College Application Essays: Going Beyond “How Would You Contribute to Diversity?”

Nov 04, 2010 |  Glenn Ricketts, Peter Wood

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College Application Essays: Going Beyond “How Would You Contribute to Diversity?”

Nov 04, 2010 | 

Glenn Ricketts, Peter Wood

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
 

Casey

| December 01, 2013 - 3:26 PM


This is white-supremacist trash. Pushing for diversity is not a cult-ish ideology that is forced upon young malleable minds, it’s the way we should live with each other and love each other. To diversify a student body is to diversify the education system. These schools aren’t interested in students on an individual level? Of course they’re not. These are the administrations of schools that thousands of people apply to per year that are admitting students. The teachers care about the individuality of their students (in my experience) and that matters way more than my alma mater’s administration getting to know my identity. Diversity essays are a 1st amendment case waiting to happen? Get real, diversity is beautiful and I’m ashamed of you.

Kam

| May 09, 2014 - 3:12 PM


I found this article when I looked up “why colleges ask the ‘diversity’ question on applications” because it doesn’t seem like a good way to determine who will succeed. I very much agree with this answer. Thank you for this explanation.

Justin

| May 31, 2014 - 6:28 PM


Kam, define what it means to “succeed.” Succeed in maintaining power structures that oppress? I guess that’s not a good way to go about it. But if you’re asking who will succeed in challenging those structures and to apply knowledge to a world better than we found it, it might help select students who are capable of that.

Kyle

| August 05, 2014 - 11:30 AM


I agree completely with the article. A quick background: I am Caucasian and grew up with a physician as a father. Having applied to medical school and being rejected, I sought answers from admissions councilors at the medical schools I applied to. I specifically asked about demographics and diversity…. Here was the councilors answer: I have been “groomed since childhood” to be a physician and therefore, acceptance to medical school is “not as big of a deal for me as it is for other individuals.” He also went on to say that they expect more experience, shadowing, etc from individuals such as myself. Why? I don’t have a noteworthy history that fits the mold of “inter-family mobility.”
I appreciate the councilors honesty and am more determined to gain acceptance.

ZA다ルﻣ

| November 10, 2014 - 6:43 PM


@Casey,

I agree with you that diversity is the way that we should live. I myself love learning different languages, and I feel it has made me able to connect to cultures of Japan, China, Korea, Pakistan, (land of my parents) and perhaps Arab countries as well. But what irks me is when I’m asked, “how would you contribute to diversity?” Will my languages contribute to diversity? It may help me understand other people, but does that strictly qualify as “promoting” diversity? Does it add to “my diversity?”

Sometimes these questions just irk me…

Steven

| November 02, 2015 - 7:22 AM


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Jordan

| February 12, 2016 - 1:40 AM


Thank you. I know that as a white male student, I have a lower chance of getting into many selective colleges than literally any group but Asian males, simply due to affirmative action. While I support equality, I don’t want to be passed over for a lower-quality minority student in the name of promoting “diversity” over “fairness” and I fail to see how this is any different from more commonly perceived anti-black/anti-Hispanic racism.
Not to mention that I’m from a community where there is no diversity. Virtually the entire community is white Protestants with, as far as I can tell, little to no discrimination against women. How the hell am I supposed to write about any personal experience I may have had with diversity or the challenges faced by groups other than white people?

sdvdv

| January 06, 2017 - 10:23 AM


when i tuped the qkmfewl ghr.

Dan

| February 27, 2017 - 10:14 PM


Staring at this question right now with my son.  White boy from the suburbs applying for engineering school.  There is no truthful answer to this question that won’t put my son right to the back of the bus.  Affirmative action breeds resentment.  maybe we’ll write about that.

Shelley

| March 01, 2017 - 8:45 AM


A bunch of incompetent white males blaming affirmative action for not being able to get into schools. Please do your research. “Whites represent 75 percent of the students at the nation’s top 468 colleges overall [..]”. Affirmative Action does not put Caucasian male at a disadvantage, and there are tons of statistical evidences that confirm white male represents a large number in competitive fields and competitive colleges. One or two anecdotal evidences cannot and do not overthrow statiscal data - to think so is to make a logical fallacy.Ever think it’s better to stop blaming other people for your own mediocrity?

Jordan - no matter what background you come from, there is always a thing or two you can learn from, and your experience is always different from others. Whining doesn’t help, researching , reading, talking to other people do.

It’s important for college to ask this question, because in the work environment nowadays, the diversity discussion will come up regardless. Better be stump when you’re 22 than when you’re 30.

George

| October 30, 2017 - 12:05 PM


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