“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 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.”
Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.
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
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