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After Affirmative Action Ban, They Rewrote College Essays With a Key Theme: Race

Astrid Delgado first wrote her college application essay about a death in her family. Then she reshaped it around a Spanish book she read as a way to connect to her Dominican heritage.

Deshayne Curley wanted to leave his Indigenous background out of his essay. But he reworked it to focus on an heirloom necklace that reminded him of his home on the Navajo Reservation.

The first draft of Jyel Hollingsworth’s essay explored her love for chess. The final focused on the prejudice between her Korean and Black American families and the financial hardships she overcame.

All three students said they decided to rethink their essays to emphasize one key element: their racial identities. And they did so after the Supreme Court last year struck down affirmative action in college admissions, leaving essays the only place for applicants to directly indicate their racial and ethnic backgrounds.

High school students graduating this year worked on their college applications, due this month, in one of the most turbulent years in American education. Not only have they had to prepare them in the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war — which sparked debates about free speech and antisemitism on college campuses, leading to the resignation of two Ivy League presidents — but they also had to wade through the new ban on race-conscious admissions.

“It has been a lot to take in,” said Keteyian Cade, a 17-year-old from St. Louis. “There is so much going on in the world right now.”

The court’s ruling was meant to make college admissions race-blind — answers to the race and ethnicity question on applications are now hidden from admissions committees. A recent Gallup poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans showed support for the ban on affirmative action. Some strongly believe race should not be considered during the admissions process.

“I think it’s wrong,” said Edward J. Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions, the group that brought the case to the Supreme Court.

But the ruling also allowed admissions officers to consider race in personal essays, as long as decisions were not based on race, but on the personal qualities that grew out of an applicant’s experience with their race, like grit or courage.

This led many students of color to reframe their essays around their identities, under the advice of college counselors and parents. And several found that the experience of rewriting helped them explore who they are.

Sophie Desmoulins, who is Guatemalan and lives in Sedona, Ariz., wrote her college essay with the court’s ruling in mind. Her personal statement explored, among other things, how her Indigenous features affected her self-esteem and how her experience volunteering with the Kaqchikel Maya people helped her build confidence and embrace her heritage.

For Julia Nguyen, a child of Vietnamese immigrants based in Biloxi, Miss., rewriting her essay made her more aware of how her family’s upbringing shaped her. Julia, 18, said she felt “more proud to have this personal statement because of the affirmative action case.”

In Keteyian’s case, he said he felt “a lot more passionate” about his essay after changing his approach. As a Black student interested in engineering — a field that has struggled to diversify its ranks — Keteyian concluded his personal statement with a mix of fear and hope.

“Coming to terms with the possibility I may be one of the few Black individuals at my workplace is intimidating,” he wrote, “but something to prepare for if the ruling stands, and an opportunity for me to rewrite reality.”

While some parents said they were glad their children got to reflect on their identities in their essays, others feared that the court ruling would make it harder for their child to find community while in college.

“Even with affirmative action in place, it’s always a struggle for people in our community to get to college and to succeed in college,” said Deshayne’s mother, Guila Curley, a college counselor on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico.

Not all students appreciated the rewriting experience as much. Some found that the ruling made them feel like they were not writing for themselves, but for someone else.

In her initial essay, Triniti Parker, a 16-year-old who aims to be the first doctor in her family, recalled her late grandmother, who was one of the first Black female bus drivers for the Chicago Transit Authority.

But after the Supreme Court’s decision, a college adviser told her to make clear references to her race, saying it should not “get lost in translation.” So Triniti adjusted a description of her and her grandmother’s physical features to allude to the color of their skin.

The new details made her pause. “It felt like I was abiding by somebody else’s rules,” she said. Triniti added, “Now it feels like people of color have to say something or if we don’t, we are going to get looked over.”

Some decided to leave out their race entirely. Karelys Andrade, who is Ecuadorean and lives in Brooklyn, kept her essay focused on her family facing eviction during the pandemic and being forced to live in a shelter. “That experience was a story that needed to be told,” said Karelys, 17.

In past years, some Asian American students avoided writing about their heritage, thinking affirmative action was largely unfavorable to them, said Mandi Morales, an adviser with Bottom Line, a nonprofit for first-generation college applicants catering mostly to students of color. But the end of affirmative action in colleges led some to reconsider, counselors said.

Ms. Morales cited one student who added a mention of his “conservative” Chinese family as an example. “The explicit disclosure of his ethnicity would not have made it to the final draft prior to the ruling,” she said.

Some experts argue that the court’s ruling encourages students to write on racial conflict, trauma and adversity. Natasha Warikoo, a professor of humanities and social sciences at Tufts University, said that the Supreme Court justices are “expecting that a story of adversity is going to play the role that race played when we had race-conscious admissions.”

But Joe Latimer, the director of college counseling at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, said he believes it is not necessary for students “to sell their trauma.” Instead, he advises his students to present their identities as “strength based,” showing the positive traits they have built from their experiences as a person of color.

Critics of affirmative action say they are worried about essays becoming a loophole for colleges to consider an applicant’s race. “My concern is that the system will be gamed,” said William A. Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell University who founded the nonprofit Equal Protection Project.

Since the court ruling, colleges and universities have affirmed their commitment to diversity, and some officials said their institutions will continue to foster it through outreach and tools like Landscape, a database with information about an applicant’s school and neighborhood. And officials have said race can still inform decisions, as long as they are based on the applicant’s character and its connection to the university’s mission.

But some students, including Delphi Lyra, a senior at Northfield who is half-Brazilian, have reservations about the new admissions environment.

“The idea behind the ruling is to not check a box,” said Delphi, 18, referring to the race and ethnicity question on applications. “But I think, in some ways, it has almost even created more of a need to check a box.”

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