Contribute To College Essay

Editor's Note:  Since this article was re-posted several days ago, we have learned that our description of Yale's Common Application form is not accurate: it does not contain the "diversity" question attributed to it in our original piece.  Instead, as pointed out to us by Jeffrey Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, the question is actually one among several options used in a supplementary scholarship application which select schools sometimes administer to low income applicants.  It is not, however, part of Yale's regular undergraduate Common Application form.  NAS regrets the error, and we are grateful to Dean Brenzel for bringing it to our attention.

"Diversity" admissions essay questions teach students, before they even arrive on campus, how to bow to an anti-intellectual idol. The essay question at Berkeley, described below, is the same one in use today.

To renew conversation on ongoing themes in higher education, NAS occasionally re-posts one or two of the best and most popular articles from the same month a year ago. This article was originally posted here.

Many colleges and universities require applicants for undergraduate admissions to write an essay describing the ways in which they’ll bring “diversity” to their hoped-for alma mater. This procedure isn’t especially new. The diversiphiles first launched the tactic in the early 1990s.  But required diversity essays have been getting renewed attention recently as they spread to graduate programs. In that light, we recently decided to examine the practice a bit more systematically.

We surveyed the application criteria at 20 of the most selective schools in the annual rankings of U.S. News & World Report. Many of those included in this small sample no longer maintain individualized applications, but use the Common Application Online (CAO) instead. The CAO doesn’t have a required diversity essay, but provides a diversity question as an option. Some of the colleges that use the CAO, however, make the question de rigueur. The CAO at Yale, for example, asks prospective students:

A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

That’s virtually identical with what you can expect to find at dozens of other institutions, where “diversity” is cultivated with tedious uniformity.

Let’s weigh this question. The first sentence simply asserts that the “range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences” adds to the “educational mix.” Few people would doubt that, and the sentence is no doubt written to command bland assent.  But if we force it to stand up for inspection, it displays a remarkable intellectual slovenliness. When we go to college, we do indeed benefit from encountering people with views and experiences other than our own. But that encounter depends on something else:  a shared commitment to the broader purposes of education.  The enlivening “mix” that Yale would like to foster requires students, at some level, to put aside differences at least long enough to consider one another’s views.

The “diversity” doctrine doesn’t necessarily prevent that deeper sharing from taking place, but it does cut against it and urges students instead to huddle inside their pre-chosen identities. The Yale CAO question is the first of a long series of subtle steps that teach students to lead with their particularities and to cultivate a kind of group vanity. The second sentence in the assignment (“Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.”) is a masterpiece of question-begging. What of the student who has slowly and painfully worked his way out of psychological isolation or social alienation to achieve a sense of identification with the larger community? Such a person would seem to have no acceptable answer to the task of explaining “the importance of diversity” to his own life. Would the Yale admissions office look favorably on the student who answered, “I have found ‘diversity’ to be a cudgel by which self-appointed elites attempt to enforce their preferences over others. Diversity to me has been the experience of having my individuality denied, suppressed, and demeaned. It is a word that summarizes a smarmy form of oppression that congratulates itself on its high-mindedness even as it enforces narrow-minded conformity.”

No, any student really seeking admission to Yale wouldn’t say such a thing. But chances are very good that a great many students harbor insights very much like that. They know their ethnic or racial categorization, their socio-economic status, and other such characteristics matter far more to admissions offices than their actual thoughts about who they are.    

These “diversity” essay questions are never innocent. They are a tool to keep college applicants aligned with the dominant ideology on campus, which continues to favor group categorizations over both individuality and the broader claims of shared community.

A recent poster at our blog alerted us to the spread of the diversity essay to graduate program admissions as well.  As destructive as these essays are at the undergraduate level, their seepage into graduate study is even more alarming. Surely graduate study should be about learning to participate fully in a discipline. The appearance of the diversity essay on this shore suggests that the ideology of group difference is making a bid to trump even that.

At the University of California, Berkeley – and irrespective of the specific program you’d like to pursue – all applicants to graduate programs must provide a Personal History Statement, according to the following criteria: 

Please describe how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Please include information on how you have overcome barriers to access opportunities in higher education, evidence of how you have come to understand the barriers faced by others, evidence of your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, evidence of your research focusing on underserved populations or related issues of inequality, or evidence of your leadership among such groups.

Note that if you want to be a graduate student at Berkeley, it’s not nearly enough that you personally add to the “diversity” of the graduate student body. You must also demonstrate that you have been out dynamiting social barriers to liberate others. You need a story about what you have done so far “to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities and individuals from other groups.”   

Would Berkeley really reject a brilliant astrophysics student or a promising philosopher who replied, “Sorry. Not my thing. I have focused on my studies and advancing the frontiers of knowledge and inquiry in my field, not on social reform. In any case, I would have thought that ‘advancing equitable access’ isn’t relevant to my application."

Chances are that, as with the undergraduate applying to Yale, no one would be foolish enough to say this. We learn to go through the motions, appease the bureaucratic bullies that need to be appeased, and make up the stories necessary to pass gates like this. Most people accommodate.  But that’s not to say that these rhetorical choke points have no effect. They teach the would-be student to whom and to what to bow. They enunciate the doctrines towards which the privately dissenting must be hypocritical and that the rest learn to accept as the piety of the age.  

The Berkeley graduate application amounts to a requirement that the applicant prove his record as a pro-diversity activist if he want to get in.  It’s a silly idea, and it is profoundly at odds with intellectual freedom, freedom of conscience, and the real purposes of education.  Because of that, it is a requirement that probably won’t stand forever. “Diversity essays” are a First Amendment case waiting to happen.


Image: "Numbered notes" by Denise Chan // CC BY-SA
 

Top 10 Tips for College Admissions Essays


In the admissions process, US colleges and universities generally use three criteria for determining which students to accept and which to reject:

  1. Previous coursework – your college preparatory work and grade point average (GPA)
  2. Standardized test scores – SAT and ACT are the two most respected.
  3. Admission/Entrance essays

Of the three criteria, the college entrance essay provides you with the greatest opportunity to distinguish yourself from your competition and show off the person behind the statistics. This article will help in writing a college essay and help you boost your chances of being accepted by an American university or college

Section 1: Planning Your Essay

Tip #1: Understand the Admissions Board Psychology

When you have compiled all the pieces of your application and sent it to the college/university of your dreams, all of your hard work gets placed in a pile with hundreds of other applications. Then a small group of admissions officers will review each application, looking over the scores and coursework and reading the college application essays.

The key to convincing the admissions officers is in understanding what they are looking for. They want students who will:

  • Succeed once they are admitted;
  • Contribute to the educational experience of other students; and,
  • Bring honor and prestige to the university once they graduate.

In your college admissions essay, you want to portray yourself as a student who will meet those needs. Of course, the specifics of what qualifies as “succeed” or “bring honor” will depend a bit on the particular university, but all admissions officers share these three goals.

Before you write your college admissions essay, take a few minutes and jot down some answers to the following questions:

  • How can I reassure the admissions board that I will succeed in their school?
  • How will I show that I am determined and ambitious; that I will not get poor grades or drop out?
  • How can I contribute positively to the educational experience of other students?
  • How might I bring honor and prestige to the university?
  • What are my long-term goals? Might I win an award someday, or start a business, or improve a scientific process?

Your answer to these questions will help you frame the content of your essay.

Tip #2: Determine Your Essay Goals

Along with the three questions above, you should contemplate how you want the admissions officers to perceive you. After reading your college admissions essay, what should they think of your personality and activities?

Most students want the college admissions board to view them as responsible, dependable, and academically ambitious. These are excellent essay goals, but you should also consider the essay in relation to your classwork. If your classwork already shows that you are studious and determined (because you have taken a wide variety of advanced classes), then you may want to highlight another feature of your personality.

Along with developing an image of your character, writing the college admissions essay allows you to feature other aspects of your life that are not reflected in your pre-college coursework. Some aspects to consider:

  • Have I worked at an interesting or relevant job?
  • Do I belong to any clubs or organizations?
  • Have I demonstrated leadership or teamwork?
  • Have I demonstrated compassion or community-responsibility?

Tip #3: Distinguish Yourself from the Other Applicants

This bit of strategic thinking should be fairly easy. As an international student, you by definition are different from the bulk of American citizens who apply to American universities. However, it is not enough to simply say, “Well, I’m not from around here.” Instead, you need to reference the strengths of your home culture. You don’t need to elaborate at length; a sentence or two should be enough to ensure that the admissions board pays attention to you.

Remember that you are more than just an international student from an interesting background; you are a complete person with a lifetime of experiences. You should take some time to think about what else makes you different from most the other hundreds of students writing college admissions essays. Add those features (plays piano, excellent at football, speak five languages) to your growing list of essay goals.

Tip #4: Contribute to the University

Remember that one of the goals of the admissions board when reading college admissions essays is to find students who will enhance the educational experience of other students. In other words, how can you contribute to other students’ learning? As with tip #3, you already have an edge by being an international student.

One of the general goals of education is to broaden people’s experiences, so that they come to realize the limits of their own intellect, and then grow beyond those limits. As an international student, you offer other students an opportunity for cultural diversity. As with Tip #3, it is not enough to assume the college admissions board will recognize this benefit. You need to highlight it in your essay. Again, a sentence or two should be enough to accomplish this goal.

Again, remember that you are more than just an international student. You have so much more to contribute to the campus social and learning environment than just your home culture. Take a few moments to consider what else you may contribute.

  • Maybe you are excellent at study groups or other forms of collaborative work.
  • Maybe you will join a student organization or athletic team.
  • Maybe you will write for a student newsletter or blog.

Whatever you feel you can contribute, add that to your list of essay goals.

Tip #5: Understand and Answer the Essay Prompt

At this point, you’ve come up with more ideas than you can possibly fit into one essay. Now you need to focus your goals to only three or four ideas – the ones that will make you the most attractive to the college admissions board. No matter what the prompt asks, you want to ensure you include those three or four ideas in your college admissions essay.

The concept is to present a few ideas very well, rather than list all your ideas poorly. A narrowly focused essay will be much more effective than a general, vague one.

Reading and answering the prompt may seem a bit obvious, but it’s often the obvious that people ignore. You should take the time to read and re-read the essay prompt, so you can answer it fully. Don’t be intimidated; unlike some college exams, the college application essay prompt is not designed to trick you. However, you must demonstrate that you can read and follow directions. Think of that great pile of applications. The admissions officers are looking for a reason to disregard candidates. Don’t let them reject you because you hastily overlooked a sentence in the essay prompt.

On the other hand, the prompt is designed to give you some freedom for creativity, which will allow you to work in those three or four key ideas that you have developed through tips 1 through 4. You are encouraged to find novel ways of answering the prompt, so long as you do indeed answer the questions provided.

If you need more help choosing a topic, you can find some tips on our Choosing a Topic for Your College Essay page.

Section 2: Writing Your Essay

At this stage in the college admissions essay writing process, you have considered the goals and psychology of the college admissions board. You have produced a list of ideas/attributes/details about yourself that colleges will find appealing. You have narrowed that list to the three or four most important ideas – the ones that will get you into your preferred college/university. Now it is time to actually write the essay.

Tip #6: Write with Specific Details

The key to excellent and memorable writing is to write in fine detail. The more specific your essay, the stronger an impression it will make on the admissions board. If you are trying to show that you are a dedicated scholar, don’t write: “I never missed an assignment deadline, no matter how poorly I was feeling the night before.” Instead you write: “In my junior year, I came down with a terrible case of pneumonia. Despite having a 103 degree fever and being required to stay in bed, I still completed my draft speech on the possible impacts of global warming on agriculture.” The latter will make a stronger impression; and people vote for the people they remember.

As you are writing your essay, ask yourself:

  • Is there a specific instance or example that shows this?
  • Can I add imagery (colors, shapes) to make it more interesting?
  • Can I replace general nouns (“class” or “car”) with something specific (“Honors Geometry” or “Honda Civic”)?

You may be thinking, “I don’t really like to boast about my personality; I prefer to let my record speak for itself.” While you should try to avoid sounding too arrogant, the college application essay is not the time for modesty. The admissions officers are expecting you to celebrate yourself, to underline your strengths and personality, so they can make a quick, accurate judgment about you.

Tip #7: Demonstrate College-Level Diction

Diction (word choice) is the fundamental structure of writing. Your word choice reveals a great deal about your personality, education and intellect. Furthermore, as an international student, you want to reassure the college admissions board that you have an excellent command of the English language (remember: they want you to succeed; they need to know that you can actively participate in English-only instruction).

With this in mind, you should replace lower-level words (bad, sad, thing, nice, chance) with higher-level words (appalling, despondent, phenomena, comforting, opportunity). You might consider looking up SAT/ACT vocabulary words and working a handful of those into your essay.

You should also remove any slang or casual diction; the university is not interested in casual language in their admissions essays.

Tip #8: Demonstrate College-level Style

An American proverb states, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” In other words, you want to present yourself as being ready for the next job. In this instance, you want to show that you already have college-level writing skills. So, in writing your college application essays, you should write with the following features in mind:

  • Write primarily in complex sentences, rather than simple or compound sentences;
  • Include figurative language such as a metaphor, a simile, personification; and
  • Include a trope or scheme, such as chiasmus, oxymoron or anaphora.

As with tip #7, this serves two functions: 1) it distinguishes your essay from those that are poorly written; and 2) it reassures the admissions board of your excellent command of written English.

Tip #9: Have Someone Proofread Your Essay

This is one of the most important tips on this list. Everyone who writes knows that the words in your head don’t always make it onto the page the way they should. Because you know what it should say, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking the essay says something that it doesn’t. For this reason, you should ask a friend or a relative (or an English teacher) to look over your essay and check your:

  • Grammar: did you write in complete sentences? Do all your subjects and verbs agree?
  • Diction: are all the words used properly for an American audience?
  • Organization: have you grouped sentences together coherently?

Tip #10: Pay Attention to Deadlines

College admissions essays require a tremendous amount of work. As you work and rework the essay, pay attention to the admission deadlines and requirements. Every school has their own system for how and when to file your application. Do not assume that, because one school uses e-mails and PDFs, that another school does as well.

The best way to stay organized through the college admissions process (and at the university when courses begin) is to rigorously maintain a calendar that includes:

  • Final deadlines
  • Reminders of upcoming deadlines
  • Process deadlines (breaking larger tasks into smaller steps)

Bonus Tip: Post, but Don't Panic

At some point, you will file your college admissions application. After you post it, please don’t panic. With these tips, and your determined intellect, you have an excellent chance of being accepted to an American university.

Take a look at our college essay samples to get an idea of what colleges are looking for in your essay.

Admission Essays

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