselves. 

I have an exercise I use with my students to get them comfortable examining and celebrating who they are. I make them write a short sentence or "Soundbite" starting with "I am…" It is a precursor to the admissions process because it forces them to take stock and recognize how they see themselves and how others see them. Most students focus on their future instead of the present tense. I point out, much to their surprise, that instead of using “I am,” they unknowingly often use “I want to be.” Other students rely on adjectives to describe themselves to avoid the complex story lurking. Yet it is those complex stories that define our country and one's heritage.

I want students to mention all of that complexity right off the bat. Instead of hiding or being embarrassed by it, I tell students to "lead with it." Their race, culture, ethnicity, religion, geographic identity, and family dynamics should never be forgotten or withheld. The Chinese American who for so long was afraid to check off the race box for fear of being discriminated against, should lead with "I am Chinese American…" The student who is not only the first child born in the U.S. in their family, but also the first to attend college should lead with "I am a first-generation Mexican American and first-generation college student…" The student who is coming from a rural area and a large family should lead with it, “I am the oldest of six children and the son of a fourth-generation Wyoming dairy farmer…” This is not the full sentence or entire identity of the student; it is only the beginning. But it encourages students to consider sharing these elements of their background in their college essays. 

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The extracurricular activities list is a place to expand on that "I am" statement. It fills in the gaps of time, passion, and purpose that define a student's presence and present day life. Plenty of students proudly share the clubs and sports they do at their high school (that many of their friends and peers do) or their leadership positions. In contrast, not everyone does this or needs to do this. Students who have significant family responsibilities at home, have a job all year long because they need to, follow a unique passion, and those who are the behind-the-scenes players often downplay their impact. Students need to value themselves before others will. They can use the activities section of their application to honor exactly who they are or to showcase what is really going on in their life.

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The race checkboxes on an application might be on their way out. Test scores are optional at the majority of colleges. Letters of recommendation are no longer required by some colleges. Yet this does not need to strip away the essence of a student or the application process. It does, however, make it incumbent upon the student to be their own advocate and storyteller. The most powerful way to celebrate one's heritage, life, and complex story is to own it, live it, and lead with it. "I am…" is not just the beginning of a short introduction of a student. It is a revolutionary way to see ourselves and present to others what we value and who we are. Americans should never forget the stories that formed us and inform all.