Press "Enter" to skip to content

Reconsidering “diversity” in college applications

My high school used to give out class awards. In all subjects, students were recognized for their outstanding performance during the year and presented a trophy, and usually a relevant book. During one of these annual award ceremonies, my English teacher said, “We have no way to measure intelligence, but grades are the closest we can come.” When I think about the word “diversity” in the college context, I ask myself what it means and how it is measured — much like how I questioned my teacher’s understanding of grades as the closest measure of intelligence. Diversity is obviously something valued — by administrations and students alike — but it often seems like simply a box to be checked, not an expression of one’s unique experience.

What is diversity? It’s different things for different people. I won’t speak for others. My take is that we all develop as independent beings whose experiences are unique from all others. Diversity is the manifestation of that unique life experience in you: the sum of your parts. It’s not race, ethnicity or country of origin — although those things can represent diversity, diversity is not only those things. This is the old “square-is-a-rectangle-but-rectangle-isn’t-a-square” idea.

Diversity in college is, in theory, a good thing. Students should be able to communicate, understand, sympathize and work with people with variegated life experiences. In practice diversity is, “Are you Hispanic or Latino? Yes or No,” according to the Common Application. We should assume this information will be used in some colleges’ admission decisions. Why else would it be included? In this case, diversity is reduced to a set of 1’s and 0’s — poor indicators of a person’s experience. Someone who identifies with an ethnicity is much more than a label. Or maybe it’s not even relevant. Maybe one’s unique life experience has nothing to do with the color of their skin or the language they speak. No matter the case, clicking a box is always a poor substitute for telling a story.

We can make it better. Too much emphasis is placed on the circumstances of one’s birth in college admissions. When this is a relevant factor, it should shine through in another crucial part of the application — the essay. A requirement of all using the Common Application, the essay holds more weight for some institutions that others. Yale uses essays to contextualize applicants, while other schools are rumored to only rarely read them. Across the board, essays should not be in the periphery. The essay is a poem, story or song; it’s the human connection, the most valuable piece of information about an applicant.

What I’m suggesting would completely change the college application process on both ends. Let’s do away with sections on demographic information and instead relocate those insights to the essays. If a student feels passionately that race defines their diversity, let them explain it. The same goes for others whose experiences do not have a dedicated page in the application. It’s not about cluttering the essay with demographic information; it’s an attempt to level the playing field between applicants whose diversity is given special attention and others whose isn’t.

Back in that gymnasium, watching my classmates go and accept their awards, I knew my English teacher was right: Grades are probably the best scale we’ve got to weigh intelligence. But it wasn’t just the kids with the highest grades getting trophies. It was also the ones who showed a deep interest in the material or who always stayed after class to ask for help. Students’ stories were weighed more than their marks.

Sadly, the role of diversity as a deciding factor in college admissions is closer to a census than a biopic. Until it is changed, universities will continue to be constrained by diversity quotas, and students will go wherever their demographic information leads them.

Get the Maine Campus' weekly highlights right to your inbox!
Email address
First Name
Last Name
Secure and Spam free...