Podcast: Let’s Get Tactical: Affirmative Action & How to Write a “Diversity” Essay

In today’s episode, I recap the SCOTUS decision on affirmative action and break down what it means for students and families, particularly when it comes to writing essays on “diversity” and related topics. Tune in to learn how colleges are reacting to the decision, what we expect they will do as we move forward, and how to address these tricky essay questions that many colleges are adding this year.

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Sheila Akbar: 

But if you reflect hard on how you are different from other people, and how you think differently from other people, you will have something compelling to say in this essay Hey, everybody, welcome back. It’s so nice to be releasing podcasts regularly. Again, I love having these conversations and knowing that there’s great information coming out to you. So I hope you’re enjoying it too. Before I forget, if you can please subscribe, leave us a rating, it helps other people find us. And please share with your friends if you think that they would enjoy the kind of conversations we’re having here. Today, I want to give you more thoughts on the Supreme Court decision affecting race conscious admissions practices at colleges in the United States. I was just part of a panel that discuss this for Chief which is a executive female networking group. And we had a lawyer join us we had an HR professional join us. And the implications of this decision are a little bit crazy. If I can say that, the decision itself seems pretty clear that it only applies to undergraduate admissions processes. But depending on who you talk to, and what their politics are, it’s being applied pretty widely to the operation of universities to financial aid to DEI programs at private employers. And so this is something that is obviously a developing situation that we’re going to keep an eye on. But of course, my focus is really on the college process, and what this means for families. So I’m going to start by giving you a layman’s summary of the case and the decision, some of which I shared kind of in my July update, which I encourage you to go back to if you have the time, though, I will say that was just a couple of days after the decision, I think you’ll hear in my voice, just the exhaustion and devastation and frustration that I was feeling in those moments. Of course, I still feel a lot of those things. But as we all have learned a little bit more about what this means. And we’ve seen how colleges are reacting. So I’m going to talk a little bit about that in today’s episode, as well. And then I want to really dig in on how to respond to some of these new supplemental essay questions that colleges are including in their application materials. And I hope to accomplish a couple of goals with this episode today. One is catch you up on what’s been happening and what we now understand about the implications of this decision, talk to you a little bit about what I think we are going to continue to see from colleges, and then break it down into what does this mean for your student who is applying to college this year? So first, let’s start with a summary of the case. And the decision that came down. The way I like to think about this. And of course, this is extremely oversimplified. SFFA students for fair admission, basically were arguing that students were being admitted on the basis of race alone. And the universities that were on the other side of the suit claimed that they were not right. There are all these other factors that they were looking at race yes was one of them. That was not one of the main factors they were looking at. It’s just something they want to stay aware of because it helps them understand the context from which the student is applying. And this does not pass muster, at least for the Supreme Court as it is composed today. And so the checkbox data that was on the Common Application and many other application forms that allow you to indicate what your racial background is, which has always been an optional question is now gone. Right? That is not data that colleges will be able to look at when they’re looking at a college application. Though Justice Roberts did mention specifically, that students could still write essays about the way their racial background has impacted them, whether positive or negative, and talk about activities that they’ve done that are related to their racial, ethnic, cultural background. So there’s this sort of gray area where race can be sort of considered, but it should not be considered. And I think that’s a place that a lot of colleges are very uncomfortable operating within and we’ll talk a little bit about that today. There is a line in Roberts’s opinion that says the regime which we hold unlawful Today cannot be reproduced by some indirect means. That’s a bad paraphrase. But basically, he’s saying, you can’t just look at their name and say, Oh, I can tell that’s Asian. So now, I’m going to kind of check the Asian box in my head and consider their race because I was able to glean it from some other portion of their application. Now, how he thinks that anyone can be held accountable to that standard is beyond me, I don’t know how you’re going to tell. But that’s part of the needle that we have to thread here. So from my perspective, I want to talk to you about what we’re seeing from colleges, what their reaction is, and what changes they’ve made, or have talked about making. And then I also want to talk just briefly about what we’re hearing from families and students, that people that this is directly affecting. So I don’t think anyone was surprised by this decision, everyone was sort of expecting it to go this way doesn’t mean it is any less devastating, but most people expected it. And immediately colleges were ready with statements that were sort of doubling down on their commitment to diversity. And there were videos from the president elect of Harvard that went out, like literally the minute that the decision came out, I wonder if they recorded kind of like the Superbowl, they prepare the merch for both possible winners. And so all of that came out very, very quickly. And we hear colleges saying we will abide by this decision. But we will find other ways to ensure that we have this robust to diverse classroom. And then we’re also seeing actions around ending legacy admissions, because we know that tends to prefer white wealthy applicants much more than other populations, and changing policies around early action and early decision. These are early application programs. They also tend to favor white wealthy applicants, they favor people who have access to private counseling, or other kinds of advantages, where they can actually file their applications early. And we’ve seen that the admissions rates for early applications for many, many years has been much higher than that for regular decision applications. So there’s there’s a real access problem there. One of the colleges that is doing something very interesting, this just happened. I think, last week, Wake Forest announced that they are only offering their early action plan to first generation college students. Those are the only people who can apply early, which is very much applauded across the college admissions industry. The other thing we’re seeing is changes in the essay questions that colleges want students to respond to in their applications. Now, many of them have had questions about diversity or the community you come from or your lived experience. Other sort of language that gets at this question, have had questions like that for a very long time. Some of them have changed their questions to be much more pointed. So probably the most famous example we’re seeing now is Sarah Lawrence, which actually quotes the Roberts opinion. In their supplemental essay prompt. They say, Justice Roberts said this, what do you think? And it’s really kind of a gesture. It’s definitely value signaling. But I think it certainly has an impact. And I have already met several students who had never heard of Sarah Lawrence, were never thinking to apply who are like, Yeah, I want to go there. They like their attitude, right. And on the other side of this, we have seen schools move in the other direction. And this is probably because they already had some political agenda on their board of trustees that wanted to move in that direction. So the example there is Western Illinois, decided to get rid of an entire dei scholarship program, took funds away from kids who want it last year, they had all this messaging about we’re going to find other funds for you. But it’s very clear that they’re applying this decision to areas that are really not meant to be affected by it, at least as we see the decision. Now, I think we can expect more changes from colleges around this, the place everyone is looking to as a University of California system. So in the 90s, the UC system was barred from using racial data to make decisions about applicants. And what we saw was their diversity, particularly among black and Latino students just fell off a cliff. And it was really, really a serious impact. Over the last 20 years, they spent something like $500 million to work on this problem, specifically, and they’ve done a number of things. I’ll tell you what they were, and now today, they can say their diversity levels are higher than where they were pre 1990s when that decision came out where they couldn’t use racial data. So what they did was they changed the way they recruited for students. They expanded the pipeline, they created specific partnerships and pay clients for communities of color and traditionally disenfranchised communities, and made sure that there was enough outreach, and enough support to help those students become good applicants and also apply. They made some changes around financial aid. And this is one of the things we’re expecting to see a lot as well how financial aid is given, could make an impact as a tool for increasing diversity. There were some changes in evaluation criteria. So the UCS have gotten rid of the SATs and the ACT, a lot of people are advocating for more test optional test free policies, because that data is racially coded. And so that’s another way to increase diversity is by removing that barrier. In certain med schools, they’ve started measuring, I think this is actually UC Davis, they’ve started measuring socio economic factors that students have had to overcome. Instead of talking about race, specifically, they’re talking a little bit more broadly about these things that students have had to overcome. And then the UCS really spent a lot of time and energy and money on trying to solve upstream K to 12 inequities in quality access, and a college going culture. So they really work with school districts to improve college counseling, improve curriculum improve instruction, they got this sort of closer to the root of the problem, which is something that I hope to see lots of other colleges doing. But as we’ve seen with the UCs, it took a huge investment. And so whether the political will is there is is a question. On the family side, we just see confusion. And the reactions are a little bit mixed, or a lot of people who are just like, well, I’m definitely never applying to that school. Because now I don’t stand a chance that betrays a misunderstanding of what race conscious admissions ever was. And then other people who think oh, now the playing field is level also betrays a really deep misunderstanding of how the admissions process works, and how education works in the United States. But we’re seeing students kind of make those proclamations and families going along with it. One of the things that I think is really important to call out here is a worry about that loophole that I talked about, that students can still write about their racial background and how it’s impacted them. And Robert says something like, this doesn’t stop students from talking about how race is impacted them, whether it’s a challenge or an inspiration. And what I’m reading in there is a sort of implied prescription that students from minority backgrounds have to display their trauma, in order to be seen as whole people who have had to overcome challenges because of the way our society is, and the systemic problems that are there, that they have to lay that out for an admissions officer to be able to take into account, oh, wow, this kid has had to really overcome a lot of stuff. And this part hasn’t changed. You can look at a zip code, or you can understand the school that a student came from and understand a lot of that, I think there will be, especially since colleges are making their questions a little more pointed, I think there will be this pressure that a lot of students feel to talk about some pain in order to make them seem worthy of admission. And that’s the thing that I’m I’m really worried about. I’m counseling all of my students around. That’s not how you have to talk about it. So one of the things I want to leave you with, I think it’s really important how we talk about this with people whether or not you have a teenager who’s applying to college, you probably know someone who is. And I think it’s really important that we get the language right. I encourage you to be thoughtful about how you talk about this with its students and point them to good resources that can help them navigate it. So as sort of a transition. On the college side, as I mentioned that one universities cut a scholarship. We’re seeing weird interpretations of you know what the applicability of this decision is in the college admissions industry, and admissions offices across the nation. But we are seeing colleges ending race conscious hiring practices. So this just came out UNC has decided to stop doing that might be out of an abundance of caution worry about litigation, it might also be an opportunity for a very conservative board to move forward a political agenda. Okay, so now that you know what the decision was and how colleges seem to react, reacting to it, and what we might expect from them going forward. Let’s talk about what to do now as an applicant. Now, most of the process will stay exactly the same for applicants, though I know that there is probably more confusion and more worry around whether to disclose something about your background or not. Now I encourage you to be yourself and to feel confident that sharing true authentic details about Your actual lives, your actual lived experience will be rewarded, not penalized in the application process. So your applications are going to look the way they always had, except there’s no checkbox where you have to identify yourself. That said, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of colleges have added more pointed questions about your diverse background, how you may bring a different perspective into their university, your lived experience. We’ve added these questions into their supplemental application processes, those extra school specific questions that you will likely have to write as you apply to college. Now, not every college has these. And some colleges have had this kind of question for a very long time. Some cases, the questions have not changed. So I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately on how do we write this kind of essay, I’m going to call it a diversity essay, even though not all of them use the word diversity. And many of them come at this from a very different angle, like what, what kind of community do you come from, or how has the place you’ve grown up shaped who you are today, but I kind of put them all under this sort of umbrella. And it can be awkward, either, it’s plainly obvious how you could bring a diverse perspective, because you are an a minority in your community, or you would be a minority and at the school, or, on the other side, you may be from a very homogenous community and you have no idea how your particular perspective could be unique. Well, I want to tell you, it is unique, just by dint of you being alive, you are a unique, complicated human being. And you may not see it, you may not realize it or be confronted with it all the time, the way some other people are. But if you reflect hard on how you are different from other people, and how you think differently from other people, you will have something compelling to say in this essay. Now, I also want to say, as I said earlier in the episode, the way that the Supreme Court decision was worded kind of made it seem like students will have to put their racialized trauma on display. In order for that to be considered merit worthy in the application process. I want to remind you of two things. One, the Supreme Court is not riding college essay prompts. So no one is asking you to do that. No one is asking you to prove that the fact of your race has given you some impressive quality, or has challenged you in some way. No one is asking that question. The questions they are asking are meant to be universally applicable to all kinds of applicants. And of course, college admissions officers know that diversity comes in all colors, shapes, forms, sizes, orientations, you know, any way you want to slice pieces of identity. And so this is not meant to be limited to your racial, ethnic, cultural background. This is about your unique lived experience. And why do colleges want to know about this? Well, they believe and I also believe that having diverse perspectives in a student body leads to better learning outcomes. Right? Now you can debate me all you want whether having a diverse classroom is going to lead to a better understanding of algebra. But we go to college to learn a lot more than just facts. We go to college to learn how to live independently, how to work well with other people how to learn how to tune into who we really are, and to learn about the world and our place in it. Right. And that certainly happens when you have a diverse set of perspectives and lived experiences that get to encounter one another and learn from one another. So colleges are curious what you are going to contribute to that wonderful dynamic on their campus. And so your response to this question does not have to be about some terrible obstacle that you’ve had to overcome some oppression that you’ve had to face, though it can be if that feels like a central part of your story, and you feel comfortable talking about it. It does not have to be I want to say stress that, because I don’t want students to feel like they have to put their pain on display in order to be considered worthy of a college acceptance. And there are a lot of people who do very interesting work on what we call trauma porn. In the college essay, I recommend you look up, Aya Waller-Bey, her last name is w a ll e r dash b e y. She is a PhD candidate, I believe in sociology who is studying this very trend. And she has a TED talk. She has an article in The Atlantic recently, and I think she’s, she’s pretty smart. So you should go read about that, if that’s something that you’re curious about, or you’re worried about having to participate in. Now, back to how to write this essay, the number one thing is to think about how you are unique and I will say it again, you are unique, we are all unique. And sometimes we just forget that. So I want you to take some time and think about how you are unique. Think about how you are the only at something, right? Maybe you’re the only Indian girl with short hair, which I was for a very long time in my community. Maybe it’s the only in your town or the only in your community, the only in your school or the only in your family. That difference has shaped you in some way. It’s helped you think about things in a certain way, it helped you learn how to navigate certain situations. And those are the kinds of insights that are going to be valuable to write about in the essay. You can also think about how you think differently, you have a different worldview, or you have different values from other people. You build relationships differently, you solve problems differently, you have fun differently, you make art differently, you express yourself differently. And think about what communities you’re a part of what identities you embody how where you’re from, impacts how you behave, or what your ambitions and dreams are. So all of these are different ways to think about how you can add some diverse perspective to that campus community. And if you’re really struggling to think about that, at the very least you can talk about how you can promote and participate in inclusion. You can also talk about if you’re from a place where there’s like no diversity, it’s a very homogenous town, you can talk about how you want to be part of a diverse, vibrant community and why you think that’s valuable. So there are lots of ways to approach that question. But I encourage you to start brainstorming along these lines. And remember that it’s not the facts of your identity that make you unique, right. So I am a child of Bangladeshi immigrants who grew up in a town in Michigan. Now, you may think that sounds really unique, but the way I grew up and because of the family friends that we had, it did not feel unique at all, I could name you, you know, 100 200 other people who fit that description. What made me unique is how I relate it to those facts of my identity, what I did with them, how they shaped me, right? Because all those 200 other daughters of Bangladeshi immigrants in Michigan, all grew up in different families all grew up in different towns, all went to different high schools, had different friends had different interests had different ambitions. So we’re all unique, even though the facts of our identity may seem the same on paper. So remember that and don’t treat this like a hurdle. I’ll give you an example of of what else you can do here. I have a student who is East Asian, and he happens to live in a town where there are lots of East Asians. And he doesn’t quite feel like a minority. And he’s like, Well, what am I going to write here? And, of course, I’m thinking just because you’re part of a more homogenous place doesn’t mean you have nothing to say about diversity, it actually might mean you have a lot to say about how great it can be. And so we have been talking a lot about how because he’s lived in a place where a lot of people look like him and share cultural traditions and values. He’s been able to hone in on how unique each individual family and each individual person is, and really give truth to that. The Asian community is not a monolith. And he can see how everybody is able to express their own kind of version of their identity, even though again on paper, the facts of their identity may be the same and how that has taught him to look for those nuances and never stereotype or make a blanket statement about a group of people because he knows that even within these larger categories, there is just vast diversity. Now, when it comes to writing, just like with any other essay, you want to ground it in a specific story, a single moment or event, something where there’s dialogue, or some inner dialogue even, that helps us see all of this in action, right show, don’t tell. And you’re going to give us that story. And then you’re going to reflect on that story, you want to make the takeaways the main idea, just jump off the page. And you want to keep in mind that you are trying to get your readers to understand you better, and understand how you might add positively to the class of students that they are creating. So remember, that’s your goal is to demonstrate something about yourself, that helps them see you as a valuable member of their campus community, you really want to take your time with it, don’t force it, I know you were waiting for me to say that. But sometimes you just have to stew in how you’re different. And something will show up some specific story will come to you or maybe to a sibling or a parent when you’re talking to them about this. And it will help you crystallize the lessons you’ve learned, the things that you want to take with you into that campus community that are really due to the way you grew up the communities, you’re a part of the facts of your identity and, and your unique lived experience. So I hope that’s helpful. I also hope you could tell this is the kind of stuff I live for. This is really the reason I’m in this business. I love helping students reflect, turn inward, try to understand their identity and what it means to them. So if you need help with this, please reach out. I also want to tell you about an exciting community that we’ve started. It’s called How to get into college. This is a free community on circle, I will link it in our show notes. It has insightful articles from me and my team. It has exclusive discounts and products. It has really wonderful week by week newsletter for each grade level, helping you know what’s coming up, and how can you think about this thing and make the right decision for your family. And most importantly, it’s got you it’s got other people just like you whose kids are going through the same things, and who are experienced the same stresses and worries that you are and we’re all here to just help each other. So come be a part of our community. And we’re kicking off with a free office hours on the 17th which I actually think this episode is gonna be released on the 17th. So listen, and then join us. Ask your questions, bring your essays, bring your kid and let’s let’s help you get unstuck, right. That’s the goal of the whole thing. So I hope you’ll see us over there. All right. Thank you everybody. We’ll see you next week.

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