Applicants, Colleges Want to Know More About You and Your ‘Identity’ (2023)



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With affirmative action banned, application essays ask about “life experience,” the one place in admissions where discussing race is still explicitly legal.

Applicants, Colleges Want to Know More About You and Your ‘Identity’ (1)

By Anemona Hartocollis and Colbi Edmonds

“Tell us about an aspect of your identity or a life experience that has shaped you.”

— Johns Hopkins University

For college applicants, this is the year of the identity-driven essay, the one part of the admissions process in which it is still explicitly legal to discuss race after the Supreme Court banned affirmative action in June.

A review of the essay prompts used this year by more than two dozen highly selective colleges reveals that schools are using words and phrases like “identity” and “life experience,” and are probing aspects of a student’s upbringing and background that have, in the words of a Harvard prompt, “shaped who you are.”

That’s a big change from last year, when the questions were a little dutiful, a little humdrum — asking about books read, summers spent, volunteering done.

But even if candidates can — or feel compelled to — open up, colleges face potential legal challenges. The Supreme Court warned that a candidate’s race may be invoked only in the context of the applicant’s life story, and colleges have consulted with lawyers to determine the line between an acceptable essay prompt and an unconstitutional one.

“Obviously, this is a pretty subjective standard,” said Ishan K. Bhabha, a lawyer who is advising many colleges and universities. “Different schools are going to have different levels of risk tolerance.”

Students for Fair Admissions, the group that defeated race-based admissions in the Supreme Court, is ready to challenge any essay topic that “is nothing more than a back-channel subterfuge for divulging a student’s race or ethnicity,” Edward Blum, the group’s founder, said.

“Feel free to tell us any ways in which you’re different and how that has affected you.”

— Duke University

Harvard, which was at the center of the lawsuit, has replaced last year’s single optional essay with five short essays, designed to allow the admissions committee to see each applicant as a “whole person.” The essays, up to 200 words each, are all required so that the admissions office can collect the same information from every applicant, according to Harvard.

The first essay question closely tracks with what the Supreme Court’s opinion said was permissible: “How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?”


Johns Hopkins carefully explains what is allowed in its essay, which asks students to write about an aspect of their identity or life experience that has shaped them. “Any part of your background, including but not limited to your race, may be discussed in your response to this essay if you so choose,” Johns Hopkins notes on its website. But it adds a caveat: the information “will be considered by the university based solely on how it has affected your life and your experiences as an individual.”

Sarah Lawrence College, outside of New York City, saucily incorporates a quote from the official summary of Chief Justice John G. Roberts’s majority decision in its prompt: “Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life.”

Then the school asks applicants to “describe how you believe your goals for a college education might be impacted, influenced or affected by the court’s decision.”

These college-specific questions are supplements to the main essay in the Common App, the online application used by more than a million students each year.

The Common App said it was keeping last year’s seven essay choices. One mentions identity, another obstacles overcome. But in a nod to the new imperatives, the Common App said that it would monitor the choices of different “student populations.”

“Let your life speak. Describe the environment in which you were raised and the impact it has had.”

— Dartmouth College

Some students are seizing on the opportunity to write about race. Janyra Allen, 17, who attends Bard High School Early College in Baltimore, has started applying to colleges, with her top choice being Notre Dame of Maryland University. Janyra, who is Black, wants to be a nurse, and in her essays she has written about the lack of Black nurses and doctors in hospitals.

Janyra tries to include both her race and her accomplishments in her application answers, she said, because she wants universities to know “Black students can do amazing things, too.”

Amari Shepherd, 16, said she hoped colleges and universities would evaluate students based on merit, regardless of race. She is still thinking about what she wants to write in her essays, and although being Black is a large part of who she is, she isn’t sure if she will mention it extensively.

“I’m very proud of my race, but also I’ve worked very hard in my high school career,” said Amari, a senior at Frederick A. Douglass High School in New Orleans.


The essay may prove liberating for Asian American students, many of whom have been wary of how they present themselves. The lawsuit accused Harvard of racially stereotyping Asian Americans as high-achieving but bland and interchangeable — feeding the sense that applicants needed to appear “less Asian” by not majoring in science, for instance, or playing the cello.

Allison Zhang, a senior at a public high school in Maryland, said that she hoped to attend Georgetown or the University of Pennsylvania to study economics and political science. In her applications, “I’ve definitely been talking about my racial identity and also my gender because as an Asian American woman, that shaped a lot of how I view the world and the struggles that I’ve faced,” Allison, 17, said.

“Tell us about when, where or with whom you feel your most authentic, powerful self.”

— Barnard College

Some public universities are treading more carefully. The University of Virginia, for example, must navigate the tension between its stated commitment to diversity and conservative alumni, as well as the Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, elected in 2021 largely on a pledge to overhaul education.

James E. Ryan, the president of the University of Virginia, sent a letter to the school community on Aug. 1, the unofficial beginning of application season, nodding to both alumni and the enslaved people who built the university and worked on the grounds.


He said that the university’s application now encompassed an essay prompt inviting applicants to talk about their connection to the university as children of graduates, or as “descendants of ancestors who labored at the university, as well as those with other relationships.”

John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who opposes race-conscious admissions, said that the new essay prompts seemed consistent with the court’s ruling.

What matters is not so much the wording as the way universities use the information, said Mr. Yoo, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is on the board of Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs.

“Suppose Harvard asked these questions and, magically, the racial composition of the freshman class is within three to four points of what it was before these essay questions,” he said. “I don’t think the courts are going to be fooled by innocuous-seeming essay questions which are used as a pretext by the colleges.”

Anemona Hartocollis is a national correspondent, covering higher education. She is also the author of the book “Seven Days of Possibilities: One Teacher, 24 Kids, and the Music That Changed Their Lives Forever.” More about Anemona Hartocollis

Colbi Edmonds is a reporter for the National desk and a member of the 2023-24 New York Times Fellowship class. More about Colbi Edmonds




Applicants, Colleges Want to Know More About You and Your ‘Identity’? ›

A review of the essay prompts used this year by more than two dozen highly selective colleges reveals that schools are using words and phrases like “identity” and “life experience,” and are probing aspects of a student's upbringing and background that have, in the words of a Harvard prompt, “shaped who you are.”

What is most important for colleges to know about you? ›

They take into account more than your GPA and test scores. Your character and the personal qualities you can bring to a college are important, too. That's why you need to think about your goals, accomplishments, and personal values. Then, you can figure out how you can best express those in your applications.

What is something that you believe a college admission representative should know about you? ›

Beyond grades, test scores, and activities, colleges look out for who your child is as a person. They want to know how your teen behaves in social settings, makes decisions, handles difficult situations, grows from setbacks, and interprets the world around them.

What does it mean when a college asks for more information? ›

After you submit your application for admission, it's not unusual for colleges to send you a notice that they require more information. When that communication comes from an admissions office, it's often because your file is still incomplete (a situation I described in this post).

What would you want a college admissions office to know about you? ›

Your extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and essays can provide additional context by demonstrating a strong work ethic, a desire for academic challenges, a willingness to ask for help if needed, and/or your intellectual curiosity.

What makes me a strong candidate for college? ›

Generally speaking, colleges want to see your passion, intellectual curiosity, willingness to challenge yourself, and academic accomplishments. More specifically, though, colleges typically prefer applicants who have most or all of the following characteristics: Good grades and a challenging course load.

How do colleges want you to describe yourself? ›

To give a complete answer that stays on track, you can include: Details from your life that demonstrate how you'd be a great fit at the college. A brief look at what led you to apply to the college or choose your major. Your unique passions or interests (connect them to the college if possible)

What are the three most important things colleges look for in an applicant? ›

Good grades, a challenging high school curriculum, standardized test scores, extracurriculars, and a strong essay are a few key factors admissions officers assess. Each university may emphasize different elements of the application process.

How do colleges decide how many students to accept? ›

Offers of admission are based on each school's enrollment objectives. Making admissions decisions is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Large state schools may use a test score and GPA formula. Highly selective schools may have multiple reviewers with many voices weighing in on a decision.

Is it good that I get a lot of emails from colleges? ›

Colleges send marketing mail to tens of thousands of students, usually without regard to GPA, test scores or fit for the school. So just because Harvard is sending you weekly email does not mean they consider you a strong candidate. It just means that your email address was on one of the lists that they purchased.

Do emails from colleges mean they are interested? ›

While this could be a good sign that schools are interested in you, an email from a college doesn't guarantee your admission. In fact, there are many reasons you could be getting these emails.

What do admissions officers look at first? ›

Admissions officers are looking for students that will best thrive and contribute to the unique milieu at their college. Specifically strong grades in a rigorous curriculum along with strong standardized test scores are seen first.

What is the most important thing for college admissions? ›

What are the Most Important Factors in College Admissions?
  • Grades in college prep courses. ...
  • Strength of curriculum. ...
  • Admission test scores. ...
  • Grades in all courses. ...
  • Extracurricular commitment. ...
  • Letters of recommendation. ...
  • Essay or writing sample. ...
  • Demonstrated interest.

What makes you a good candidate for admission essay? ›

Morgenstern advises her students to highlight “7Cs” in their essays and applications: collaboration, commitment, character, curiosity, cultural intelligence, challenge, and creativity. Colleges may look for a different set of character qualities or define these traits in different ways.

What are your 5 most important factors to consider if you were to attend a college or university? ›

Before making your choice, consider these factors: cost, location, size, your interests, campus life, graduation rates, and the potential return on your investment. Once you make your decision, be sure to commit to the college by the deadline.

What is something positive about you that colleges should know? ›

Colleges want to know that you can collaborate well with students and faculty, and that you are able to put the needs of your team over your own. If you had a leadership role on a team, it's important to demonstrate that you were an effective leader of a cohesive group — even if your team ultimately fails.

What is the most important thing for a college student? ›

Essential Skills for College Students
  • Time Management. ...
  • Stress Management. ...
  • Study Skills. ...
  • Money Management. ...
  • Assertiveness Skills. ...
  • Well-Developed Self Care Skills. ...
  • Keeping Safe and Avoiding Risky Behaviors. ...
  • Seeking Assistance When Needed.

How do you answer why college is important to you? ›

Here are 7 reasons why college could be important for you.
  • Earn More on Average. ...
  • Increase Chances of Employment. ...
  • Expand Your Opportunities. ...
  • Prepare for the Future. ...
  • Build New Relationships. ...
  • Achieve Your Personal Goals. ...
  • Make a Difference.
Sep 19, 2022


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