Schools like Yale, UC Berkeley, and many public universities ask their applicants questions about diversity. While this question is most common in graduate school applications, it does come up in undergraduate admissions. Yale requests that applicants for a supplementary scholarship respond to this prompt:
“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.”
The Common Application also provides students with the opportunity to talk about some aspects of diversity in the first and fifth prompts.
What Does Diversity Mean?
Many students are baffled about what to write about themselves concerning diversity. Contributing to a school’s “diversity” doesn’t simply refer to the fact that you are a member of a racial or cultural minority. Diversity includes anything about a person’s background that will make his or her perspectives and skills unique. A person’s diverse skills and perspectives are from his or her geography, gender, socio-economic status, race, spiritual beliefs, family background and experiences, special skills and talents, etc.
For example, you might be a strong debater because you grew up in a family of eight, where everyone gave their opinion about a news article over dinner. Or, you might wake up at dawn to start reading and exercising, because you were raised on a farm where the work day started at sunrise. Colleges want a diverse student body so that students can learn about life from each other, as well as from their professors.
Why Do Colleges Ask About Diversity?
Colleges want students to be teachers as well as students. In college, students learn not only from books and professors, but from each other. However, if everyone is exactly the same, what can they learn from each other? So a diverse student body made up of different races, family backgrounds, and beliefs brings a wider viewpoint and perspective and helps in the educational process. Colleges also want students to learn to accept new ideas. A diverse student body does that. The new idea you learn could be something very simple, like your roommate may prefer to eat with chopsticks, has her own pair, and teaches you how to hold them correctly. Harvard’s stated goal is to “promote equity, diversity & inclusion within our School and the greater community.”
What is a Common Mistake in Diversity Essays?
Common mistakes: The college you are applying to will already know your racial and socio-economic demographics through their application form. This means when they ask you to write about diversity in the essay, they are not simply trying to determine your race or ethnic background. In addition, don’t make the mistake of writing something along the lines of “I am diverse.” One person is not diverse on his or her own.
Questions about diversity are looking to determine how your skills and talents make you just the right puzzle piece to fit into the jigsaw puzzle made up of all students on a campus.
Also, students will sometimes think they have nothing to say about diversity because they are not a member of a minority. You might think, “I’m white, what can I write in a diversity essay?” The answer is: A lot! A thousand experiences from your past and dreams for your future make you different from your best friend and from someone you’ve never met. Your essay on diversity should show the college how you will bring your unique point of view to the classroom and campus. What has your grandmother taught you? What book has affected you? Is there a person you try to emulate? Depending on the exact essay question, your essay could also discuss a time when you learned something from someone with a very different background.
A sample diversity essay:
Below is a good example of a college admissions essay about diversity, written by an Essay Coaching student in 2005. Since then, the author has been admitted to his top choices for both undergraduate and professional education, both of which are ranked in the top 10 by US News and World Report.
Why is this a good example of a diversity essay? Read the essay, and read the explanation underneath.
People see me as tall and black, but I am more than that: I am a lawyer in the making. As a 6 foot 5, 220 pound black man, I walk through the crowded corridors of Northern High School drawing looks from nearly everyone. Often people stop to ask me, “Are you on the basketball team?”
To most I simply answer “No.” However, when it is someone I know, and I would like to give them more information, I tell them, “No, but I play lacrosse.” On the rare occasion that a Northern basketball player asks me, I answer yet another way. Anticipating a chance to join in an after-school pick-up game, I tell them that I don’t play basketball—but I’m good.
My tall white friends have told me they are rarely asked about their involvement in sports and it is mostly black people who ask me these questions. I have come to the conclusion that everyone looks at me from the outside in, looking at my height, my race, even my size 16 feet to determine what they think of me.
I wish people could see the logic in my veins, the law in my lungs, the mock trial on my mind, and the admiration in my heart for both Clarence Darrow—for his willingness to take on challenging cases, and Johnnie Cochrane—for his ability to win them.
I will bring to your university the same qualities I see in my role models: drive, determination, and a logical mind.
Why is this a strong diversity essay?
This is a strong diversity essay NOT because this essay discusses the author’s racial minority status. Rather, this is a strong essay because it:
- Gives the reader a memorable, distinct image of the writer (for example, size 16 feet)
- Reveals the writer’s self-insight (“To most I simply answer “no”… I have come to the conclusion that…)
- Shows his tolerance of others’ views (“When it is someone I know, and I would like to give them more information, I tell them “no, but I play lacrosse”.)
- Provides a great deal of impressive detail about his goals and interests in a compact, compelling way. Although he the writer is talking about ideas, he relates them to his physical self and his activities, so the reader can “see” and remember his ideas more easily. “I wish people could see the logic in my veins, the law in my lungs, the mock trial on my mind, and the admiration in my heart for both Clarence Darrow—for his willingness to take on challenging cases, and Johnnie Cochrane—for his ability to win them.”
Are You Looking for a College That Emphasizes Diversity?
The literature from many colleges emphasizes increasing diversity on their campuses, and many schools, including Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the University of Kentucky, have entire departments dedicated to diversity. Harvard’s stated goal is to “promote equity, diversity & inclusion within our School and the greater community.” Frank Bruni argues here that diverse demographics are not the entire solution. Bruni admires colleges with programs that encourage a diverse student body to interact:
“Davidson is coaxing campus organizations and even using off-campus trips to orchestrate conversations between white and black students, between religious students and atheists, between budding Democrats and nascent Republicans. By prioritizing these kinds of exchanges, the school sends the message that they matter every bit as much as the warmth and validation of a posse of like-minded people. At Denison University, near Columbus, Ohio, there are special funds available to campus groups that stage events with other, dissimilar groups. Adam Weinberg, the college’s president, told me that he’d attended a Seder at which Jewish students played host to international students from China.”
Read more how to answer the about the diversity question for a college application essay here.
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Getting into an elite college has never been more cutthroat. Last year, Harvard’s admissions rate dipped to a record low, with only 5.3% of applicants getting an acceptance letter. Stanford’s rate was even lower, at 5.05%.
These days, it takes more than impressive grades, a full roster of extracurriculars, and a deep commitment to community service to get into a well-ranked school. Experts say that a stellar essay is the linchpin that will win the admissions department over. But what is less well known is that different colleges favor particular topics and even specific words used in essays.
This is a key finding from AdmitSee, a startup that invites verified college students to share their application materials with potential applicants. High school students can pay to access AdmitSee’s repository of successful college essays, while college students who share their materials receive a small payment every time someone accesses their data. “The biggest differentiator for our site is that college students who share their information are compensated for their time,” Stephanie Shyu, cofounder of AdmitSee, tells Fast Company. “This allows them to monetize materials that they have sitting around. They can upload their file and when they check back in a few months later, they might have made several hundred dollars.”
Shyu says that this model has allowed AdmitSee to collect a lot of data very rapidly. The company is only a year old and just landed $1.5 million in seed funding from investors such asFounder.org and The Social + Capital Partnership. But in this short time, AdmitSee has already gathered 15,000 college essays in their system. Many are from people who got into well-ranked colleges, since they targeted these students first. The vast majority of these essays come from current college students who were admitted within the last two or three years.
AdmitSee has a team that analyzes all of these materials, gathering both qualitative and quantitative findings. And they’ve found some juicy insights about what different elite colleges are looking for in essays. One of the most striking differences was between successful Harvard and Stanford essays. (AdmitSee had 539 essays from Stanford and 393 from Harvard at the time of this interview, but more trickle in every day.) High-achieving high schoolers frequently apply to both schools—often with the very same essay—but there are stark differences between what their respective admissions departments seem to want.
What Do You Call Your Parents?
The terms “father” and “mother” appeared more frequently in successful Harvard essays, while the term “mom” and “dad” appeared more frequently in successful Stanford essays.
Harvard Likes Downer Essays
AdmitSee found that negative words tended to show up more on essays accepted to Harvard than essays accepted to Stanford. For example, Shyu says that “cancer,” “difficult,” “hard,” and “tough” appeared more frequently on Harvard essays, while “happy,” “passion,” “better,” and “improve” appeared more frequently in Stanford essays.
This also had to do with the content of the essays. At Harvard, admitted students tended to write about challenges they had overcome in their life or academic career, while Stanford tended to prefer creative personal stories, or essays about family background or issues that the student cares about. “Extrapolating from this qualitative data, it seems like Stanford is more interested in the student’s personality, while Harvard appears to be more interested in the student’s track record of accomplishment,” Shyu says.
With further linguistic analysis, AdmitSee found that the most common words on Harvard essays were “experience,” “society,” “world,” “success,” “opportunity.” At Stanford, they were “research,” “community,” “knowledge,” “future” and “skill.”
What the Other Ivies Care About
It turns out, Brown favors essays about volunteer and public interest work, while these topics rank low among successful Yale essays. In addition to Harvard, successful Princeton essays often tackle experiences with failure. Meanwhile, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania tend to accept students who write about their career aspirations. Essays about diversity—race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—tend to be more popular at Stanford, Yale, and Brown.
Based on the AdmitSee’s data, Dartmouth and Columbia don’t appear to have strong biases toward particular essay topics. This means that essays on many subjects were seen favorably by the admissions departments at those schools. However, Shyu says that writing about a moment that changed the student’s life showed up frequently in essays of successful applicants to those schools.
Risk-Taking Pays Off
One general insight is that students who take risks with the content and the structure of their college essays tend to be more successful across the board. One student who was admitted to several top colleges wrote about his father’s addiction to pornography and another wrote about a grandparent who was incarcerated, forcing her mother to get food stamps illegally. Weird formats also tend to do well. One successful student wrote an essay tracking how his credit card was stolen, making each point of the credit card’s journey a separate section on the essay and analyzing what each transaction meant. Another’s essay was a list of her favorite books and focused on where each book was purchased.
“One of the big questions our users have is whether they should take a risk with their essay, writing about something that reveals very intimate details about themselves or that takes an unconventional format,” Shyu says. “What we’re finding is that successful essays are not ones that talk about an accomplishment or regurgitate that student’s résumé . The most compelling essays are those that touch on surprising personal topics.”
Of course, one caveat here is that taking a risk only makes sense if the essay is well-executed. Shyu says that the content and structure of the story must make a larger point about the applicant, otherwise it does not serve a purpose. And it goes without saying that the essay must be well-written, with careful attention paid to flow and style.
Shyu says that there are two major takeaways that can be taken from the company’s data. The first is that it is very valuable for applicants to tailor their essays for different schools, rather than perfecting one essay and using it to apply to every single school. The second is that these essays can offer insight into the culture of the school. “The essays of admitted students are also a reflection of the community at these institutions,” Shyu says. “It can provide insight into whether or not the school is a good fit for that student.”
A final tip? If you want to go to Harvard and write about your parents, make sure to address them as “mother” and “father.”