Diversity and identity essays in college admissions and the possible end of affirmative action

Diversity and identity essays in college admissions and the possible end of affirmative action

Colleges are starting to outline potential next steps if affirmative action is overturned and race can no longer be explicitly used as a factor in the admissions process. 

A recent article in the Brown Daily Herald noted:

Associate Provost for Enrollment Logan Powell says essays would focus on race as one part of identity, describes ‘structured meetings’ of Brown officials to prepare for rulings

And today, Penn’s DP posted about how Penn may respond if affirmative action is overturned. The DP also noted diversity statements (aka essays) 

Half of The Complete College Essay Handbook is dedicated to supplemental essays, which are the essays schools can request in addition to the Common App essay (aka the personal statement). Once you know the story you’re conveying in your personal statement, you can use the supplements to “round out” your application, whether by elaborating on an extracurricular, conveying your interest in an area of study, or even focusing on meaningful aspects of your identity or a community to which you belong.  

Community and Identity is one of the four types of supplements we discuss in the book, and it’s this category of essay Provost Powell is referencing. If race-conscious admission is eliminated, more essays of this type should emerge on applications and become even more critical in the efforts of colleges to build well-rounded, diverse classes. 

Through Community and Identity essays, admissions officers hope to get a sense of not only who you are and what shapes you but also how you interact with others in a group setting—a skill needed in college and your career. Often, Community and Identity essays are just as personal as the personal statement, though many are much shorter in length, averaging between 250 and 450 words.

The types of communities you belong to might include but are not limited to: 

  • Racial and ethnic communities
  • The LGBTQ+ community
  • Religious community
  • School community
  • Geographic community (could range from a specific neighborhood, city, or state to a whole country if you’re applying as an international student)
  • A specific socioeconomic community
  • Family community
  • A community based around a job, an extracurricular, or a hobby
  • Any other special school and/or local groups
  • Any other group you were born into (e.g., having a physical disability or a chronic illness, being an only child, having red hair)

You might have noticed that many of these communities speak to diversity in some way. Diversity is something admissions officers want, and now more than ever before might need, to learn about when they ask you to discuss your communities and identity. Diversity encompasses a wide range of other aspects of identity. Diversity is whatever experience or aspect of your identity makes you unique. The communities we belong to often help determine and define this difference. Community, identity, and diversity are all closely intertwined. 

Reflection is also an important component of many Community and Identity essays. When considering your identity in relation to a community, you will need to reflect on your role within that community, consider what it means to you, and examine what you have learned as a member. This means you can’t simply describe or celebrate the community or simply list all the accomplishments you’ve had as a member; you should take the time to reflect on the difficulties (and joys) of being a part of that community and how that community has helped make you who you are today.

For sample Community and Identity essays and a deeper discussion of how to approach writing this type of essay, grab a copy of The Complete College Essay Handbook. If you would like a complimentary copy for your school library or counseling office, or if cost is a barrier, please write to us. 

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More on college rankings (and what Frank Bruni has to say)

More on college rankings (and what Frank Bruni has to say)

Bye bye, US News? We dream of the day you go away for good! 

There’s a college for everyone, and most admit more than half of the applicants. You don’t need a ranking to locate them or to develop a set of requirements for your best-fit college. That said, building your own college ranking is an excellent place to start if you feel overwhelmed. Like ChatGPT, please don’t rely on it entirely. You need to make your list your own, which means putting time and energy into independent research. Scouring websites, speaking with reps, students, and alumni, reading blogs, talking with career services or financial aid, there are just so many ways to learn about colleges—even YouTube and other social channels can be learning tools. 

And hear what Frank Bruni has to say. 

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How Penn is quietly refining its legacy admissions policy, or not…

How Penn is quietly refining its legacy admissions policy, or not…

Small tweaks to the language on their website might not result in big changes in their admissions office—at least not anytime soon—but we are hopeful. Penn has historically admitted a crazy number of legacy applicants, although it has gone down slightly in recent years. This is just one of quite a few factors why a non-institutional priority applicant is often wasting their ED card applying to Penn.

Read the article via the DP here or below. 

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Penn is refining its legacy admissions policy under Dean of Admissions Whitney Soule, according to interviews with 14 alumni, students, and college admissions experts. 

During the Class of 2026 admissions cycle last year, Penn Admissions updated its information webpage for first-year applicants, The Daily Pennsylvanian found by examining internet archives. Nearly every word on the webpage stayed the same — except for the paragraph about legacies. This change was so subtle that, when it was brought to the attention of multiple college consultants and admissions experts, they said that this was the first time they had heard about it. 

Penn’s longstanding definition of a legacy applicant — the child or grandchild of an alum — has not changed. However, Penn no longer implies that legacies should apply through the Early Decision Program to have the best shot at getting in. In addition, Penn has phased out admissions information sessions specifically for legacy families.

A change to the policy’s wording

“Legacies who apply to Penn—like all applicants—receive thorough consideration in the application process,” the policy now reads. 

Under the previous wording — which admissions counselors have long used in the advice they give to families — Penn told legacy applicants that their status as a legacy would be given the “most consideration” during the Early Decision Program. 

1986 Wharton graduate Laurie Kopp Weingarten, the president of One-Stop College Counseling and the parent of a Penn legacy graduate, said that Eric Furda, the previous dean of admissions, made it clear that applicants who wanted “any type of leg up” should apply ED, even if legacies were still accepted during the Regular Decision round. Weingarten and five other experts that the DP spoke with referred to legacy preferences as a “tiebreaker” between two applicants who otherwise have equal qualifications.

In response to a request for comment about whether the new webpage wording represents a formal policy change, Soule wrote to the DP that it is Penn Admissions’ practice to “recognize the legacy relationships among our applicants.”

“Like the rest of our application processes that evolve over time, we continue to adapt and refine our approaches,” Soule wrote. “When I joined the office, I wanted to ensure that the information on our website — and across all of our communications — was as clear as possible, and that it accurately described our current process for recognizing the legacy relationships among our applicants.”

Soule began her role in July 2021, and the Class of 2026 admissions cycle was her first as dean. On June 21, 2022, Soule said in a webinar that legacy is “one thing” considered by Penn, “but it doesn’t come in front of everything else,” citing how the majority of legacy applicants are rejected.

In addition, on the Common Application this fall, Penn Admissions continued to ask applicants to indicate any family connections to Penn. However, alumni and admissions experts told the DP that the new wording on Penn’s website added a layer of secrecy for applicants trying to understand Penn’s admissions process — or represented a small step toward eliminating the legacy policy completely. 

“They’re just being less candid now,” Brian Taylor, a managing partner of the college counseling service Ivy Coach and an opponent of legacy admissions, said.

To James Murphy, a higher education advocate at Education Reform Now, the updated wording “dropped the most interesting thing” about Penn’s legacy policy. Because ED acceptance is binding, he described the old wording as a pact between Penn and legacy applicants: “If we’re going to give you this little boost, you have to give something to us.”

With the update to the webpage, Murphy and other experts said the legacy policy is not as clear, leaving it up to a variety of interpretations. Richard Kahlenberg — who testified as an expert witness in the ongoing affirmative action case that is now before the Supreme Court — said that Penn’s wording change was “a baby step in the right direction” because it suggests that legacies receive consideration “like all applicants.”

“To the extent that the new wording sends a signal to all applicants that they are welcome, that’s a small positive step,” Kahlenberg said. “It really comes down to a question of how the preference works in practice, of course, not just what they say on the website — and that’s a hard thing to measure without data.”

From 2017 to 2020, between 22 and 25% of applicants admitted to Penn during Early Decision were legacies, according to data provided by Penn Admissions during the admission cycles for the Class of 2022 through the Class of 2025

In addition, the rate at which legacies were accepted through ED has been higher than the rate at which they applied, according to the most recent available figures on Penn’s ED legacy application pool. These figures show that 16% of the Class of 2022 ED applications were legacies. However, legacies constituted 25% of Class of 2022 ED admits, indicating that legacies were more likely to get accepted than would be expected from their size.

For the Class of 2026 and Class of 2027 ED rounds, Penn Admissions stopped sharing data on legacy admits. Last March, Penn announced it would not immediately share additional data about admitted students, alongside two peer institutions.

When asked for the Class of 2026 and Class of 2027 figures on legacy ED admissions, Penn Admissions did not provide them and pointed the DP to the Penn Admissions Blog and Class of 2026 page, which includes data on multiple other common admission figures. 

“In line with the shift in what we share about admitted students, we chose to celebrate the students who were invited to the Penn community as individuals and in the ways that we got to know them through their unique combinations of identity, accomplishment, and talent,” a spokesperson for Penn Admissions wrote in an email. 

At a Board of Trustees meeting last June, Soule told the board that 15% of the Class of 2026 were legacies, in line with previous years and the expectations of most experts that the DP spoke with.

The phasing-out of First Fridays

Beyond the change in wording and the end of public ED legacy data, admissions experts said it was difficult to definitively say whether Penn is choosing to phase out legacy admissions. Some, however, said that the discontinuation of First Friday drop-in hours could be another potential indicator.

First Friday events began in 2012 under Furda “for Penn alumni, faculty/staff and their children approaching college age who have attended Penn Admissions Information Sessions … and participated [in] on campus tours, but have additional questions about the admissions process,” according to the Penn Almanac

These events are no longer listed on Penn Admissions’ website, and Taylor and Weingarten said they had reason to believe the events were discontinued during the past few years. 

Peter Arcidiacono, another testifying expert in the affirmative action litigation before the Supreme Court, said eliminating the First Friday events could be indicative of a policy change and cited increased offerings from universities like Penn for applicants from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

“With our increased presence in online programming and our focus on creating more digital resources over the past several years, we now have the ability to reach and engage with all of our audiences around the world — including alumni — in meaningful ways,” Soule wrote in response to a question about the status of First Friday events. “Our goal was to make sure that the same, helpful information is available to everyone through online information sessions and YouTube resources.”

First Friday events evolved from more explicit legacy admissions practices that were discontinued during Furda’s tenure: legacy “interviews,” the student group Linking Legacies, which connected current Penn legacy students to legacy applicants; and the Penn Alumni Council on Admissions, which operated a center that provided admissions information and legacy advising sessions.

“I have intentionally made sure, over the last two years, to distance myself from Penn Admissions out of respect for Dean Soule and her team to do their jobs for the university,” Furda wrote in a statement, pointing the DP to a book he wrote and previous comments.

1968 College for Women graduate Elsie Howard, who chaired the ACA Advisory Board, said that she, Penn Alumni leadership, and Furda closed the council because “alumni started to believe that the ACA would get their kids into Penn,” which meant it was not serving “the University or anybody properly.” Penn’s applicant interview program is now known as the Penn Alumni Interview Program. 

Part of the goal of Linking Legacies was to “dispel any myths” for legacy applicants, 2011 College graduate and Linking Legacies member Jenna Stahl said. She described an “internal conflict” about entering Penn as a legacy.

“I felt a little bit like I had to prove myself,” Stahl said. “I was acutely aware that in some ways… there could be this perception that ‘she got in because she had a little bit more of a leg up.'”  

Penn’s philosophy on legacy admissions

No matter how Penn practices legacy preferences, students, professors, and counselors agreed that the University, like some of its peers, is motivated to downplay its policy. Penn could be downplaying its policy, they said, because the University sees the days of legacy preferences as numbered due to increasing political and cultural pressure — or, more likely, the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. 

“Changes in wording are a reflection of the changes in the political landscape,” Aviva Legatt, the founder of Ivy Insight Group, wrote to the DP regarding universities updating the language of their policies. 

Taylor said the Operation Varsity Blues scandal has also helped put legacy admissions “on its last legs,” but if the Supreme Court eliminates affirmative action, universities would not be able to justify maintaining any legacy bump. 

Weingarten added that Penn could be trying to quietly downplay the extent of its legacy admissions practices so that they do not “alienate” or turn away alumni who make large donations. 

According to 1972 College graduate Jeffrey Rothbard, whose son was deferred and ultimately rejected from Penn, some legacy donors have already lessened their donations. He said that some alumni have voiced “disdain” when their children are denied, alleging that Penn’s evolving admissions practices are correlated with a “negative impact” on the endowment.

When Johns Hopkins University quietly discontinued its legacy admissions policy, the school’s president said that the change was accepted by the alumni community. In addition, a 2010 report found “no statistically significant evidence” that legacy preferences on their own increase the likelihood that an alum will make a donation.

College sophomore Selena Rosario, the president of the FGLI Dean’s Advisory Board, said she believed that any changes in policy wording or event offerings are being made by Penn to “save face” and “not garner more attention” rather than fully eliminate legacy considerations. She said that the board has discussed the topic of legacy admissions and what they view as the need to change Penn’s policy.

Rosario’s sentiments were echoed by College sophomore and Penn First Board Finance and Operations Chair Khaliun Dorjmenchim.

“In my opinion, [legacy admissions] places a step stool for someone who’s already seven feet tall,” Dorjmenchim said. “Because when you’re looking at it from the perspective of a first generational constituent, you’re already so behind.”

Both of Engineering sophomore Spencer Ware’s parents went to Penn, but he said that the policy was “obviously unfair.”

“My ideal admissions process would be a bit more merit-based in terms of testing, accomplishments, and interests, just so that more people who deserve to go to elite universities get to, whether or not they come from wealthier or poorer socioeconomic backgrounds,” Ware said.

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A Must Read on March Madness & College’s Lack of Admissions Transparency

A Must Read on March Madness & College’s Lack of Admissions Transparency

From Jeff Selingo:

March Madness is, of course, synonymous with college basketball, but there is another college tradition it might also describe these days: admissions.

The admissions process is now one that essentially runs year-round. Still, this month is when colleges typically send out their final batch of decisions. And this year is a particularly maddening one for applicants and the big-name colleges that, yes occupy a small subset of the higher education ecosystem, but also drive a lot of the narrative about admissions.

This year’s seniors submitted more applications to colleges than any group before them—at least in applying to the thousand colleges that are part of the Common App (which is a good proxy for the overall national numbers).

That huge surge in applications has resulted in an unusually large number of deferrals from early action. Here was a group of students who had applied early action (in November) for the purpose of getting a decision early (in January) but were told to wait until now to find out if they’re in or out.

The number of deferrals at many top-ranked colleges way outstrips the number of potential spots in the freshman class. As I wrote in the opinion pages of The New York Times yesterday:

Wisconsin deferred 17,000 of its 45,000 early action applicants. U.S.C. deferred around 38,000 — or some 94 percent — of its early pool (they accepted the other 6 percent and rejected no one). Clemson told nearly 15,000 of its 26,000 early applicants to wait another two-plus months for a decision (it rejected only 300).

The problem is that as applications have skyrocketed—they are up 32 percent at selective institutions over the past three years—the campuses have encouraged early action to spread out their workload and have more time to yield the accepted applicants they really want.

USC and Clemson did that this year by adding early action for the first time. Admissions officials at both institutions told me that as a result they were unsure how the applicant pool would shake out.

“We didn’t know if the early-action deadline would skew the high-quality apps to the front, so we were extra cautious,” said David Kuskowski, associate vice president for enrollment management at Clemson.

In other words, if they said Yes to the early academic rock stars, then they’d have to hand out more No’s in the regular-decision process to avoid over-admitting, but could still risk losing the early admits to other top-ranked colleges. Ah, the intricacies of enrollment management.

 Kuskowski said he was “not in love with the way we had to manage the process this year.” He hopes that Clemson can apply what they learned about this year’s application trends and yield rates to next year’s cycle. “I believe that next year we will have more denials,” he said.

My piece in yesterday’s New York Times was the result of a phone call I got from Frank Bruni in December, when he told me that he’d be taking a few weeks off from his weekly newsletter and was asking others to fill in. Frank has long had an interest in higher ed and college admissions—he is now a professor at Duke—so he assumed there would be something to say about admissions in March.

I accepted the generous offer without knowing what I’d write about. But then I started hearing from parents and counselors about the wave of deferrals coming in from colleges. And I was also hearing the same names again and again: Clemson, USC, UVA, Wisconsin, Richmond, Villanova, among others.

As I started calling admissions deans about all the deferrals, however, they didn’t really want to talk about it or share numbers. To many of them, it wasn’t a big deal: the admissions process wasn’t over and they were simply telling students to wait. But the reason students applied early I told them was precisely to get an answer early. A deferral wasn’t an answer.

What’s more, if you’re a senior sitting on multiple deferrals they don’t necessarily mean the same thing from every campus. For some colleges, they might mean what they did at Clemson: we want to wait to see how the early pool compares with the regular pool. For others, it means they want to see more information—mostly senior year grades. And yet for others, a deferral is much like the wait list in the spring: deferred students fill gaps in the class when a school might need more humanities majors or boost enrollment of underrepresented students or need more students from a particular region.

Once again, I was reminded that colleges admissions is about the institution and not the student. That’s fine, we all get colleges are a business. But the secrecy surrounding these numbers also means that students and their counselors can’t figure out what to do next because they lack the context of the applicant pool.

Read the rest of Jeff’s article here.

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The Two Most Important Letters in College Admissions

The Two Most Important Letters in College Admissions

Could not agree more with Rick Clark’s recent post about institutional priority. It’s something we talk about a lot with families and that needs to be taken seriously in the college admissions process. Who a college admits is ALL about them and their needs. 

If you are a senior, many colleges will release decisions in March. If you are denied from a selective college, my hope is you won’t question your academic ability or lose sleep trying to figure out what was “wrong” with you or what you “could or should have done differently.” IPs mean admission decisions do not translate to “We don’t think you are smart” or “You could not be successful here.”

Read more here!

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College Admissions Regular Decision (RD) Notification Dates

College Admissions Regular Decision (RD) Notification Dates

RD results start to roll out in March, with most released by early April. College Kickstart tracks release and tentative notification dates and includes last year’s for reference. Stay up to date here!

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Bard, Colorado College & RISD  leaving the U.S. News rankings

Bard, Colorado College & RISD leaving the U.S. News rankings

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, the U.S. News rankings are total garbage! 

Very happy to see selective schools opting out of this completely non-objective bogus list that emphasizes popularity and $$ over just about everything else. Read more about CC and RISD here. Bard here

William D. Adams also writes that it’s time for all colleges to follow the lead of Colorado College and drop U.S. News.

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From a teen’s perspective: dealing with college admission stress

From a teen’s perspective: dealing with college admission stress

I came across an article by a student at Menlo Atherton (Dylan Lanier) that I wanted to share. You can access it here or read it below. 

I’m 20+ years out from college (and a low-stress application process), but my days are wrapped up in this world. When I think about college admissions today compared to even a few years ago, the #1 thing that stands out is how much more stressful it is for everyone involved. The number of students (and almost always, they are excellent top students) we see presenting mental health red flags is far too high.  

Where you go to college is…simply where you go to college. It’s four years of exploration, developing independence, and figuring it out. I hope both students and parents who are in or approaching this process can keep in mind that it’s a four-year stop on a long journey; it’s not the end game, and it’s not an ultimate goal. 

It’s that time of year again: No, not Pisces season. College acceptance — and rejection — season.

At M-A, the energy is electric, and not always in the best way. Seniors are on pins-and-needles waiting for letters to come back from the colleges they applied to a few months back. Juniors, on the other hand, are already stressing about their own applications to come next year.

While I recognize the importance of higher education, I think that too many of us compromise our mental health by spending countless hours worrying about college. It’s important to enforce practices in your daily life that help you decompress. Not only will you be a happier and healthier person, but you will perform better in all areas of your life. You can’t crush that AP Lit test if you’re only thinking about college! So, here are some of the ways I find most effective to de-stress:

1. Time Away: Find a relaxing activity you truly enjoy, be it hiking, painting, or reading on the couch. Set a designated time for yourself each day or week to spend solely on that recreation. I recommend choosing a hobby that requires a lot of focus in order to prevent your mind from wandering back to college.

2. Community: Your family and friends are great resources for support and distraction. Go out to dinner, watch a movie, or just talk about everything under the sun other than college. Connecting with others will not only lift your spirits but place your attention on them instead of your own worries.

3. New Goals: The reason college admissions are so stressful is that we view them as the ultimate goal. Therefore, pick new, smaller goals that can help you satiate that need for accomplishment, such as learning an instrument or holding a bake sale for a local charity.

4. Mindfulness: Look, when I first tried meditation, I was just as skeptical about its benefits. But I can confidently say that it has considerably lowered my stress level and allowed me to reflect on my life without the typical emotional responses. I recommend downloading an app like Calm or finding guided mindfulness meditations on YouTube to help you commit to and get the most out of the practice.

Acknowledging your college stress and recognizing the negativity it brings into your life is the most important step. Understand how it’s impacting your daily life and respond accordingly with specific, customized strategies to limit those effects.

However you choose to de-stress, be sure to fully commit to the process. Take it from a fellow student: Nothing is more important than your well-being, and taking concrete steps to improve it will yield exponential benefits. Best of luck in your collegiate endeavors and your journey to de-stress!

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Colleges Where Demonstrated Interest is Important or Very Important

Colleges Where Demonstrated Interest is Important or Very Important

What is demonstrated interest?

Demonstrated interest (DI) is something universities measure to determine the level of interest a student has in their school. It may include:

  • Signing up for a mailing list
  • Opening and clicking through emails
  • Reading a school’s website
  • Attending a webinar or virtual info session
  • Attending an on-campus info session or tour
  • Attending a college fair and talking to an admissions rep
  • Talking to students, staff, or faculty
  • Submitting optional components of an application
  • Following or engaging with a school on social media
  • Applying early decision

College Kickstart has compiled a list of popular colleges where the Common Data Set entry for “level of applicant’s interest” is reported as important or very important.  Head over to their site for the list! 

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Early Decision Continues to Attract Students

Early Decision Continues to Attract Students

Inside Higher Ed’s headline, not ours 😉

But yes, it’s still ED or bust at many top US colleges, and those spots are getting even harder to come by. As the ED application numbers rise, a change in strategy is often needed. Our prediction:

“In” in 2023 –> match schools in ED.

“Out” in 2023 –> overreaching in ED (or SCEA or REA!). 

Find an interesting article on the use of early decision here

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