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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Colleges ask students to write about identity -- in a constitutional-ish way

Asked by his first-choice college about a challenge he'd overcome, "Frank" wrote about struggling with algebra in ninth grade. He'd changed his attitude, changed his study habits and changed his math grades. He became an A student in math.


He didn't mention he was Mexican American or working class or the first in his family to apply to college. I knew that was the sort of challenge the college wanted hear about. But he took all that for granted.


Frank was rejected, but he went elsewhere and graduated in four years (if memory serves). I'm quite sure he's a successful adult.


What will change in college admissions? Photo: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision banning racial preferences in college admissions, selective colleges and universities are asking students to submit essays about how their "identity" or "life experience" has "shaped who you are," report Anemona Hartocollis and Colbi Edmonds in the New York Times. The majority opinion said applicants can write about their race -- if they're evaluated as individuals.


Harvard has replaced a single optional essay with five required essays, up to 200 words each. The first:

“Harvard has long recognized the importance of enrolling a diverse student body. How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?”

Sarah Lawrence College quotes Chief Justice John G. Roberts’s majority decision -- “Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life” -- then asks applicants to “describe how you believe your goals for a college education might be impacted, influenced or affected by the court’s decision.”

The new essay prompts comply with the court's ruling, said John Yoo, a Berkeley law professor who opposes race-conscious admissions, But if universities use the information to discriminate, it's a different story. “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.”


This is an "end run" around the court's decision, writes Dennis Saffran on City Journal. "Harvard might as well have written: 'Tell us your race in 200 words or less'.” He thinks the new admissions process will be rejected by the Supreme Court, which doesn't like to be ignored.

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